Manchester native, Keith Nielsen didn’t start out to design costumes for movies, but he’s excited that’s where he landed. The graduate of East Catholic High School headed to Florida and the Ringling College of Art and Design for his college years.
He ended up back in the state working with Rocky Hill-based Synthetic Cinema on several of their projects. Synthetic has been very active in Connecticut, and the company is passionate about bringing more filmmaking here, according to Nielsen.
Nielsen came by his love of fashion quite naturally. His grandmother taught him to sew, and even helped him develop his senior thesis in college—his first fashion line. He also credits his mother and growing up in a very crafty family for instilling in him the joy of fashion. Nielsen anticipated that he would be making contemporary garments, but when the movie opportunity came knocking, he picked up the thread.
“I’m doing everything I said I’d never do,” he said laughing on a Zoom interview. “I never wanted to do costumes; my mind was so fashion focused. There was a block in my mind about dressing people for a characters and not for themselves [as individuals].”
That’s all changed, however. He continues, “Now I’m obsessed with character development. I love all the psychology.” Nielsen says that what he discovered was the ability to create one-of-a-kind looks, and he loves it. He readily admits that’s not something he would have the chance to do if he were designing a line of clothing for retail.
Most recently, Nielsen designed the clothes for The 12 Days of Christmas Eve, a kind of Groundhog Day story starring Kelsey Grammer. The film was produced by Synthetic Cinema and shot in Connecticut. For Synthetic, Nielsen also designed A Holiday Spectacular, a Hallmark Movie featuring the Rockettes. That film is set in 1958, and Nielsen was able to indulge and express his love for period clothes in that.
In looking back, Nielsen says he was inspired by famous designers like Edith Head, who during the golden era of Hollywood designed clothes for more than 400 movies and won eight Academy Awards. However, Nielsen says he also loves the work of the lesser-known William Travilla, who designed many costumes for Marilyn Monroe, including her iconic pink gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Nielsen says Travilla doesn’t get the respect he deserves for his contributions to movies. Nielsen also says he was inspired by contemporary designs as well. “When I went to see Madonna’s Confession tour, it changed my life”, he says.
Currently, Nielsen is working on a film set in the 1940s, which excites him. He says he listens to The Andrews Sisters as he works, and adds that this is a great time for costume designers. “We’re in a Hollywood moment,” he says. Certainly with the number and diversity of productions currently in development and shooting, there’s lots of room for great clothes—and high-concept creations.
Still, working on shooting timelines isn’t always easy. Budgets are tight, too, so there isn’t always the ability to build things from scratch. However, most costume designers will tell you that the ability to adapt, rebuild and “Frankenstein” existing pieces to create a new and original look is a skill—and an artform—all its own.
Now that his career is up and running, I asked him what advice he would have for young people who are interested in pursuing this type of career. Over and above learning the fundamentals of his craft—drawing, conceptualizing and managing teams—he says, “Be curious and ask questions. Explore the different facets of an industry, and pursue it if you’re drawn to that. I love what I do, and thank God I was curious, and I explored it.
“I see my twenties as my foundation decade. There’s a lot happening. You’re getting into the real world, and it’s shocking. So, I said yes to everything.” That allowed him to create that foundation so that when he felt he had a clear direction he was able to pursue it.
And, finally, he says. “Work hard. When you think you are working hard, work harder.” Great advice for anyone—but particularly for those in the challenging and competitive world of the arts.