Watch CBS News

Black History Month: Costume Designer Paul Tazewell On Breaking Barriers On Broadway And Beyond

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - All February, we've been highlighting leaders and trailblazers for Black History Month.

Meet a man whose artistry and custom-made way of storytelling is part of a many a stage production, including his life-changing work as costume designer for an epic Broadway musical.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's Alexander Hamilton wears a navy and tan officer's coat, made of thick, twill-woven, melton wool. That fabric and design are the truest to the late 1700s, says Paul Tazewell, who did extensive research.

"We pay a lot attention to the arc of lapel," Tazewell said.

His wardrobe creations for Broadway's Hamilton earned him a Tony Award as Best Costume Designer in 2016.

Right next door to the Richard Rodgers Theatre at the Imperial, Tazewell's Tony-nominated costumes get a workout in Ain't Too Proud: The Life And Times Of The Temptations.

"I'm living the dream that I had when I was 14, 15, 16. And so it's mind-blowing," Tazewell said.

He's created the wardrobe for 24 Broadway shows, 31 off-Broadway shows, as well as for dance, film and television.

Tazewell grew up in Akron, Ohio in a close-knit family. His mother was a teacher who loved to sew and his dad was a chemist.

"When I was a junior in high school, the instructor, head of that program asked me to design the costumes for The Wiz. and then you circle around to The Wiz live for NBC," Tazewell said.

"And won an Emmy," Tyler said.

"Yeah, yeah," Tazewell said.

But back in high school, Tazewell hoped to be an actor.

"What I saw as examples for African-American men in performance, it was fairly limited. I was being trained to be a singer and dancer and to take on roles that were leading men," Tazewell said.

Dissuaded, he pivoted to costume design and studied at New York City's Pratt Institute and then transferred to North Carolina School of the Arts and then a graduate degree at New York University. But making a living as a black costume designer had barriers too.

"As it turns out the typecast becomes more subtle," Tazewell said. "I created a career being the go-to designer of productions about people of color."

His first Broadway show was in 1996 in Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk. It would lead to his first Tony nomination. More success would follow. Tazewell's work on The Color Purple, In The Heights, Memphis and other shows led to seven Tony nominations so far.

Backstage at Ain't Too Proud, Tazewell says designing the costumes was a challenge because The Temptations set the tone for black culture and style in the '60s.

"I like this top stitching too. You could see that," Tyler said. "You want us to focus but not take away big picture right?"

"Exactly. You want it to fill the moment and look interesting and have depth, but you don't want it to be distracting. I made the choice to do this brighter red to pick up the flash of the beading. Also I knew that this was going to recede and be very dark," Tazewell said.

His process starts with research. He sketches by hand or digitally. For Ain't Too Proud, Tazewell started with black and white outfits and slowly added color as the story progressed, as he did with Hamilton.

"The ensemble and also the principals all start in what we call parchment look," Tazewell said. "All neutrals, even so, character-wise, so you don't know who is who. Then as they take on characters, then they go into specific colors."

"For Eliza, I always felt that because of her character that the color, the color blue and this kind of ice blue green was very sympathetic," Tazewell explained of his creation for the Hamilton character.

The coat for Jefferson is silk satin.

Tazewell's work is on stage and the screen, including this year's feature film Harriet.

"To go from a woman who was oppressed as a slave and slavery, as we have grown to understand what it was, to a woman who is defining who she is and how she is going to live life. She's taking on these masculine kind of elements. The hat, the coat," Tazewell said.

Look for his costumes in the upcoming movie West Side Story

"How about your excitement to see West Side Story?" Tyler asked.

"My goodness. Steven Spielberg," Tazewell said. "I was very happy with how the costumes turned out. Yeah, I still pinch myself."

So what else suits Paul Tazewell? There's a scholarship in his name at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts where he inspires future designers to follow their passions.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.