Q&A: Couture Designer Mark Zunino on Dressing the Stars
19 Jun, 2016
* Interview by Cindy Maram *
Mark Zunino, couture designer to stars such as Beyonce, Angelina Jolie and Sofia Vergara, is doing big things in the fashion industry. He recently collaborated with goddess Jennifer Lopez for her newest music video “Ain’t Your Mama.” A perfect combination, J.Lo’s elegant style was paired exquisitely well with Zunino’s well-known feminine design aesthetic. This was a fun and different way to showcase the bold longtime superstar. Further, 2016 has proven to be a great year for exclusive designer as he was involved in constructing outfits for diva Mariah Carey’s current residency in Las Vegas where she returned to the stage at the iconic Caesars Palace on Tuesday, June 7th. Carey debuted some of Zunino’s sensational constructed outfits like an Ostrich coat, encompassing over 100 yards of imported ostrich feathers with an exaggerated 20-foot train. The popular Beverly Hills atelier spent a cumulative 310 hours of hand beading and hustling to complete the amazing and unique looks that Carey will be strutting. Read on to learn more about Zunino’s start in the fashion industry, his experience designing for celebrities at red carpet events, as well as learn about his upcoming ready-to-wear collection that will be available in department stores and retailers.
Dig In Magazine: Well thanks so much for the opportunity to talk with you and to ask you a few questions.
Mark Zunino: Well, thank you.
DIM: Where are you based?
MZ: Based out of Los Angeles in Beverly Hills. But my time is pretty much split equally between New York and L.A.
DIM: Great. I’m actually from L.A. originally. I was born and raised there. Now I live in the San Francisco Bay area. There’s some film stuff that goes up here too. It’s a little more toned down. But it’s very cool up here too. Just a little different.
MZ: Cool. I was actually born in San Francisco. Then, I went to school at Pepperdine, which pulled me down south. And I never left.
DIM: Oh great. I love Pepperdine.
MZ: Yeah it’s great.
DIM: Love Malibu.
MZ: There’s not too much to hate there.
DIM: I know, it’s beautiful. What’s to hate? What inspired you to get into the business of fashion? And how did you become a designer for the stars?
MZ: Well, I was originally studying architecture. One of my illustration courses had to be fashion. So I took the one fashion course. A year later, the designer that I had taken that course from, called me to ask, someone was looking for an assistant and she wanted to recommend me. I said sure. But it was for fashion, not architecture. It’s not my thing. And she said it was for Nolan Miller and Aaron Spelling, and at the time Aaron was one of the biggest producers at the time, television shows. And Nolan was doing…
Yeah, he was doing film and television and everything. So, long story short, I ended up getting the job. I was a junior at college. So they worked around my school schedule. The first project I worked on was for Dynasty. It was a wedding scene. We actually ended up getting nominated for an Emmy. I was excited. Nolan said, I always get nominated, I never win. You did all the work, if I win you can keep the Emmy. And we won. And I have it. So that’s how it all started. It was really film and television based originally. During that time, we had always an expensive, fluid clientele, private client base. But at the time, when I started with Nolan, that’s all we were working with him for Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, all the major icons. And that is what gave me the pedigree to carry through today doing [fashion for celebrities like] Beyoncé and Jenifer Lovett. It’s a glass ceiling that’s very difficult to break. They have to choose you. You can’t choose them. And I was fortunate enough to have entered the way I did. That at the time, I had no idea this was happening. But now in life, I’m very grateful for it.
DIM: So basically, they approached you before a big event like a red carpet event or a Hollywood event? Then, you just basically start sketching and designing the perfect dress for them? Is it for a specific event?
MZ: Yeah, we collaborate, even back then it was primarily major events. Awards, red carpet events, premiers of movies. And then, even today, in fact even as of yesterday, I got a call from Britany Spears. She wants me to do her clothes for stage. Doing Jennifer Lopez right now.
MZ: The last couple weeks, we’ve had Gwen Stefani, Pink, Carrie Underwood…
DIM: That’s amazing.
MZ So, it’s kind of just opened a door. You know, like Sofia Vergara, I started with her. Doing a dress for her wedding. Then she ended up getting asked to be on the Grammy’s.
MZ: Yeah. It was pretty extravagant. And because Jennifer Lopez saw it, that’s what has fed the frenzy for me to work with everybody.
DIM: And in designing the dress for Jennifer Lopez, how did you come up with that design? Because I understand that you don’t only take their appearance into consideration, but you also get influenced by their personality. I was wondering about the mental and creative process in creating and coming up with that perfect dress for Jennifer Lopez, or Angelina Jolie.
