Perspective: Interview with Erica Johnston, NYC Costume Designer

Have you ever wondered how to make your own leotard?

Curious about who designs and constructs your dance costumes?

I caught up with Erica Johnston, a freelance dancer and costume designer in NYC, to hear about her creative journey between dance and the world of costume design. (Be sure to check out her Instagram, @edjohnst and her website, to see some of her work!)


erica johnston costume ballet alvin ailey

Erica Johnston, Photo by Brian Thomas 


Name:  Erica Johnston

Hometown: Champaign, IL

Where you currently live/dance/work/create: New York, NY


How did you get your start in dance?

Around the age of 5, my mother enrolled me in dance classes because I couldn't skip!  She was an early childhood teacher and knew that I hadn't reached that coordination developmental milestone yet; she thought I might be falling behind, so it was off to dance class.


How has dance led you into your other creative passion, costume design/creation?

Surprisingly enough, I was designing "costumes" out of toilet paper and scotch tape before I even started dancing.  My mom always fostered a curiosity in the arts, and I had an interest in exploring design from a young age.

I was very fortunate to grow up in a studio (The Champaign Urbana Ballet) that fostered engagement in many aspects of dance, costuming included.  All students involved in the performances were required to do volunteer hours for each show, and I always did mine in the costume shop! My teacher, Deanna Doty, really took me under her wing and gave me progressively larger projects as I got older. I loved seeing the tangible results of my work on my peers- it gave me a sense of accomplishment outside of dance, but in support of it.  

When I went to college (Butler University) I was able to work quite a bit with the Dance Department Costume Coordinator, Kathleen Egan, on improving my technical skills. I started making leotards to fit my long torso (and because I couldn't afford nicer brands- Yumiko, Eleve, etc), and started selling them to my friends to make some extra cash. The money I made selling my work paid for my move to New York after I graduated.


Tell us a little more about what you do in terms of costuming! Who have you worked with, and do you have any favorite projects?

I work primarily as a costume builder, wardrobe assistant, and costume designer for numerous companies and schools in the NY area.  Recently I've worked for organizations such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ailey 2, the Ailey School, Peridance Contemporary Dance Company, Marymount Manhattan College, and Hunter College.  

I also work outside of dance from time to time, and have had the chance to work for artists like A$AP Rocky, Art Garfunkel, and the Big Apple Circus. I really enjoyed working for A$AP Rocky- it was unlike any other gig I'd ever done.  We were set up in the board room at Sotheby’s NYC painting hazmat suits for several days for a recent album drop release party, and we got to attend the event afterwards.

I also had a lot of fun designing for Peridance a few months ago, because many of my friends are company members.  It's really special to get to design for people that you like!


How or where did you learn the technical skills required of designing dance wear? Did you have a formal education?

The Champaign Urbana Ballet has a professional costume shop next door to its studio facilities.  My teacher, Deanna, is also an amazing costume designer and she took me on as a sort of shop apprentice when she saw that I had an aptitude for costuming.  I also studied with Kathleen Egan at Butler University while I was in the dance program. The beauty of my job is that I get to learn new things every day and refine my existing skills, much like with dance!  

I also owe a huge thanks to one of my employers, Mark Eric Rodriguez, for teaching me many of my technical skills- he came from the world of couture before designing for dance, so his knowledge base is unbelievable.  He teaches constantly and with patience and kindness, and has also brought me on to assist with many of his own designs for companies like Ballet X, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Ailey 2.


What’s a “normal” work day like for you?

My weekdays vary, but my Monday/Wednesday/Fridays are pretty consistent- I typically wake up around 8:30 and head to Ailey to take a ballet class at 10AM (I lucked out with an apartment that is a ten minute walk away).  

I work in the costume shop from noon until 6 or 7; this includes things like pattern drafting, cutting and sewing costumes, dyeing fabrics, and meeting with choreographers to discuss what they would like dancers to wear in upcoming shows.  

Sometimes I run to the garment district to shop for fabrics and notions, or execute group fittings on students. In the evening, I head home and work on freelance projects, or go to different theaters to work as a crew member on shows. Some days I take class in the evenings if I have an early morning in the shop/theater.  

If I am working on a freelance job, I travel to different studios and theaters on a daily basis. Some days I luck out and can work from home in my pajamas! I have three different machines in my apartment that serve different functions and so most building jobs I can do at home.

erica johnston nyc costume designer Claudia Schreier, Photo by Nir Arieli

 Costumes designed for Claudia Schreier
Photo by Nir Arieli

How do you balance your dance related job(s) with your costume designing?

One major perk of working with Ailey is that I get to take classes for free.  

I am usually able to schedule my day around which class I want to take, so I'm able to stay in shape when I'm not rehearsing for performances.  I teach a little bit for the Ailey open class program as well, so it’s very handy that it's all in the same building!

When I am performing, I will schedule sewing work accordingly- typically as long as the work gets done by a certain date, the actual work schedule can be flexible.  I'm really lucky to work freelance because I set my own schedule and only take the jobs that I want to take (though I rarely have a day off).


Do you have any tips for anyone else interested in costume design?

Don't be shy about it!  Get involved.

Reach out to costumers in your area and offer to help.  Be honest about your experience level, and (like with dance) be open to corrections from those more experienced than you.  

Like with any art, you have to put in the time, make many mistakes, and learn from them- that's part of the process and in my opinion, a huge part if the fun.  

Use resources like YouTube and the library- the information is all out there. Most costume shops could use a hand, and starting with small tasks, asking questions, and exploring your own creativity will get you everywhere!  

Also - don't ever prevent yourself from trying because it might not turn out the way you wanted.  Challenge yourself to try something you don't know how to do by figuring it out without consulting a book/video first!  A lot of my construction knowledge was learned by just taking a stab at something and believing that I could.


Looking for a ballet headpiece? Check out her beautiful headpieces here!

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1 comment

  • Wonderful interview with costume designer

    Betty sterrett

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