Marina Toybina is a four-time Emmy winning costume designer whose reach in the industry has seen her work with Shania Twain, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Carrie Underwood, Miley Cyrus, P!nk, Britney Spears, Adam Lambert, and Lil’ Kim.
Those Emmy wins have reach too as they’ve come from four different television shows: The X-Factor (2012), The 55th Grammy Awards (2013), So You Think You Can Dance (2014) and The Super Bowl XLIX Halftime Show Starring Katy Perry (2015). She was nominated last year for the finale episode of The Masked Singer‘s second season and she’s back to earn another one.
Toybina immigrated to the United States from Moscow at age 11 and after graduating high school in Phoenix, AZ, she moved to Los Angeles to attend the prestigious Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, specializing in a fashion design degree. While still attending FIDM, Toybina successfully launched a signature line called GLAZA.
I asked her about designing for The Masked Singer and the complicated nature of costumes that need to be both outlandish and practical for people to sing and dance in, the most challenging to create for the season and the process of concept to sketch art to final product.
This year, the third season of FOX’s celebrity-filled singing competition show, The Masked Singer, won over primetime audiences’ hearts. Marina, you’ve been designing for the show since Season 1. Can you walk us through your creative process when it comes to coming up with new and exciting head-to-toe costumes for contestants?
Every season I have to consider a ton of different variables when coming up with concepts for new costumes. The show is worldwide, so I need to make sure we aren’t doing anything too similar to what other countries are putting out there, as well as keep in mind all of the costumes we’ve done in our past seasons so we don’t replicate anything.
We often start passing around ideas for new characters for the next season before the current season is even over. This helps us get a head start since the builds are time consuming and we like to get approvals as soon as possible.
I’ll come up with several concepts, and the producers will also make suggestions. Then I sketch each of these ideas, drawing inspiration from all over. I research things like fur or skin textures, historical wardrobe, anything that might be relevant to each character so we have a jumping off point. I really pay close attention to detail to make sure that each character’s personality shines through in every design element.
My favorite part is giving each character their own persona! The Kitty isn’t just a cat, she is a vintage burlesque style diva with all of the hand beading, feathers, and even headdress that you would expect from that. The Frog isn’t just a frog, he is in a 40’s zoot suit, Harlem vibe with an oversized fedora and that swagger really comes out. The White Tiger is a Pharaoh, with gold detailing on each piece of his intricate armor, and custom-fabricated scarabs on his skirt, shoulder piece and headdress to give off a powerful, regal vibe.
When the sketches are finished, production will give me their notes so I can make adjustments. They might have thoughts on certain details they would like to add or take away, so I may even sketch several versions so we can all visualize these other options before making our final decision.
Once sketches are approved, we move on to presenting the contestants with options, and we try to show a variety of characters while also keeping in mind what we think would be a good fit for that particular celebrity. When they choose their character, the talent will often weigh in with their own thoughts or preferences. They might want to include their favorite color, or some kind of symbolism that is important to them. They might also really love the overall concept and design, but maybe they want pants and a top instead of a dress, or they would prefer a vest instead of a jacket to help with movement.
I try to stay flexible, but also stick to my vision as we navigate how to create what is best for each contestant while staying true to the unique personality of each character. This makes for a vibrant, ever-evolving show!
Can you describe the unique challenges you face on a show like The Masked Singer? Not only do you have to create elaborate designs, but how do you and your team make them functional for dancing and singing? Are there any interesting tricks or learned lessons you have accumulated over the three seasons? Would love to know if you had to source anything weird or outside the box as a costume designer in order to achieve a final product.
Each costume presents new complications when it comes to making them functional for the stage. My team is a group of master craftspeople, and they all come to the table with different knowledge to bring these costumes to life in a way that is true to the vision, but also functional and comfortable for the contestants.
I always make the base layers with fabrics that stretch to give them movement. A lot of times those fabrics aren’t as detailed as I want, so there is a lot of customization with printing and airbrushing to get the right effect, but also allowing for a full range of motion.
Some of the most interesting things we have learned surround the masks themselves. We’re always finding new ways to discreetly hide screens in strategic places for both breathing and vocal projection, but also visibility. Any one mask may have 5 or 6 hidden screens, often not in places you would even expect!
One thing some people may not know is that many of the masks are built on top of helmets. That way the contestant can feel totally secure knowing that the mask won’t shift, and they can also adjust things like the chin strap or the foam/padding on the inside of the helmet to meet their individual needs.
When it comes to sourcing materials, if it helps us nail the aesthetic – and especially if it is lightweight – anything goes! For example, the texture of the taco shell was created with actual popcorn, then coated and painted to give it the appearance of a taco shell. Of course there is a lot of custom fabrication, but sometimes inspiration strikes in the strangest of places, like your microwave!
Which season 3 costume was the most challenging for you to create? How did you accomplish executing it? Which one are you most proud of and why?
Honestly, each costume has its own unique challenges, and the knowledge we gain from one might help in constructing the next one, so it would be impossible for me to pick just one – I’m proud of all of them!
In Season 3, we tried to push it even further with things like height and proportion. The Swan mask was an interesting challenge, because the head is elevated so much higher in proportion to the contestant’s body than any of our other masks have been, and I needed to structure the shoulder piece and skirt with enough volume to balance all of that out.
Construction of the Kitty was also complex. Of course no representation of a vintage burlesque beauty would be complete without her elaborate headdress, so I knew that had to happen no matter what! But it definitely made that mask more of a challenge than others because on top of it being oversized, there was also this balance issue to consider. And the skirt had a lot of hidden structures that took countless weeks to perfect.
It’s also always interesting when one of the characters needs custom feet made, like the White Tiger’s paws, but the Llama’s detachable hindquarters were definitely a feat of engineering in themselves! I could go on and on – every costume is a new exciting challenge for me and the whole team!
Spoiler Alert: Singer-songwriter and television personality Kandi Burruss knocked out all her competition. She was the Night Angel. Can you describe how that costume evolved, from concept art to celebrity input to final execution?
We always have such amazing contestants on the show who truly appreciate the time and dedication it takes to create each of these costumes. They usually pick a character that they feel connected to in some way already, so they are just as much invested in sticking with the vision of the character as I am, and I love that!
Every contestant’s needs are different, and we are as accommodating as we can be given the restrictions of the show. The collaboration with any contestant is really about how to provide them with the movement, visibility, breathing, and vocal range they need to bring their character to life.
That might mean finding new and interesting ways to create hidden visibility and vocal screens. A lot of times that means giving them options. Night Angel had a lot going on between her mask, the wings, that big skirt, and the train. That’s a lot to navigate, especially when you’re working the stage with limited vision, and in heels! Things like the wings were non-negotiable, as that is what makes her an angel, so I had to get creative. I made her train removable so that she could wear it for ballads, or songs where she might not need as much movement for her performance, but then take it off and really go all out for her more uptempo performances.
What can we expect to see in season 4?
Expect the unexpected! In all seriousness, I hope to push the envelope more and more with each season. So I’m working hard to apply the knowledge I’ve gained over the last 3 seasons to really take it to the next level this time around.
Marina is eligible and submitted in Outstanding Costumes For A Variety, Nonfiction Or Reality Program for the episode “Season Kick-Off Mask-Off: Group A” of The Masked Singer.