Unmasking Marina Toybina – The Costume Designer Behind ‘The Masked Singer’
Getting an Emmy award is a dream for many. What about five Emmys? For the costumes ?! When the category of Outstanding Costumes for Variety, Non-Fiction, or Reality programming was first introduced in 1986, Marina Toybina was a five-year-old girl dressing dolls in Moscow. Now with five statuettes to her name, she holds the most wins in this new Emmy category and is one of the world’s most in-demand designers. The only person with more wins is iconic costume and fashion legend Bob Mackie! Although not many people outside of the industry know his name yet, millions of people have enjoyed his work on television and on stage. If in the past few years you have witnessed tours of renowned artists such as Carrie Underwood, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Usher, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry or Pink, you have seen it stellar costumes. If you look Masked singer, and I know you’re… the hit Fox got the highest Nielsen ratings for a non-sporting program every season. Toybina’s incredible costumes contribute much of the show’s appeal, along with its viral moments and memes. I had the pleasure of connecting with the designer to discuss her journey between the Soviet Union and Hollywood, the challenges of working with global superstars, and the next pivotal moment in her career.
Let’s start with ‘at present ‘. You just presented the famous Russian matryoshka dolls on the Masked singer. How did this idea come about?
I did the graphics for this costume a few seasons ago, but the opportunity to perform the design only arose in Season 5. With the Hanson Brothers when we got on board, we were able to broaden the idea of the original concept and bring this vision to life. Almost a game within a game! We went back and forth with the guys on the perfect piece, between very modern and traditional. In the end, we settled on the traditional form of dolls. They were a little tricky to maneuver at times, but the Hansons did a tremendous job embracing the construction of these dolls while still being able to give a killer performance.
As a Russian-American it was great to see such a fun cultural exchange moment on American TV!
It was so important for me to perform this correctly because I am so proud to be Russian and the dolls were a big part of my childhood. At the same time, it’s more than a quintessential Russian souvenir. I have known people who have never been to Russia but still have these dolls at home. It is a popular collector’s item. So right away I thought, “Let’s go big.” Let’s truly show the beauty of this cultural work of art!
A Korean show suitable for the American market has become a global phenomenon. How do you balance the different cultural influences in your designs?
I research All the time! Who are my characters and what are their stories? Not just in a playful sense, but also in a historically authentic and diverse area. It is important for me to open our audience to different cultures. Our show is seen everywhere, so why not invite all of these beautiful aspects and details to our stage? For example, I designed a dragon mask for season 4 that was heavily influenced by a Japanese samurai warrior, and every detail – the coloring, the mask carving, the pattern, the stitching, and the embroidery – was very specific. and sensitive in relation to its origins. .
Let’s talk about your path to this success. How did your move to the United States challenge you?
Coming from Moscow to Phoenix, Arizona at the age of 11… The first big adaptation for me was the weather. We went from freezing winters, below 30 degrees, to warm winters of 100 degrees. I couldn’t believe it. Lifestyle fashion has been another big “fit” for me. I grew up wearing tailored dresses in public and structured school uniforms and then embraced more relaxed trends. I went to school right away, but it wasn’t necessarily the best experience. I didn’t speak English very well so some kids thought something was wrong with me. During recess, some children often said to me: “Go back to where you came from”. It was an interesting dynamic, because at the same time I excelled in my studies and in sport. I was one of the few people in my class who got a scholarship. Regardless of those challenges and circumstances that I might have faced while going to middle and high school, I was able to accept the cards that were given to me and keep moving forward. 29 years later, I was able to create a powerful and efficient platform where I can protect today’s little me!
Fashion education is undergoing a major transformation… How useful were you at university?
I will always say education is necessary whether you take 10% or 100%. By participating FIDM, I was given the know-how tools to ignite this fire in me and develop the courage to build my dreams. I continue to be in close contact with many of my school administrators and have spent time over the years being a guest speaker and current mentor for their students.
After 20 years in this business, what are some of the lessons you would like to learn sooner?
How to tell the difference between being passionate about what I do and making it a career. I wish there had been more emphasis on how to guide talented young people to become successful entrepreneurs. I had to learn on my own through the bad days, the good days, the bad people and the good people. Also, on building your personal worth. What do you offer that is different from everyone else that makes you special and precious? Acts of faith are always a plus, but you need to be extra careful with the people you work with. Is this the right solution? In order to have stability in business, you need to surround yourself with people who help you achieve your goals. It is difficult to do it alone.
Speaking of people, you’ve designed for some of the biggest names in American and Russian music. How do you approach working with the superstars?
I was so lucky, it’s true! Every artist is different, and so is the design process for them. In the end, it’s a great experience to work with everyone who has such immense love for their profession. It doesn’t matter if they perform at the Kremlin or at the Grammys. Being able to adapt my skills to improve their vision is a challenge that I was fortunate to take on. Although I have had the opportunity to collaborate with many amazing artists from this era, I still have a wish list of amazing icons that I would love to have the pleasure of designing for like Elton John, Janet Jackson, Bjork and Cher – to name a few!
Are there any differences between Russian and American audiences?
When it comes to concerts, I think there is a completely different underlying cultural outlook to watching shows. In Moscow, in general, everyone is seated to enjoy the concert. There is a tradition of giving flowers at the end of every song. This is another type of appreciation for artists. American tours have a whole different vibe. Everyone is usually standing, dancing, cell phones out, documenting the moment.
What’s the next step in your professional horizon?
Costume design runs through my blood. At the same time, I am now in a place where I am open to experimenting with different interests of mine. Executive production, direction, launch of a brand, what is possible? I have always been a Guardian, so there are a lot of things I want to accomplish that would be of service to those I represent and speak for. The questions I ask myself now are, “What do I do with my name, my platform, my team and my career progression to take us all to the next level?” One of my biggest dreams is to open a specialized academy in Los Angeles that would allow children to receive free fine arts education. My wish is to give back to the communities of young people who really need a broad outlet to excel in their talents, because I was one of those children.
And now you have five Emmys!
[Laughs] You know… Lately I’ve been thinking about what these accolades mean to me and how proud I am of my trip. I think we often forget to recognize these special moments and the stories behind them. For me, my parents play a huge role in my accomplishments and it is their unconditional love and support that has enabled me to achieve the impossible. It is the heritage, values and morals of my family that made me who I am today as a designer and as a person.
A retrospective of your work would be a blockbuster! Do you see it more as a parade or a gallery exhibition?
If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have leaned towards a runway display. Much of my previous work was heavily influenced by fashion. Over the years I have had the good fortune to work with exquisite textiles, patten makers and jewelers! However, with my current costume designer platform, a gallery show would be a better approach. The costumes that my team and I have created over the past decade have been highly regarded as wearable art, and it would be amazing for people to have the opportunity to experience our masterpieces up close. It really is an extraordinary trip.