Costume Designer Rafaella Rabinovich on Designing ‘The Imperfects’

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a succubus, a banshee, and a chupacabra walk into a Netflix series, and decide to fight bad guys. While not literal, that is essentially the premise of the new Netflix original series, The Imperfects.

One part Buffy, one part Teen Wolf, this “coming of rage” story introduces audiences to a new group of misfit monsters with hearts of gold, fighting for survival against the evil scientist that created them. But everyone knows clothes make the monster. And we were lucky enough to speak with Emmy-nominated costume designer Rafaella Rabinovich (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) about the process behind designing costumes for a very “imperfect” show.

First and foremost, congratulations on your stellar work on The Imperfects. I had a chance to binge it this weekend. Really enjoyed it! It gave me that sci-fi/horror Buffy/Teen Wolf vibe that I’ve been looking for in a show for a while. And your costumes are so noticeable. I think that when you take a look at the individual personalities of each of the characters the costumes really reflect that. So I wanted to ask what the process was like meeting all the cast members, reading the scripts, and learning who these characters were and applying all of that into your work. Can you speak to that?

Rabinovich: Thank you for taking the time to watch it. I’m glad you really enjoyed it. Getting all this positive feedback really makes a difference. Because we never know if people are going to love what we do. So knowing that it’s, as of right now, it’s a loved show to whatever capacity it’s loved… it’s nice that it’s been noticed… I was so incredibly fortunate on this show. It’s the first time I’ve done a TV series from a pilot. Which means it was completely my own voice. And each and every person, and every individual involved in this was absolutely incredible. From the actors, to the producers, to the showrunners, to the writers, to the directors, it was such a privilege to work on the characters with them. And being given this clean slate, and being hired because I had a vision that Dennis [Heaton] appreciated. We kind of matched on our vision, and he just let me go with it. So the process was one of the most creative processes I’ve ever had the privilege of doing because it was completely made out of scratch.

That’s not to say… a lot of people know me from To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. I did the first movie. And it is a feature. Which is different in a variety of different ways and it’s already based on a book. So we had to already deal with existing fans.

Obviously there’s the technical process where you read the script and you break it down and have multiple conversations with a variety of different people and a variety of different creative departments. I’m an excessively visual person. I’m a hoarder. So I very quickly start putting together pieces and things on paper, and I start sketching to birth the visual and to give it an identity. And with these characters it happened very, very quickly and very, very fast. And once again, it was because I heard a lot of “yes.” So I kind of knew I was on the right path. And there’s obviously nothing wrong with getting “no.” “No” is a part of life, the creative industry, and the process. But in this case we just kind of knew what we were doing immediately. And it was about finding the right pieces and combining them in a way that really gives a different character its tools and voices.

You mentioned you were really heavily involved since the pilot and you had the ability to be creative and grow from there. Which is unique. Most shows and films I’ve spoken to costume designers on, they’ve come in later on. But you coming in from the beginning, did you feel you had a good hand at sketching out and fleshing out who these characters would become through the course of the series based on what they were wearing?

I hope so. But I acknowledge there are a lot of things that are a part of that. I understand and am grateful for the question and the inquiry about it. But who am I to make the assumption that [I did]. Because we were just a tool in the toolbox. I am humbled and grateful if it had an impact. But I don’t assume that I directed or influenced any direction to that extent. As much as I just had a very lush, very easy unit while working with the actors and specifically with Dennis. Who is incredible. We just saw things eye to eye. And working with people with great ideas.

Who was your favorite to design for, between Tilda, Abbi, and Juan?

I can’t answer that! They’re all my children. For very different ways and different reasons… they’re all so uniquely different for me. And there was a lot of work put into the dayplayers and PJ and the entire band… but yeah. How do I put this. Some of this is that they have a very unique journey… I love them all for different reasons… [For example] with Tilda, there’s a sense where she loosens up a little as we move forward… She wears a lot of jackets and each and every piece of that jacket is an armor in a sense. There was a lot of work that was put into it… One of my favorite jackets was actually one of the ones we see her last with. We worked for it for almost three weeks, and there was five people that worked on it. And we ordered different specialty studs from the UK. And it took weeks to create the pattern, to match exactly how we wanted it to look, and to put the weight in the right place to fall on her in the right way when she moves around. And that’s like her final armor. But at the same time you see her grow into herself because she kind of softens up a little bit…

