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Devario D. Simmons Has Mastered How to Tell a Story Through Clothes


Photo Credit: Elle Scott

In the world of costume designers, male designers make up less than 20% of the female-dominated industry according to Zippia, and furthermore, Black male designers are even more of a minority when it comes to costume design. Rising against the odds is Devario D. Simmons an up-and-coming costume designer, who served as a costume designer for Keenan Scott II’s Broadway play Thoughts of a Colored Man.



In being responsible for the style through costume creation, which helps create the essence of a character, Simmons shares that style in itself is similar to what spiritual people would call a gift. “It's something that you inherently have, style is something that is personal to each person”, Simmons stated. “You can create style. You can learn style, but most of the time style is something that's inherent to the individual. It's almost like how they see their color and how they see their proportions and how they put themselves together, [and] one person's style doesn't look the same on another person's body”, he added. While style is a gift that reflects personality, costumes allow for the wearer to use that gift to embody a new persona whether on screen or on stage, or in daily work-life situations.


Simmons’ road to costume design was something that he discovered along the way or in his own words “gifted” to discover. “I was going to be a journalist, hoping to be the next Oprah Winfrey,” Simmons said. While Simmons doesn’t count out the possibility of his journalism dreams coming to reality, his calling in fashion design led him to receive honors from The Kennedy Center as well as a full scholarship for graduate studies at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). While at VCU, Simmons was mentored by award-winning costume designer Toni-Leslie James. Simmons spoke on the significance of having Black mentors in the industry like James, and Clemson University professor Kendra Johnson, “What's great about them is that they were two black women that were working in predominantly white institutions.” Simmons also named late fashion designer Andre Leon Talley as an influence. “He too was a southern boy that moved to a big city to go through and navigate the fashion industry or entertainment,” Simmons mentioned when noting the parallels between Talley’s path and his. Simmons eventually earned an MFA in Costume Design from Virginia Commonwealth University and served as Assistant Professor of Costume Design at Ithaca College.


By 2021, Simmon’s dream of being the lead designer for a Broadway production came true when he was hired for Thoughts of a Colored Man. The play would make history as the first Broadway play that was written, lead produced, directed by, and starring an all Black team of talent. When it came time to design the looks for the characters in the show, Simmons examined the psychology of the work and the characters then came up with looks that reflected each character’s role in society as a Black man. From creating a tailored suit look to represent the wealthy Black man working in tech, to the symbolic kufi hat to honor the West African heritage expressed by the character of Wisdom, Simmons was intentional.


Oftentimes the light on opportunities for Black designers within the costume industry is not always shone. “I think that it's a very big caveat of the industry that they often only allow Black designers to do Black things, but designers that are not of African origin or that are not Black are able to do our things and everything else,” Simmons exclaimed. “So I often see that being Black, we end up feeling a little limited because we're only often allowed to, especially at the beginning of our career, do things that are about our race,” he added. Simmons took a moment to mention and highlight some other Black costume designers that have accomplished major achievements in recent years such as Paul Tazewell who won a Tony Award for his costume design work for the Broadway musical Hamilton.


Photo Credit: Mekhi Simmons

Although, now having since resigned from his position as Assistant Professor of Costume Design at Ithaca College due to his busy costume design projects in film and theater, Simmons did his part in creating curricula to encourage more Black creativity centered on cultural roots in the costume industry. “When I am teaching, I strive to have everyone do their design work in their research first, inside of their scope, where they are from culturally, socially and economically,” he said. “I think it's very important for us to be able to really dive into design by speaking about how to tell a story through clothes. We have to do that from our closest vantage point, and what's close within what we know and what we grew up in. So that's kind of how I start all of my classes,” Simmons added. Some of the courses that Simmons taught focused on the history of costume design and the psychology behind why people wear what they do.



“As a professor, I did cater to people of color as the exposure of people of color in entertainment is far less than others. So my first reach was to people of color, specifically Black men because this is a career that we often don't know about and feel it's impossible. And I think a lot of us would be great at costume design because we love clothes. But we end up doing fashion design, which is a close relative, but not the same. I do think that a lot of us would love the setup of what costume design is compared to fashion design, as costume design feels a little bit more like working for a company than it does like sole proprietorship or being your own business owner,” Simmons said.


As the doors begin to open for more Black men within the costume design industry, Simmons is keeping himself busy by working on Netflix’s Rustin, a biopic about civil rights and activist Bayard Rustin. Simmons also plans to return to designing for the stage for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s stage play The Factotum.


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