The head of a Hollywood costume shop that bears his name, John David Ridge has a wealth of varied experience behind him: draper and tailor for Ray Diffen Stage Clothes, costume department head at the Juilliard School, manager of Brooks Van Horn Costume Company, and vice president and design director of Halston. Now his company, which relocated in August from West Hollywood to a much larger space near Paramount Studios in the heart of Hollywood, makes costumes for such movies as Pleasantville (which earned designer Judianna Makovsky an Oscar nomination), Practical Magic, Volcano, Men in Black, 12 Monkeys, and Casino. Last spring, Ridge found the time to design costumes for the Lincoln Center Theatre production of Jean Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon, for which he received a Tony nomination. If that weren't enough, he's also Sharon Stone's designated costume maker on all her films. Film and TV editor John Calhoun spoke with Ridge recently.
John Calhoun: How have you navigated so many twists and turns in your career?
John David Ridge: I have had the most checkered career in the world. When I was 14, I went off and became an apprentice in an Equity summer stock company (I lied and said I was 15). We were setting up the first show of the season, and I was supposed to untie some scenery from the grid--I untied the grid. So I got sent to the costume department, and I've been there ever since.
I went to New York at 17 to go to Pratt, and then I went to NYU, where I was in the first graduating class of the School of the Arts. I had to pay for myself to stay in New York during the summer, so a friend said, these are the shops in New York: Ray Diffen's the best, you'll never get a job there, but you should go and see what it looks like. Well, the day I went in, Ray had signed a contract for Zeffirelli's Antony and Cleopatra to open the new Metropolitan Opera, and the next 10 bodies that got off the elevator were hired.
I worked for Ray on and off during the school year, and the day I graduated I went to work there full time. And then one day Ray said to me, I think you're going to get a call from Juilliard, they're looking for someone to run their costume department. And sure enough, I did. We had to make all the clothes for everything done at Juilliard--three full-scale operas every year, and three dance productions, plus countless drama department projects.
After Juilliard, I worked at the Acting Company, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and did three seasons at the Goodman. In 1975, I went to run Brooks Van Horn. It was a gigantic company, with 125 people in workrooms alone. I mean, I have 18 or 20 now. We did Ringling Bros., Broadway, and a lot of films, mostly with Ann Roth and Jane Greenwood. I did that until 1980, and got totally burned out. In five years, I'd had seven days off. At the end, I didn't want to talk to another designer, I didn't want to make another costume. Then John Bury asked me to assist him on Amadeus at the National Theatre.
When I came home for Christmas, I ran into a friend who was working for Halston. I got a call: He was looking for someone to run the workroom, and to assist him. At that point, he would never go in the workroom. He was very far gone, but one of the few people I worked with that I consider a genius. Six months later, they fired Halston and gave me his job! I did that for six years. The couture end of it I sort of knew from Pratt, but I had to do a line for JC Penney, and I didn't know anything about mass production. I learned real fast.
JC: How did you find the fashion industry in relation to costuming movies?
Ridge: The fashion business I don't like very much. I love getting the fabric, and making it, but the selling of it is another matter. Anyway, then Revlon bought us and put us out of business. So I came out here. Fortunately, I was in the union already, so I could just walk right onto the lot and go to work. I assisted Eiko Ishioka on Dracula, I did a TV sitcom called Room for Two, and then the LA production of Sunset Boulevard for Anthony Powell.
JC: When did you open your first shop, and why did you move?
Ridge: We opened in fall of 93. The place was 5,000 sq. ft., and there was no parking. We had two tables, two machines, and four employees when we started, but we expanded and the space filled up very quickly. We didn't have room for an onsite tailoring department, which we have now. My new facility, which was an office building, is 18,000 sq. ft. on two floors. When I first drove by the building, I went, this is a dump! And the inside was just as ghastly, with orange shag carpeting and wallpaper. But it was cheap, $50 a sq. ft. That was basically the price of the land.
JC: Was there a lot of red tape to go through in getting the building?
Ridge: The mayor's office has really pushed this whole thing of revitalizing Hollywood, because so much of the film business has moved to the Valley. I went with my real estate agent to see his people, who told me how to present it so it would pass the zoning. If you call us a manufacturer, Hollywood is not zoned for it. You can be a tailor shop of under five people, and that's considered a neighborhood thing. But since there are at most seven or eight costume shops in LA, there's no category. A lot of it is on studio lots, which don't need zoning. We ended up falling into some sort of mixed-use category.
JC: What's the secret to your relationship with stars like Sharon Stone?