MZ: I think it’s about, first, psychologically getting to know them. And quickly. See what makes them unique. Really absorbing their style. Cultivating and building that style. Because the one thing that I believe in is that, I don’t want everybody to look like me. So you don’t want people to go, oh that’s Mark Zunino, you know? I like just to enhance each individual personality. I think often that’s what’s given me longevity. And it’s something I learned back in the days of Nolan. I think the difference between back then and today is that, back then, most A-List celebrities had a studio system behind them that was cultivating this individual look. But today, everyone’s on their own. And so, I think a lot of actresses and personalities are lost. Because they don’t know where to start. And that can sometimes go on the wrong path with fashion. Unfortunately, they find that out after the press is ripping on them.
DIM: Is there anyone you would like to design a dress for, but haven’t had the opportunity to yet?
MZ: It’s funny, because when I was asked this last time, the last time I had said Beyoncé. And when I got back to L.A. Beyoncé was waiting for me to dress her and meet her in the salon. And recently with people I’m like, you have an address?
DIM: What makes you an in demand designer for the stars would you say?
MZ: I know what I’m doing. I know I’m good at it. But in reality, what it is, once you dress one and they look phenomenal, everybody else wants to jump on the bandwagon. And you become what everybody wants. It’s kind of a competition with all the A-List personalities. It’s definitely a competition. Everyone’s fighting to get their name in the news press. To be known. To be, whether it’s sexy, or whatever it is. It’s a very exclusive atmosphere that we have and our clients feel very secure and safe, and let down their hair and show us their flaws. We know what we’re working with. We know how to really build on anyone’s physical assets. It’s a real safe space. Once you do it once, I just want the opportunity to dress whoever wants it. Because I just know I can give them a ton of attention and compliments. Once you do that, everybody keeps coming back.
Yeah, I mean, she [Sofia Vergara] has a beautiful body. But even with Sofia, I’m all about construction and I work from the inside out with everything I do. Whether it’s through seeming, or through interior construction or whatever. We’re always able to take at least two inches, two to three inches off anybody’s waist. And there’s no girl that doesn’t like that.
Once we start doing that, and some of the girls with the larger bust, when they’re on stage dancing, Jennifer Lopez or whoever, they want to feel secure with what they’re wearing. Being able to dance and crawl and do whatever they want. But they need to feel secure. They also want to look incredibly hot. And that’s another thing that we do really well. It ends up like paint on their body.
DIM: All of those dresses looked amazing.
MZ: Thanks. You know, I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m aware that when someone hits a red carpet, you’re being photographed and looked at from every angle. And it’s usually the worst camera shot that gets used. Because everyone likes to point out flaws. So we make sure that from every angle the individual will look absolutely perfect.
DIM: And looking back, is there a particular star that comes to mind that you just really loved working with? Or maybe a memorable client?
MZ: I mean, I think, recently, Sofia Vergara’s been great. Because she doesn’t take herself so seriously. She has fun with her life. She has fun with clothing. She doesn’t take her persona, being sexy, too seriously. She laughs a lot. And it’s funny, I’ve dressed equivalent celebrities that are the opposite. They take themselves too seriously. They’re such a diva that it just makes it an effort. Makes it a pain to deal with some of these women. But when you have somebody like Sofia, she just rolls with it. There’s no pretence. She communicates. She looks great. But also, some people that were memorable to me, there’s a producer, Shonda Rhimes that I started dressing. She’s lost a ton of weight recently. But I was dressing her when she was a little heavier. She joked, this is my body. I have no waist, blah blah blah. I’m like, I can give you a waist. I can lift your bust. I can do things internally through the garment. And she said, if you can do that I’ll be a very happy girl. I was actually dressing her for something at the White House.
And she said I had gotten so many compliments. And I’m not used to getting compliments. That was the beginning of her want to lose all this weight. That really makes me happy. [For] the girls that have a great body, okay. But the ones that have insecurity or low self-esteem about themselves, those are the people I really love to work with.
DIM: How do you feel personally, when you’ve worked really hard on the design and then you see the finished product, the dress on this Hollywood star at a Hollywood event or red carpet? Do you feel a sense of accomplishment? What are the feelings that go through [your mind]…your reactions to it when you actually see them wearing it at one of these events, in pictures or on TV?
MZ: I mean, it’s always the same. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been doing it. It’s always exciting. It’s nerve racking. I always start looking immediately at how I can make something better. Especially with major award shows like the Oscars. When I know some of the celebrities, they don’t only have my dress. They have five or ten other designer dresses. It becomes a competition between the designers. So we’re all painstakingly waiting to see who they are ultimately going to choose at the very last minute. At least half of the time, we have no idea whether they’re actually going to wear the dress or not.
