As one of Hollywood’s top costume and jewelry designers, Michele Michel has every reason to boast. And yet, one can’t help but be struck by her modesty and obvious sense of gratitude. Her enthusiasm is contagious and when she speaks, the smile in her voice brightens the room. “I’m Mexican, from the town of Taxco which is known for its silver. So my story is a little unusual because, as it happens, I come from the Silver City to the Silver Screen.” And what a cinematic story it is.
As a little girl, Michele was surrounded by creativity. Her grandmother, fashion designer Tachi Castillo, and Tachi’s brothers were apprentices of William Spratling back in the 30’s. They, along with Spratling, were among a group of innovative artisans who interacted with Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Frida Khalo, artists who were responsible for the creation of the Mexican style of the late1930’s. At the age of 12, Michele happened upon a book about costume design and from then on her destiny was clear. She absorbed herself in movies, especially from the 30’s. After high school, she set off for Europe, studying at the prestigious Istituto Europeo de Design in Rome, Italy.
After graduating she stayed in Rome to work as a fashion designer. In 1989, she crossed over from fashion into costume design by joining the crew of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather III as an assistant in the costume department. “I was basically a PA. I had no idea at that point what was involved in making a film, but it was an incredible learning experience and one of my most precious memories. It was magical. We were all traveling together, actors and crew alike, we became family. That comes from Francis, who is such a wonderful family man with a special gift for bringing people together.”
After the film wrapped, Michele moved to San Francisco where, following family tradition, she created her own line of unique silver jewelry. It wasn’t long before Michele moved to LA to follow her lifelong dream of becoming a costume designer. Since then, Michele has built a long list of costume design credits, including Street Kings with Keanu Reeves and Forest Whitaker; The Air I Breathe; Training Day starring Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke; Harsh Times; and Confidence with Ed Burns, Dustin Hoffman and Andy Garcia.
As a costume designer, Michele is known for her uncanny ability to fulfill the director’s vision. “As a designer, you help create the character. After all the sewing and shopping, dying and aging, once the actor is in the fitting room, well, that’s where the magic happens. Suddenly, you see the actor transform before your eyes and become the character. It gives you chills.” It’s a complicated craft; as Michele puts it, it’s like running a small business within a very big business. “You have to be incredibly efficient and organized, and then you can be free to be creative. What I create with my wonderful team helps give the viewer subtle clues and background about the story and character. However, our work shouldn’t stand out. Instead, it must do its job with subtlety otherwise, it would undoubtedly break the honesty of the story.”
Beyond providing the actor, the director and the audience with an unspoken backstory, Michele’s costumes help create the visual palette of a film. She explains, “What the camera sees and what we see as a human with our eyes are two different languages, so I try as much as I can try to translate my thoughts into what the camera is seeing. Often the Director of Photography will help by telling you what type of film or filters they’re using, and we spend a lot of time working with the production designers on the color scheme, the aging, the mood. And once you’ve made your creative choice, then comes the manufacturing, and that’s a whole other skill set one must master.”
It was on the set of The Insider in 1999 that Michele first learned about First Entertainment. “We were traveling all over the place and I was struggling with how to handle my finances,” Michele remembers. “The supervisor was very kind and helpful, and she was the one who recommended First Entertainment. I joined right away, and when they set up my direct deposit it was a godsend. The credit union is wonderful. The beauty of it is that it’s a one-stop shop. When I’m on the set or on location they give me all the services I need. They have great rates, they have advisors, they have easy loans for your car, they even have loans for your business. Their understanding of the industry makes all the difference in the world. They take care of their own backyard, so to speak. It’s a really difficult industry for most people, especially bankers, to understand. But with First Entertainment, no explanations are necessary, so it makes everything super easy.”
Thanks for the kind words, Michele – the feelings are mutual. And by the way, since you are much too modest to ever mention it yourself, we’d like to direct our readers to your wonderful line of jewelry at DesignedbyHollywood.com, where one will find stunning pieces worn by many of Hollywood’s biggest stars.