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‘Buffy’ Costume Designer Matt Van Dyne Shares His Memories On The Show’s 20th Anniversary [Guest Post]

The following is a guest post from Buffy The Vampire Slayer costume designer Matt Van Dyne, who was kind enough to share his memories (and style) from the show on this, the 20th anniversary of the Buffy premiere. It is truly an honor to have him on FG.

Matt writes:

I am laughing out loud as I am reviewing in my mind how I made the wonderful acquaintance of Sean Fallon, Founder/Editor of Fashionably Geek. My friend Ian (a former contributor to Buzzfeed and a tremendous fan and expert of all things Buffy) recently informed me, March 10, 2017 marks the 20th Anniversary debut of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Ian contacted me after reading in The Hollywood Reporter that Fox Television, in coordination with the clothing retailer Hot Topic, is recreating a collection of clothing dedicated to the character Buffy in celebration of the 20th. I was not aware of this development, and I am not sure if my designs from Season 7 are included. I was then prompted to do a search and came upon a Fashionably Geek article titled Lest We Forget: The Hideous Fashion Disasters of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

I thought to myself, “Oh dear….what if my designs from Season 7 are included in this article?”. I steeled myself, thumbed through the article, and much to my pleasure my designs were not included. I wanted to say thank you to someone. I scrolled and found a contact to which I replied thanking those at Fashionably Geek for NOT (NOT!!!) including me. LOL. Sean was kind enough to respond, and so began our discussion and his generous request of my thoughts and experiences designing the costumes for Buffy Season 7.

My focus throughout my career has been more on style than fashion. My approach was to design Buffy Season 7 in style.

As I have scrolled through my photos and my past interviews of nearly 15 years ago, multiple stories and memories spring forward. I could literally fill a book with photos, sketches, recollections/stories. To write a book would be a Herculean task at the last minute, so I have decided to narrow my focus a bit for this initial anniversary trip down memory lane and share a couple of stories. I tend to remember things in detail, so I will try to edit a little.

Working at Warner Bros. in 1997 I first became aware of the series Buffy The Vampire Slayer. A producer friend of mine told me about this very interesting new show one day. I had just begun to design the costumes for a new sitcom on a very new network—the WB. Little did I realize 5 years later I would be working for 20th Century Fox designing the final season of this “very interesting show”. At the time, Buffy was airing on the UPN.

Entering the series late in the run required a crash course in all things “Buffy” for me and my crew. Seasons 1-6 had covered a lot of territory with a different designer and a different crew. When I became the designer for the series, there was an effort on my part to move the characters into a more fashionable and sophisticated direction. The characters were moving into adulthood and I hoped to make the clothing reflect this transition. I tend to see things in detail. Fit, line, and color in coordination with character and story are extremely important. I often believe less is more. I didn’t want the costumes to overwhelm the characters or the story. Television is a different medium than feature film. What plays well on the very largest screen doesn’t always play as well or even the same on the smaller screen.

As Season 7 progressed, there was a foreboding in the storyline of things to come. When glancing through an interview I gave during Season 7, I addressed Episode 17 “Lies My Parents Told Me” as a forecast. “Much of the episode is in browns and greys…as if a storm is brewing.” I recall receiving the script for this particular episode. When filming an episodic such as Buffy, one will be shooting an episode while prepping the next episode and tweaking and possibly doing reshoots on the previous episode. As I read the script for Episode 17, I realized there was a need to recreate Principal Wood’s mother in a New York subway clash with the character Spike…..a Flashback to 1977. The character, Nikki Wood, had appeared in an episode from Season 5 titled “Fool For Love.” I was informed by production that Nikki’s costume needed to match what had been filmed 2 years prior. That isn’t necessarily an unusual request on a long running series, but in this case it was a problem. The costume department from Season 5 (the earlier regime) had not stored and cataloged this outfit. What to do?

