• Fashion

Mona May – Revered and Impactful Costume Designer

Almost thirty years after Clueless, Mona May is still one of the most revered and impactful Costume Designers in Hollywood.

The name Mona May doesn’t go unnoticed in the Costume Design world. Author of some of the most iconic looks in Hollywood, the artist has inspired generations through movies such as Clueless, Never Been Kissed, The Wedding Singer, and Enchanted, among many others. Still as vibrant as ever, May agreed to an interview over Zoom to talk about her career journey and what’s motivating her.


You mentioned your formative years were very influential in delineating your future work. How were they?

I am the daughter of a Polish father and a German mother. Due to my father’s work, my parents moved to India for a while and that’s where I was born. I lived in Kolkata until the age of three. Then we moved to Poland. My father passed away in 1981.  Right before the Martial Law came to Poland, my mother and I moved to Germany. That’s where her family was. Only at seventeen did I move to the USA to study at the Fashion Institute in NYC. LA followed suit. I do believe all my experiences shaped my work. Interestingly, I feel that my time in India had great impact in how I portray things on screen. The colors, for example.

When did the career in Costume Design start to shape up?

I never really dreamed about becoming a Costume Designer, but I have always loved movies. When I was in college, some colleagues were producing a thesis film. They asked me if I could help with the costumes. I accepted the challenge. I realized I really enjoyed the whole process. Reading the script, getting into the characters, the collaborative work with the director. It was so much more than just fashion. I did a lot of small movies like that for free. I started to get noticed. I always delivered, I was on time, I was a good manager, had everything well organized. I started working a lot, in music videos, TV comedy shows… That’s how my career began.

Did you ever consider going back to Europe?

Yes. I actually moved back to Berlin for a year soon after College. I was not sure if I wanted to stay in LA forever. It was interesting because Berlin had such a creative energy before the wall came down. I worked for a Fashion company while there and got exposed to a lot of fabric makers in Europe. Eventually, I started missing LA. The open minds, the spirituality, and the openness to Eastern philosophies were more evident in LA than in Berlin.

How did things develop once you decided to settle back in LA?

I got married to a musician and we were both trying to make it in show business. It was hard work, but exciting. It was after I came back from Berlin that I collaborated with Amy Heckerling, for the first time, in a pilot. It was never picked up, but the desire to work together again remained. We had a similar way of making things happen, same tastes, same rhythm. It was incredible. A few years later, when she decided to direct Clueless, she called me and invited me to be the Costume Designer for the movie.

Clueless, became a classic and the wardrobe iconic. How did you come up with those looks at the time?

I was not surprised it became a classic. Amy Heckerling was a visionary. Starting with the cast she chose, Alicia Silverstone, and Paul Rudd. They were unknown then but became stars. She also allowed fashion to be a character in the movie. The Director of Photography, Bill Pope, shot the fashion in a way that gave it relevance and a voice.

When I started scouting for the movie’s wardrobe, everyone in California high schools was dressed in grunge. It was the time Kurt Cobain was a big deal. The style for the movie was not there. We had to create it. I went to a lot of fashion shows and realized I had to look into the future. Movies take time to make. By the time it came out the wardrobe we had chosen made a lot of sense.

It was important to capture the femininity and the girliness of the main characters. Almost 30 years later, it’s extraordinary the impact those looks still have in popular culture. The movie still travels from generation to generation. Amy and I collaborated on four more movies after Clueless.

After such a big hit. What changed in your career?

I got an agent. I was featured in a lot of media: Vogue, The Times. It was a big deal. Let’s not forget this was before the internet was democratized. A lot of projects followed. I also did a lot of work for Disney. I got to use the colors, the fun and the sweetness I love to bring to my work. People need it. I got to do a lot of female-driven work. I am a girl and I love to empower women.

What are you focusing on nowadays?

I love mentoring and teaching. The students have seen my movies. It’s easy to connect with them. I also incorporate meditation in my classes. I teach them how to get to that place where creativity comes from. Everything is on repeat now. The challenge is to go where the quiet is.

I also want to write a book full of images that inspire. I want to share the happiness of my work. And I continue to work as a Costume Designer. I just got to work on an action movie with Liam Neeson that shot in Berlin, where my mom still lives. It feels great to come full circle.