Alexandra “Ali” Mandelkorn SC ’11 works in the costume design and fashion industry in Los Angeles. In our interview, she told us about blogging, branding, maintaining a professional relationship, and breaking into the fashion industry. When she isn’t on set or styling a fashion editorial on a rooftop in Hollywood, you can find her at Novel Café in the Arts District of Downtown L.A.
TSL: What did you major in, and what did you write your senior thesis on?
Mandelkorn: I graduated with a dual major in French and the history of visual art in film, a curriculum I designed which included courses in art history, studio art, media studies, costume design, and film literature classes. I wrote my senior thesis on Chanel and the little black dress, along with its influence in modern film … in particular, the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Along with my thesis, I designed, sewed, and photographed a collection of seven distinct interpretations of the little black dress.
TSL: You live and work in L.A. as a costume designer and stylist. How did you get into the industry?
AM: My first foray into the costume design industry actually happened at the Claremont Colleges. I took professor Sherry Linnell’s costume design course and knew immediately that was what I wanted to do with my life. I interned with her on a professional theater production in Los Angeles the next semester and started to learn the business. That summer, when I returned home to Boston, I applied to be an intern in the wardrobe department on a film that was shooting there (Furry Vengeance, starring Brendan Fraser). I got the position and from that moment on learned as much as I could about costume design, the industry, and becoming a freelance professional.
TSL: Your website, elaymade.com, combines gorgeous photography with beautifully written text. Tell us about blogging.
AM: First of all, thank you! El Ay Made is definitely my passion project, and I enjoy it so much! It was born one summer day last August (my one-year anniversary of moving to L.A. from [New York City]) when I came up with the idea and suggested it to my friend, now partner-in-crime, Amelia. It was a time of major transition for me, and I had been doing a lot of reflecting. While the celebrity fashion world can be exciting, I felt like the artist in me was being stifled, and I wanted another outlet for creativity. Blogging is obviously a huge part of our culture now, and when presented in the right way, it can really have a huge, positive impact on society. After living and working in L.A. for a year … I wanted to show people that even though L.A. gets portrayed as the land of plastic Kardashians and dramatic Shahs of Sunset, that portrayal is such a small part of true L.A. culture.
TSL: “Dressing for a major red carpet isn’t simply getting ready for a big party and looking pretty,” said George Kotsiopoulos, a stylist and former editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine who is now a host on Fashion Police on the E! Network. In the last few years, “it’s been about selling yourself as a brand.” Can you tell us about branding? How does a stylist make a name for him or herself?
AM: Honestly, the idea of branding is a tough one for me. Branding is all about commercialization and marketing, which seems like something you should stay as far away from as possible when making art. While I do see and understand the benefits of branding yourself as an entity, something about the whole notion just doesn’t appeal to me. Maybe this is naïve, but as an artist, I truly believe that if you put your head down and work as hard as you possibly can to hone your talent and put your creative vision out there, branding will happen organically. The idea of coming up with something that “defines you” or “is your signature style” feels very contrived to me. Especially since I feel like my style is always changing!
TSL: Moments like the Oscars can be transformative for an actress if her dress captivates. It is said that Petra Flannery, Mila Kunis’s stylist, helped her secure her latest gig as the new face of Dior. How much influence does a stylist truly have on her clients?
AM: I think a stylist can definitely help define someone’s career. In reality, fashion is very closely related to costume, and when someone walks out on the red carpet, it’s similar to a performance—one’s clothing is often very telling of one’s character. Depending on how one chooses to dress in real life, it can very well be directly correlated to what kinds of roles they land onscreen and in campaigns.
TSL: I imagine a stylist assisting a client (pinning, hemming, on her knees in the dressing room) or giving style advice like best friends do. Forming bonds is inevitable. How do you maintain a professional relationship with your clients? Is it okay to be friends?
AM: I think it is crucial to form close relationships with your clients. Trusting each other is a huge part of this process. You want to make sure your client knows you always have their best interest in mind. Even if a look might be a little out of their comfort zone, you want them to know you wouldn’t put them in anything that would be detrimental to their image. On the same token, I think it’s important to always maintain an appropriate level of professionalism. At the end of the day, business is business, and if you are getting paid to provide a service, it should always stand up to a certain quality. But that certainly doesn’t mean you can’t grab a celebratory drink after a great awards season!
TSL: You were recently on E! presenting your Oscar After Party outfit. Tell us about your experience on set.
AM: Having the chance to be on E! was really a wonderful and exciting experience. Honestly, it all happened so fast I don’t think I’ve even fully registered the entirety of it! It was a fantastic opportunity to work with some great producers and get a real glimpse into the live television world.
TSL: The Internet era has allowed for some people to make headlines because of their sense of style while others are caught exiting Starbucks or the gym in sweatpants. What do you wear on an ordinary day? And what is an ordinary day in your life like?
AM: Ah! I wish I could answer this and say I just roll out of bed and straight into my Balmain suit and Balenciaga boots, but, sadly, pursuing your dreams doesn’t allow for too many extra dollars in one’s pocket—at least in the beginning. That being said, I am quite comfortable and happy kicking around in a nice pair of J Brand jeans, a cool, loose knit sweater, a printed scarf, and my Frye Boots. When I’m on the job, lugging garment bags, racks, and steamers up and down stairs, that’s about as glamorous as this girl gets.
TSL: Wardrobes are often imbued with autobiographical specificity. Describe a piece of clothing or an accessory that screams “Ali Mandelkorn.”
AM: I think for all who know me, there would be a consensus that I am rarely seen without some sort of glitter lining my lower lid.
TSL: Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby is coming out this summer. Prada worked with costume designer Catherine Martin to create over 40 looks, each inspired by styles from the Prada and Miu Miu archives. If you could live in any era, when and where would you be?
AM: I’ve always been in love with Gertrude Stein and her life in Paris. I would have loved to have been part of her inner circle … in the Stein Salons, a gathering of the world’s most gifted artists and writers.
Check out Mandelkorn’s website and blog: