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Creativity runs wild with the costumes on ‘The Masked Singer’

A swan costume sketch from "The Masked Singer"
Costume designer Marina Toybina and illustrator Jarett Fajardo work together to create ideas for “The Masked Singer,” like this swan costume worn by actress Bella Thorne.
(Jarett Fajardo)

Moscow-born designer Marina Toybina is the talent behind the innovative costumes of Fox’s hit incognito competition series “The Masked Singer,” now in its third season. The Emmy-winning Toybina imagines, sketches, designs and produces the outrageous and captivating fashions that disguise the performing celebrities.

“I’m so flattered when I get a letter from a 9-year-old telling me how much they love a certain character or which costume they wore for Halloween, and then let me know the ideas they have for new ones,” says Toybina, who sometimes incorporates such ideas into designs.

“It’s a very sped-up, tight schedule, without a lot of wiggle room” she notes. “It’s crazy and I do get tired, collapse and cry; and for me, the show is just having to be very instinctual. You need to get fabrics within an hour rather than days. But my team and I are proud of our work and we love it when it all pays off. It’s the sweetest thing in the world to get those letters and feedback. It’s incredible. The tiredness recedes,” she adds with a laugh.

These costumes are much more cinematic versus traditional television costuming. Did you anticipate from the outset how critical each costume is to the show or is it something that evolved?

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Both. When we began to imagine the show, I was sent a link to the Korean version to see what was already out there. I saw how important the whole idea of disguise is. So when we began our concepts it was almost ‘go big or go home,’ the idea of me having creative run from Season 1 and see how elaborate I can get with the costumes and what stories we tell with these characters. Each season I play with more color and more detail, and the costumes just keep moving to the more cinematic approach and started to take on a life of their own.

How many people are on your costumes staff?

We’re split between a skeleton crew in the beginning of about three to four. It’s mostly me and my illustrator and we come up with the different designs, and from there they go to the network and producers. When casting talent is locked in and we know what characters are chosen, then we start building onto our team as well. When construction starts there are about 15 of us; and about 20 to 25 people when it’s the run of the show.

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Obviously, members of your team need to know the identity of the singer; how does all the secrecy work? How are the fittings done incognito; do they arrive cloak and dagger-like in masks?

I know [the singer’s identity] about half-way through [the season]. It’s a very secretive show, and it’s really legit that half of our crew and the director have no idea and no clue about casting. It’s really important for me to know who is cast, but even on my staff it’s only a limited number of people who know any identities in the beginning. Fittings are one-on-one when they’ll come in and work with me and my tailor with very limited people in the room and we do the fittings very fast. Sometimes we’re lucky if we even get a fitting. From there, it’s still very secretive how they leave the fittings. So, lots of secrets!

Can you walk us through your creative process?

The creative process is very intense, and I have to design using instinct since one doesn’t have the freedom to make mistakes and correct oneself going along. Everything is one-of-a-kind, and being time-limited, we don’t have the freedom to have samples made; what you really see is the original costume, patterns and fabrics. I have about two to four weeks to make a mask and then about two to three weeks to make the costumes and get them to the stages of the first and second fittings. From there we pretty much work around the clock. We have two to three months for the entire process of the show — that’s for all the costumes.

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How much input do celebrities have in the final costume version?

It varies. We have some artists who are with me for only initial measurements and fittings. Some have absolutely zero notes and they just love everything; others do give input as far as tweaking certain colors, etc. I’ve never had to do something where I had to start over. It’s generally about making it just a bit more custom. Most all the time, we’re building what we initially drew, which is pretty incredible.

When you’re the costume designer of Fox’s “The Masked Singer” and the pièce de résistance of a unicorn mask — its soft glass spiraled horn — breaks off during filming, there’s no time to panic.

Let’s talk about some specific costumes. Lil Wayne’s Robot was quite cool.

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For me, it’s almost my take on a vintage robot. We’d seen a lot of modern costumes, and I wanted to do something more playful. So this costume is very 1950s-‘60s. Something simple but very effective on stage. When it came time to send Lil Wayne ideas, we were happy he gravitated toward the Robot as I think it was a perfect combination. I made sure we customized a few elements and really gave it that vintage cartoony approach. He loved the costume and we only had to do a few tweaks, and when that happens, I can actually sleep at night.

The White Tiger — a beautiful costume worn by football player Rob Gronkowski?

That was my own little twist — that Egyptian vibe. We needed a dominant-type costume and had done the leopard and a lion, so the tiger was a natural next fit. I wanted to do something different, so I did a white tiger. I wanted the character to have an almost kingdom-like stage presence; I wanted him to really be more like a god. That’s when the idea came to make him almost an Egyptian god on stage. Somehow, when we were building the costume, every single detail just worked. We created the fur and then airbrushed it to get those tiger stripes. I think I re-sewed his skirt four times until we got it right. It’s one of my favorites.

And Bella Thorne as that elegant white swan?

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It’s a pretty striking costume and was incredible to make. We experimented with 10 to 15 different styles of hand-gathering materials trying to really bring the couture aspect in, not just make it so cinematic but more fashion-forward. We also reshaped and rebuilt that mask a few different times to get it right. This one was just very special to me. My background is in fashion design, so this was kind of my baby. I wanted it to have an almost Alexander McQueen vibe to the costume.

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Will you create cartoon or animation characters — is this something in your future?

It’d be incredible, of course, to be able to collaborate, say, with Disney or Marvel; that would be a dream of mine. Fox would need to get involved and strike some deals, but it would be a dream to create Marvel characters or create a new one, wouldn’t it?

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Is there a particular artist you’d love to see on the show? Who would be your ultimate fantasy guest?

My fantasies have all left this earth, unfortunately. But I’d say it would have been incredible if Prince would have been on the show. I find myself every season secretly producing the show and having my own list of people, actually. In our wardrobe department, we kind of have our own list going on. It’d be amazing to have an artist who understands the full power of costume — say, Cher or Grace Jones, or Elton John — somebody who I’d completely not even know what to do if I got the chance to work with them.

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