And with Abbi — specifically one of my favorite things about her is we really got to play with color with her… Abbi specifically has very small details that are so relevant to the story and what happens with becoming who she is, and unfolding, and becoming more comfortable in her own skin rather than unknowingly wearing the color of seduction in the first episode – the color of seduction on paper supposedly being red and burgundy — when she has her interview and it’s the first time we see the pheromones in action… We see her also wearing this beautiful sweatshirt with a bunch of bees on it, and a color pin with bees on it. Obviously the bees speak to pheromones. It’s also Hannah’s… locket with a bee on it. So there’s things like that. She really grows into it.

I really love putting meaning into costumes in all the different weird small ways. We put so much into it. And on this show we were so privileged, because the costume took a life of its own, and they really took care of it in production.

It really does reflect who these characters are. It’s showing not telling, which is valuable for any show or film. You don’t want characters to tell you outright who they are. You have to see it and that’s what the costumes present. Those little details from the LGBTQ callouts to the jackets, that show the audience who these characters are, and the show’s more successful because of that.

Absolutely. And for me one of the things I do a lot is trying to learn the unspoken things about a character. And how they come through. So for me having to wear the jackets we added, because every jacket she wore had embellishes that, [added] the prickliness she felt she had to have or embody in herself… There’s a sweater Abbi wears when she goes to Dr. Sarkov, and she really meets the kids for the first time… so a girl like Abbi would probably, being who she is especially, would get inspired by art that is in some way based on artists that are Type-A brains… For every person when you choose to wear something it’s because you love it or because it’s on purpose. So to me she’d wear something like that because she loves that artist.

When it comes to designing for a film like To All the Boys versus your Emmy-nominated work on a series like MC2, it’s got to be a little different because you’re dealing with multiple seasons for a show. Do you feel pressure to up the ante in future seasons?

Oh my gosh, yes! Lots of pressure. It’s a great challenge. I have multiple sketches of things I’m hoping to put on these people and multiple brands I’m looking to talk with. We still have looks that never went to camera and I have them packed up. Things that were approved by the network but we just didn’t know where to put them. So we packed them up and put them in storage, hoping that we’ll have a second season to put it on them. But yeah, absolutely. I’m considering the longevity of it and the places they have to go to. Which is why, with Tilda and Juan… the unfolding happens as a result of life things that are less positive and more daunting. There’s a bigger punch to them (especially with Tilda) where there’s so many places we’re going to take her too. I feel that’s true with Abbi too, but we already started seeing it with her.

If I can ask one final question, when we think about your style, it’s uniquely you. And we can see your personality in the clothes of these characters as well. When you were getting into costume design, were you inspired by any heroes who influenced you into getting into the business and who were those influences?

When I was growing up, I didn’t know I wanted to be a costume designer. I only figured it out around 16 or 17. I wanted to be a set designer. But in order to do that, I also had to get into costume design. And eventually I kind of fell into and kind of focused more on costume design… A lot of classical old movies I found to be inspiring… but as far as specific designers, I’d have to say Eduardo Castro. And I’ve had the privilege of working with him. One of my first big jobs in Vancouver was Once Upon a Time… It was such a big deal for me working under the wings of Eduardo. Hardly ever speaking to him. But when I did he was just the kindest and sweetest individual. And I am forever grateful for all the kindness he’s shown to me since then, because I’ve spoken to him multiple times for advice and for whatever. Other people I find to be incredible are [Salvador Perez], the head of the costume designer guild. And he’s incredible as well. He did Pitch Perfect and a bunch of different things.

And a lot of these things speak to the style that I’m very curious about. The way they both build character very very well. And obviously I’m also a big nerd. So to me, Star Wars and Star Trek — the earlier days of them spanning to The Mandalorian and Picard. And of course the Marvel Universe stuff that I find to be completely fascinating watching those movies and wondering how I can bring them into my more contemporary world… There’s just a long list of people that I look up to.

And look where that ended up leading. You’ve been nominated for an Emmy. You became a leader. And now you have the success of The Imperfects under your belt as well. All I have to say is congratulations! It was amazing talking to you. I can’t for people to see how fun and amazing the show is and how amazing your work is too!

Definitely go check out Rabinovich’s incredible work on The Imperfects, which is now streaming on Netflix!