Meet Salvador Perez, the Latino Costume Designer Behind Some of Our Favorite Films
On February 27, the Costume Designers Guild hosted their annual awards celebrating the work that goes into creating memorable fashions for television, film, and short-form entertainment. Among the list of nominees was a name that helped solidify a place for Latinos within his industry: Salvador Pérez, Jr.
You're probably already familiar with Pérez's work even if you don't know it, as he's worked on movies like Hocus Pocus 2 and TV shows like The Mindy Project, but growing up, he had no idea he would find himself where he is today.
"I sort of fell into it to film. Being a little boy from Fresno, I didn't know that you could have a career in [costume design]," he admits. "Now, 20-some-odd years later, I was a three-term president of [the Costume Designers Guild] and an Emmy-nominated costume designer. I think costumes found me."
Pérez, Jr's career started the moment a high school counselor suggested he channel his love of fashion into a sewing class. He went on to attend the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles to pursue a career in fashion design but eventually found himself drawn to film projects, like his early role in the costume workshops for Titanic.
In an exclusive interview with People Chica, Pérez, Jr shares intimate details about how he got his start and a look into his creative process.
How did you conquer any doubts or fears while assisting in films like Titanic?
Every job I'm on, even to this day, there's a couple of days where I think I'm going to fail. I used to fear those days. Now, I sort of expect them, because you need to have that little bit of insecurity to get you through it. That little bit of fear is what's gonna give you the motivation to work harder.
[For Titanic], I was sent to Mexico City because I spoke Spanish. I was there to reline old garments and do alterations, but once I got there, I was able to go to the fabric store and meet tailors and shoemakers and coat makers, and my little tailor shop of eight people became a tailor shop of 50 people.
At that point, I wasn't fluent in Spanish, but I was able to communicate with the locals and find this amazing talent. My heritage helped make the movie better because we were renting tuxedos from London for nine months for $1800 and if they got destroyed, it was $4000 to replace them. My team in Mexico City was making them for about $220 and they were beautiful. Any insecurities were surpassed by the confidence of being able to communicate with the people there.
You can either stay hidden with your fear or conquer it. You're always going to be afraid of something, and that's good. It just gives you the motivation to work harder.
What's something about your work that would surprise folks who don't come into direct contact with it?
People think that Hollywood is all glamour, but sometimes we're getting up at three in the morning, going to work at four, and working 14-hour days.
I just did a Christmas movie that took place in one night on Christmas Eve in New York, but we shot it in Atlanta in the dead of summer and the first four weeks of the shoot, we shot all night long.
At the same time, it's so much fun. I love that every day at work is different. So sometimes it's not so glamorous, but the fact that you're not sitting at a desk every day doing the same thing is what keeps it interesting.
Who is the ideal collaborator for you?
I think the reason Mindy Kaling and I got along so well was that we spoke a language of fashion. If there was ever time between camera takes, Mindy and I would sit and go through fashion magazines or websites. I think my career exploded from The Mindy Project because she really let me do what I love.
The producers and directors that hire me have all said the same thing to me, "The reason I hired you is that I know no matter what you bring to camera, it's going to be beautiful."
How has your process shifted for shows and films geared toward younger audiences?
I'm constantly watching people. I will take photos of street people because fashion is led by regular people.
When I did Veronica Mars I was 30, but people thought there was an 18 year old girl dressing her. I think that as a costume designer, you need to observe the world so that you can reinterpret it.
Sometimes, reality is boring. When I did like the Pitch Perfect movies, we were on actual college campuses, and my cast looked very different than the real kids. In college, half the kids were in shorts or sweats. I want to give you heightened reality.
You've also been a mentor to future generations. What advice would you give younger Latinos looking to follow in your footsteps?
Be the best, most qualified candidate in the room. I took four years of high school sewing. I knew what I wanted to do, and I didn't know where it was gonna take me, but I prepared myself for it. If you have the opportunity, start now, don't wait till you're in college.
Don't wait to start preparing yourself for what you want to do now. When I got into the film business, it wasn't as hard. Now there's 1000 kids who want to do this. You need to stand out from those 1000 kids. Be the best.