Even though I was fairly taxed prepping the rest of this particular episode, shooting the current episode, and doing a reshoot on the previous episode, this was a glitch which needed my full attention. I scoured any photos or video in stock available to me, and then pulled costume rental house records from Season 5. It then became the task of searching for a needle in a haystack. I thought I could cheat part of the look, but certainly not all of it. I was standing at the outside doors of Western Costume in Los Angeles at opening time on a chilly Wednesday morning in the San Fernando Valley. I then began an exhaustive search through racks and racks of dusty clothing. Hours passed without much luck. Unfortunately, the clock was ticking and I had other costumes to design for Episode 17. I needed to move forward. Fortune smiled when I happened upon the exact ribbed laced-front pullover I was looking to find. I was relieved to say the least. Heading back to the studio, I called my assistant to tell her I had indeed found the most necessary part of the outfit. My assistant then told me the part of Nikki was being recast with a different actress….not the one from Season 5. I wondered to myself “why was production so insistent on recreating this particular outfit if the actress was not going to be the same?”.

When I returned to the studio, I was asked by the producers if I had “any luck”. I responded, “yes, I found the pullover ribbed sweater deep in the bowels of Western Costume, but unfortunately—the original actress wasn’t in it.” I’m not sure they understood my humor.

As you see, costume design isn’t always about “pretty clothes,” but it often is. Or as in the following instance, it is a marriage of pretty clothes, story, function, practicality, and the needs of the actress.

This directs me to one of my all time favorite actresses, Sarah Michelle Gellar. Sarah is an incredible talent. She is razor sharp smart. She knows fashion. I LOVED working with Sarah one on one. We clicked. I understood what she wanted, and I meshed my eye for design/style with her preferences. Sarah has an eye for detail as well. She is always prepared and knows what is required of her, forwards and backward. Nothing is left to chance. For Episode 15 “Get It Done,” Buffy is transported to a shadow world. Part of Sarah’s scenes were filmed on the soundstage in Santa Monica, but another part of the episode was filmed on location in the high desert north of Los Angeles in January/February. It is Southern California, but the high desert can be very, very chilly this time of year. The producers had requested I design an outfit/dress for Sarah with a billowing skirt…..”something light and airy.” There would be wind and fans and special effects. Now this would not be a problem on the soundstage. However, something so light and breezy in the January high desert with temps in the high 20s or low 30s would not be very warm for Sarah. Now that would not make Sarah happy, and that would not make me happy.

So, Sarah and I collaborated and came up with something the producers would like for effect, and would also be functional for warmth. I fashioned a black tiered skirt knotted above the knee asymmetrically paired with an ivory turtleneck sweater and light blue denim jacket. The turtle neck would be removed later for other scenes and would only appear in the desert/cave scenario.

With the skirt billowing, I added knee high high heeled boots to keep Sarah’s legs warm. This played beautifully in the desert. When the crew returned to the soundstage to shoot the interior of the cave featured in the scene, I was prepping the next episode. I received a call from the set asking me to make an appearance. Sarah’s boot heels had punctured the foam cave floor! Apparently, the material of the cave floor had not been given consideration for 3-inch spike heels. Both the set designer and I took this in stride and collaborated quickly to remedy the situation without pointing fingers. In the end, everyone was happy, including Sarah of course. My greatest wish was to always make Sarah happy. And likewise that same effort on my part went into every other actor and actress on the series.

I am most grateful to Joss Whedon. I am so fortunate to have collaborated with Joss and to be a part of his Buffy universe. I recall fondly a day I was a bit uncertain about a character which was to be created very quickly for the final episode. I raced to my desk, did a quick pencil sketch and dashed upstairs and asked to speak to Joss. I needed his approval to begin building the costume immediately. He looked at my sketch and responded “I have the greatest confidence in you and your department.” I was so happy and so proud of my crew in particular.

As the years have passed, I have been made aware of my costumes being marketed worldwide on Buffy action figures, figurines, displayed in adult coloring books, and featured on websites. It is overwhelming and I am grateful to the original fans and the many new ones.

I have many fond memories and many more stories to share hopefully another time. Happy Anniversary to everyone involved in the series and most definitely to all of the fans who continue to show their incredible enthusiasm. Many fans have contacted me over the last several months from all corners of the world. Thank you for your generosity and continued interest.

And as Coco Chanel said so eloquently once upon a time: “Fashion changes, but style endures.” Buffy endures. So it seems we may all have done something right.

I have shifted gears a bit in recent years. I am now doing on camera interviews as an entertainment host speaking to personalities in front of the camera and those behind the scenes as well. I am truly an enthusiast for all things television and film. So please stay tuned and please stay in touch. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Thank you so much Sean for the invitation to speak to everyone on this the 20th Anniversary of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

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