Ridge: You just make them feel comfortable. I make sure to give Sharon a lot of attention, and that when she asks for something, I do it, because she'll know. I've also done three films with Sandra Bullock. But the relationship is usually with the designer. The designer will say, we want to hire John Ridge, and the actress will have the opportunity to say, over my dead body, or yes, I'd love to.
JC: So what's the secret to your relationship with designers?
Ridge: When I pack a box, I try to look at it as if I'm getting it. Am I going to be happy when I get that box, or amI going to be horrified? Or somewhere in between? There's nothing worse for the designer than to get the costume, on a location in the middle of Montana, and to go, that isn't what I wanted. Why'd they make the collar like that? If I say I'm going to do it, I do it. If you don't care if it's right or not, then you should just go to the cheapest person in town. Don't come here if you can buy it at Saks, because if it's $2,000 at Saks, it will be more to custom-make it. I find that people who come here never complain about the price.
JC: What are you working on now?
Ridge: We're working on Robert Redford's The Legend of Bagger Vance, which is shooting around Savannah with Will Smith, Matt Damon, and Charlize Theron. It's designed by Judianna Makovsky and set in 1931, in the pro golf world, so we're making lots of period chiffon dresses and golf clothes. We did the costumes for X-Men, which is a lot of foam and leather, and the Circus of Toons at Universal Studios in Florida. We're doing Jim Carrey's clothes for How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which is designed by Rita Ryack. We're doing a couple of things for Nancy Kerrigan, for a TV Christmas special, and I'm designing and making a couple of dresses for Melissa Manchester, for a Kennedy Center Christmas show. We just finished Kevin Costner's suits for 13 Days, designed by Isis Mussenden. And we're doing Adam Sandler's clothes for Little Nicky, in which he plays the son of the Devil. We're doing a whole bunch of them, because they get dirty. I love blood, water, and dirt--that keeps us in business.
We're also doing a movie called Unconditional Love, designed by Mary Vogt. I've worked with Mary on everything she's done since we opened the shop--Men in Black, and so on. Jonathan Pryce and Rupert Everett play Las Vegas lounge singers, so we're doing seven completely beaded, Liberace-esque suits for each of them. They're $10,000 apiece; it takes eight ladies a week to bead one of those suits. That's why embroidery is so expensive, and why it's a dying art. It was developed when labor cost nothing. Now, the price of the fabric is almost nothing compared to the cost of the labor.
JC: Who works for you?
Ridge: Three of four people in the tailoring shop, all of whom are Korean. There are three support people, and the rest are in the ladies' workroom. Almost all of them are foreign-born. We have three from Hungary, plus ones from Poland, Thailand, Mexico, El Salvador, and Ecuador. They're incredible people who've sewn all their lives, who have great hands, who make things that look beautiful. People in this country don't go off and apprentice and learn a craft, which to be a really good tailor or dressmaker, you have to do. It's not something you can take eight credits of at the state university. Lots of kids do that, and they come to me with these resumes, saying, I'm a pattern-maker, I'm a milliner, I'm a dyer--I might hire them as a shopper. I know what I knew when I got out of college. I went to a very good school, and I knew nothing when I got to a workroom. I was the 10th assistant from the left. The most you should get out of school is an idea of what you don't know--how much there is to the field, and what you need to get there.
We have a good thing worked out now: the better students from UCLA come and intern here in the summer. We had three this summer, and they were all wonderful. But they were shoppers, they helped on the move. One was graduating this year, and she stayed as my shopper. Two designers have already tried to hire her for movies.
JC: What about your design career?
Ridge: I can't run the shop and design a movie. I can do Broadway; Ring Round the Moon was wonderful, it was like old-home week. Gerald Gutierrez, the director, was a student at Juilliard when I was there, and Marian Seldes, who was in it, was one of the teachers. Jane Greenwood couldn't do the show, so Gerry called me. How could I say no? Every week, I would go to New York for a day, and at the same time, I'd go to San Francisco once a week for fittings for Bicentennial Man. Of course, then you add in the new building, and I did not have a day off from January on.
I can't disappear to Savannah for six months. I love making the clothes, and I love designing them. But what bores me to death is standing around a movie set, not getting anything done. Judianna just loves it; she'd be bored doing theatre. But I don't want to watch while they light this thing for 12 hours. It's like watching grass grow.
When I opened the shop, I realized, this is it, this is your life. When I was at Brooks, I watched Ann Roth, and I thought, how does she do it? She always walks in with absolute confidence--this is how it needs to be, you need this, it'll cost this much money. And I found myself one day doing that. I guess it just comes from doing it enough.