DIM: Okay, that’s interesting. Oh, so it’s kind of a surprise sometimes. You’re like, yes, they’re wearing it.
MZ: Yeah. I’ve dressed Mary J Blige for one of the music award shows. We custom made a dress. And I was working with Philip Bloch, her stylist. And he said I just have to let you know that River Quality is also making a dress for her. And River Quality was also paying for her. And I don’t do that. A lot of celebrities are being paid to wear designer clothes. It’s something that we never do. We form a personal relationship with the actress we’re dressing. She wears our dress because she wants to. In that instance, at the very last minute, the hour before she was getting dressed, Phillip called me and said, I just want to let you know so you don’t get upset, I don’t think she’s going to wear your dress. So I thought, okay. [But] at the last minute, he said Mary J told them, I don’t need the money, I don’t need that dress, I’m going to wear this dress. And wore my dress.
DIM: Wow. Really nice.
MZ: So it really did come down to the last moment.
DIM: Right, and I’m just wondering, that’s an interesting kind of behind the scenes titbit…
MZ: Well that’s the thing that’s become very prevalent in Hollywood, or just in fashion around the world. The major houses, either it’s a five hundred thousand dollar fee to wear their dress one time or they’re actually contracted. They give them a two million dollar contract for the year. Like a Jennifer Lawrence to wear Dior. You know? With Kate Blanchet, [it’s] the same way. So, it’s a challenge for a designer. Unless you have hundreds of millions of billions of dollars behind you.
So we’re very happy and proud. Because we don’t have all that financial backing. And we get an equal amount of dresses on the same A-list celebrities without having to do all of that.
DIM: That’s great. And I was just curious, do they pay you for the designs to make the dress?
MZ: It all depends. Usually for major premiers or award shows, no. I’ll gratuitously do it. But then we get the dress back. When it does happen, ninety nine percent of the time we dress the actress, we do major events, they love our clothes, even like with Sofia Vergara now, I dressed her for Vanity Fair at the Oscars. All these things that now she’s paying for and buying her personal clothes from me as well.
DIM: Oh, wonderful.
MZ: So that ends up happening when they are happy with the work you do. With the way you make them look. They become a permanent client.
DIM:Yeah. Because you’ve established a good relationship and repore with them. So they keep coming back.
MZ: Yeah. They know you can produce with exactness what they want. You’ll see images of our atelier. It’s a very European atmosphere. There’s nothing else like it in the States. No other designers work this way. It’s a very old school way of working. But I’ve learned, through Nolan, it’s what our private clients expect. And it rivals Europe fashion houses and celebrities love it. It’s a service and environment that automatically elevates you when you walk in. You feel like you’re about to get something very special. And now we just have to make it work. But it’s working. Hopefully you can come check it out.
DIM: And that’s in Beverly Hills?
MZ: Yes. It’s a lot of fun. You’ll enjoy it.
DIM: I understand you have a new ready-to-wear collection? I was wondering if you could tell me a little about that. When it’s coming out? What inspired it?
MZ: Well, I have an evening collection that’s going to be sold globally. That should debut in September. I also have a capsule collection for Barny’s that we’re working on. That is something that I really love. Because it’s a much edgier, fun kind of look. So we have that.
DIM: Very nice.
MZ: So that’s in works.
DIM:I love Barny’s. It’s one of my favorite stores.
MZ: It’s one of the more forward thinking companies.
DIM: Yeah. So basically, these collections will be available to the public?
MZ: The point of the collection and what we really try to [do]… whatever the key components are, we do on a custom basis with our clients and celebrities. I like to bring that same feeling to every woman. So we bring it down and bring it to many different price points so anybody can enjoy. The red carpet gowns and everything usually get all of the attention, but our primary business is day wear. The bulk of our business, our private clientele is doing wardrobes for people. So that’s really what we do most.
DIM: Great. Have you guys been showing at fashion week almost every season? How often do you show?
MZ: No. We used to. And I haven’t only because we are at capacity from a production point of view. That’s right now, I’m branching out into ready to wear because I’ve aligned with some very talented contractors that are able to produce garments at the level we’ve been wanting. So we are just now getting back into it. What I can’t do at the moment is bring much more business that I do privately in my atelier, because we are maxed out. What’s good about that is we have to say no to a lot of clients. Which makes them want us even more. Even celebrity-wise. You know, the bigger the celebrity, the more you work with them, the more they take up your time, the more nobody else can get close. They like that. It’s competition. But it’s something that our main focus is always quality. No matter what price point we’re at, we are always the highest quality in that price range. Out of comparative with other designers. That’s just been a goal and a fact of ours that we’ve lived up to.