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Behind the Seams with Katina Danabassis

The Saskatoon native, SFU graduate, and costume designer behind C’mon C’mon, Bodies Bodies Bodies, and Past Lives takes RANGE through her lookbook.

by Maggie McPhee

Photo Illustration by Alex Kidd

If you’ve loved a movie in the last six years, it’s likely Katina Danabassis appeared in the credits. The young stylist cut her teeth on indie gems Ladybird, Mid90s, Beach Bum and Booksmart, and since launching out as head costume designer on Mike Mill’s C’mon, C’mon, has added Bodies Bodies Bodies and Sharp Stick to her resume. Most recently, she brought starcrossed throuple Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur to life in the year’s most beloved film, Past Lives.

In a twist, Danabassis’ sleepy Saskatoon upbringing set her up for success in the L.A. hyperzone. Central Canada’s utter lack of culture cranked her appetite for fashion up to a fever pitch. Working retail as a teen, she coveted her discount Diesel jeans, pored over Paper Magazine, and obsessed over the cutting edge beyond her bubble. On Zoom, Danabassis makes binoculars with her hands and mimes a frantic search. “It was really about paying attention to people around you that you saw that inspired you, truly. I mean, it wasn’t going to be at the mall,” she laughs, then sighs, then repeats, “it was not going to be at the mall.”

Her big-city sensibilities brought her to Vancouver where she pursued a degree in Communication and Anthropology at Simon Fraser University. In her spare time, Danabassis assisted friends, including Mila Franovic of Legends Cafe, styling for fashion shoots, commercials, and movies. 

The degree married her passion for fashion with media theory, William Gibson style.“Storytelling is the main thing here,” she says, “communicating with your clothing.” It was a circuitous path to costume design, informed by ideas instead of illustrations. Along the way she picked up expertise in human psychology and group behaviour, without ever losing sight of who was now wearing tube socks over their forearms on Instagram. 

But there are bigger cities than Vancouver, and eventually Danabassis moved to L.A. to be with her now-husband pro skater Jerry Hsu — an it couple if there ever was one. The Angels of Los smiled upon the newcomer and before no time she was working in Hollywood, returning the favour ten-fold. 

Danabassis waves a script overspilling with sticky notes at the screen. It’s phase one of her labour of love: read the screenplay and colour code every outfit. Then, moodboards. She scours IG, photography books, films. She snaps stealthy pics of people in public. When all else fails, she returns to her favourite fount of inspiration: the late 90s — Winona Ryder, Gwyneth Paltrow, Meg Ryan, Prada, Mew Mew, Jill Sander.. 

Danabassis compares herself to a detective, stepping into the mind of each character: “What kind of music do they listen to? What are the shoes? Do they wear a beat up pair of shoes every day? Or do they wear something really unexpected? Accessories? Are they left handed? Do they wear a watch? Do they have a worn-in type of sensibility or is everything crispy and new? Do they care about fashion? Do they not care?”

Once she’s in their shoes, she can shop for their shoes. Costume houses, vintage stores, thrift shops, fast fashion, estate sales. It’s a frenzy until shooting starts. “We are basically just staying ahead, walking a tightrope,” she says, “one foot in front of the other, every single time.” 

Luckily for us, Danabassis took a pause from the frenzy to share a peak at fitting photos from her three latest features.

 

PAST LIVES – Celine Song (2023) 

Seung Min Yim as Young Hae Sung and Seung Ah Moon as Young Nora (Past Lives)

Celine Song stunned audiences this summer with her debut film, a small-in-scope, big-in-feeling drama about playwright Nora (Greta Lee), torn between her husband Arthur (John Magaro) and childhood sweetheart Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). Outfits are paramount in intimate, character-driven films. “The difference was so culturally significant that I was like, I have to nail this,” Danabassis says, “because if I don’t, it’ll be so obvious.”  

Song, crafting an autobiographical story, collaborated on costumes. They agreed Hae Sung wasn’t as fashionable as he thinks he is, Danabassis laughs, “his clothes should be a little bit too tight and fitted.” 

They found themselves in a bind with Greta. Song insisted, speaking from experience, that writer’s take pride in not dressing well. On the other hand, Greta had to be iconic — they were making a movie, after all. “We found a happy medium,” Danabassis says. “She’s casual, but she’s like New York, so she has this sort of effortless ease and cool factor no matter what.” 

 

BODIES BODIES BODIES – Halina Reijn (2022) 

Maria Bakalova as Bee wearing an Andrea Lukic designed t-shirt (Bodies, Bodies, Bodies)

The definitive Gen-Z satire horror looks the part. Six dysfunctional friends in a trust-fund mansion with a killer on the loose. Danabassis had to balance painfully accurate caricature with cinematographer Jasper Wolf’s tricky visuals, “working with character but also camera,” she says. In that pitch-black, hurricane-swept estate, “we need skin, we need shine, we need texture.” 

Sophie (Amandla Stenberg), the “loosest cannon,” in Danabassis’ words, checks all three boxes. Lamé bikini? Skin! Belt buckle? Shine! Mesh cardigan? Texture! Put ‘em all together and what do you get? Perfection! 

Danabassis mentions a popular industry book, If it’s Purple, Someone’s Going to Die: Colour Theory in Filmmaking. Green represents mental instability. 

Sophie’s new girlfriend, Bee (Maria Bakalova), is the outsider of the group. She’s from Eastern Europe and works at a Game Hut in a mall. She dons a shirt done by Vancouver-based multidisciplinary artist Andrea Lukic. “[She] makes zines and comics and she’s just fucking cool,” Danabassis says. “I felt very grateful that she would want to let me use her work.”

Bodies, Bodies, Bodies

 

C’MON C’MON – Mike Mills (2021)

Jaoquin Phoenix (C’mon C’mon)

Danabassis’ first project as lead costume designer presented a unique challenge: no colour. During fittings, she’d take black-and-white photos on her iPhone to get a sense of how the outfits would translate on the big screen. Not only would each costume need to capture the nuances between Johnny (Jaoquin Phoenix), his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) and her son Jesse (Woody Norman) in Mill’s lush family drama, but they also had to showcase textures and a specific set of midtones and greys. 

Phoenix, a vegan, couldn’t wear wool. When trying on the cotton blazer pictured, the Joker entered the room. The lapel brought a darkness out. “Something just switched on in him,” laughs Danabassis. “It was such a crisis.”