On the occasion of the museum’s screening of the Yes Men (Tonight! @ 7 PM): An interview with Salvatore Salamone, costume designer extraordinaire and Yes Men collaborator. (Yes, this is the man behind the Management Leisure Suit and Survival Ball costumes.) Salvatore, who is based in Los Angeles, has contributed his costume design skills to film, television, and live productions for fifteen years. Read on to hear about his early influences (Funk and an ace Halloween-costume-designing mom) and his first project with the Yes Men’s Mike Bonnano (a dog and owner costume contest).
Abigail Guay: I read your resume from start to end, and never a boring moment. You have made sculptures and costumes for Jim Shaw, Marni Weber and Mike Kelley – and you’ve made costumes for a substantial cross section of the food and service companies that air commercials during prime time and the Super Bowl. It looks like your first TV commission was a dung beetle costume for AT&T. How did that come about?
Salvatore Salamone: Oh, the Dung the Beetle…. (Cookie, as he was known.) I actually just made him for kicks for Halloween and to push my foam fabrication techniques. My friend ended up producing an entire commercial around the costume. It was one of those things that I knew no one had probably ever done and so I thought it would be cool to be the first to do it.
AG: You went to Williams College with our mutual friend Pan Wendt – and I went to Williams a few years later. Williams was good for the brain, but did little for the eyes (save the gorgeous, pastoral landscape). The style was fairly WASP-y and understated. Can you tell me more about some (I think) gold shorts you made for a friend to wear during a (I think) track meet?
SS: It wasn’t actually a gold suit. It was a strange orange and black skimpy little number. I was on the track team and everyone was voting to get these spandex “speedsuits” as our new uniform. I was totally not into it. So I decided to make an exaggerated ridiculous version of my own. There was a black spandex hood with fingerless elbow length gloves. There were orange hot pants (stuffed in the front) and I think it said “Ephs” vertically down the crotch. (Williams sports teams are named after the college founder, Ephraim Williams.) I had this friend Derek on the track team who was always down for whatever my crazy pranks entailed, so I got him to run a victory lap in that outfit after an indoor meet. Suffice it to say, people were completely shocked – the costume had a slight bondage aspect as well. They didn’t know what the hell was going on. Derek was super serious and in your face about beating these other athletes while wearing this unbelievably skimpy speedsuit; it was a completely surreal experience. Our coaches were as stunned and confused as everyone else, truly hilarious.
AG: Did you start making costumes in college or before then?
SS: I guess I started making costumes in college for Funk parties. But I was into costumes from a very young age. My mom used to make me and my sister Halloween costumes from scratch, so we always had the coolest looks and got all this attention at school and on Halloween night. I guess those memories just stuck with me because I was always excited to make and wear costumes.
Pan and I would throw these elaborate Funk parties where we were always trying to outdo each other’s looks from the last party. It got to be kind of competitive. We had so many extra pieces that we had a huge box filled with crazy stuff we had found or made (the Trunk of Funk, as it was known) and we would demand people put stuff on from it if they were not dressed when they got to the party. I was spending most of my free time in the sculpture studio anyway, so it seemed natural just to start building costumes over there, and I discovered I kind of had a knack for it. Even though, technically speaking, I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing at the time, I made it work. We relied very heavily on the hot glue gun. It’s like anything else, though, if you are really passionate about something you just find creative ways to make it happen.
[In related news, Pan (with Luis Jacob) put together an exhibition for the JMB Gallery at the University of Toronto, Funkaesthetics earlier this year.]
AG: When was the last time you looked at someone (Who was that someone?) and said: I need to design a [blank] costume for that person?
SS: I have often thought it would be fun to build something for Lady Gaga. I am not that into her music, but it seems like she is such a fashion maverick she would be down for some pretty out there stuff. Anyone willing to push the envelope of costumes, I am open to working with. I am in the early phases of working with this musician friend of mine, Glasser, and we have been talking about making a suit of plate armor entirely out of macrame. That’s my kind of challenge right there.
AG: How did you hook up with the Yes Men? Did you know Mike Bonnano when you lived on the East Coast?
SS: I met Mike Bonnano in San Diego. He was in the art grad program at UCSD and I just knew a lot of those folks from living down there and old college friends. We hit it off right away. At the time, I was entering a lot of costume contests. I dressed my friend’s Lhasa Apso as Elvis, complete with white patent leather shoes, sideburns, sunglasses, jumpsuit, etc. I was dressed as Elvis as well and we entered this wacky pet costume contest (which we won) and Mike was there to film it. He also filmed me at a hat contest on opening day of the Del Mar Racetrack. I was wearing this pink suit (based on a character from Miles Davis’ “On the Corner” album) with a yellow hat. On the front brim of the hat was a miniaturized marionette version of myself in the same pink suit that roughly mimicked my movements as I walked and moved around. A kind of kooky self-referential piece.
Anyway, when the time came that he needed weird costume pieces custom made for the film, he knew who to talk to.
AG: How do you feel about your scenes in the first movie? You seem pretty much unfazed by the camera. And you are funny.
SS: That’s funny you think that I look unfazed on camera. I really don’t like being filmed that much (unless in costume).
AG: What happens to the costumes you design for the Yes Men after the movies wrap?
SS: All of the stuff I make for the Yes Men belongs to them after I finish it. Which is great. I already have a whole storage space filled with old costumes and props I have built. I don’t need to have an inflatable gold baboon ass in there too….
Salvatore Salomone ‘s Management Leisure Suit and tips for LA driving in The Yes Men, screening at the Henry tonight, 7 PM.