“I believe that, wherever we are in the world, art gives us the power to find people with whom we belong,” says costume designer Olivera Gajic, winner of the 2011 TDF Irene Sharaff Young Master Award. “I feel, when I am collaborating, that this world is without boundaries.”

Considering that Gajic hails from Serbia, where she was born into a tailor’s family and grew up in her grandparents’ shop, her “world without boundaries” philosophy propelled her to success at any early age. “I attended the High School of Textile Technology & Design and received a BFA in painting, fashion, and costume design from the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade, a five-year program with strong art training,” she says. “While I was a student, I met director Petar Pejakovic, who introduced me to experimental theatre, a formative moment in my career.”

Today, Gajic is based in New York City, where her work has been seen at The Juilliard School’s Drama, Dance, and Vocal Arts Divisions, as well as in various New York City productions and at regional theatres including Long Wharf, Two River, Riverside Theatre, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Theatre Works, American Stage, Cleveland Play House, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, California Shakespeare Theatre, and The Berkshire Theatre Festival. “My American mentor is Professor Laura Crow, my teacher at UConn, whom I have to thank for being here,” Gajic notes. “The designer that provides ultimate inspiration for me is Alexander McQueen.”

Gajic was part of the US National Exhibit at the 2004 and 2007 Prague Quadrennial/Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designing for Live Performance. She is also a 2004 recipient of the NEA/TCG CDP for Designers and the 2010 IT Award for Outstanding Costume Design. “It is the road to unknown that keeps me going on,” she explains. “The collaborative process of discovering the play and the characters is what inspires me. I am part of the process if I am able to help the playwright develop the play, the director to discover possible truth, and the actors discover the characters. We never know where the collaboration will bring us. Unexpected results of collaboration are the most fascinating, miraculous. Usually the actors say to me, ‘Thank you for helping me find the character,’ or, ‘Now I know who I am.’ It is flattering and gratifying but somewhat limiting. Then I feel that I am imposing my vision, but that is only one vision.

“In the creative process, my imagination is sparked by the words of the play itself and conversation with the director,” the young designer adds. “I try not to set my designs in stone, given the fact that most of the time I never meet the actors until the first rehearsal. I try to give them just a world so everything else can just happen. I change my designs when I see the actors, get inspired with their actions, and adjust my designs toward their needs. The most gratifying process is when you actually don’t know what the costume is—when you don’t know what will come out of it—and then it just happens.”

Gajic enjoys the challenge of the design process, especially “when I am forced to give up my ego and the controlling part of my design personality or the logistics of time and place—start from a blank canvas, then only one word can mean the whole world,” she says.

As for the Sharaff Award, she says, “I am very touched by it. We work so hard and give so absolutely of ourselves, just to make our shows look great—work great—and getting this award feels like someone is watching me. I feel as if I have a guardian angel.”

What’s next for Gajic? “I would like to do the same thing—great shows, dance, and operas—having total support so the show can look just perfect,” she says. “I would like to work with commercial shops as well; I appreciate great tailoring and craftsmanship. I would like to do the same just on bigger scale—designing Broadway shows or seeing my shows at BAM.”

The TDF Irene Sharaff Awards were founded in 1993 to pay tribute to the art of costume design. Since then, the annual award presentation has become an occasion for the costume design community to come together to honor its own. The 2010 Awards will be presented in New York on April 8.