Alumna takes costuming talents from backstage at UofL to Hollywood backlots

Everyone has heard the term “pounding the pavement”. Little did Jessi Eichberger, 11A, know the new lands she would discover by doing just that.

“La La Land” to be exact. Eichberger was part of the costume team nominated for the Oscar in Achievement in Costume Design for “La La Land,” the 2016 movie musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

Eichberger is one of several UofL alums who have taken their chances in L.A., but her accomplishments in such a relatively short period of time after graduation and the path that she took to get there, make her story an inspiring one.

So how did she get from UofL to La La Land? One step at a time and with a little luck.

Learning the Ropes

Eichberger’s journey started at her hometown university.

“I chose to go to UofL, and honestly, it was the best decision I could have ever made and the perfect fit for me,” she said.

The first costume team she worked on was for the play “Betty’s Summer Vacation” for UofL’s Theatre Department, and she credits UofL assistant professor, Zhanna Goldentul, and Melissa Shepherd, costume shop coordinator, as being instrumental in helping her focus and refine her skills.

Goldentul saw Eichberger’s potential from their initial meeting.

“She came to us in a really good place; her advantage was that she was a double major,” Goldentul said. “She knew human body proportions. She was trained in studio art.”

“Her drive also made her stand out,” Shepherd added. “Jessi was constantly redoing her work to make it better.”

Her dedication resulted in a dual degree with both a bachelor of science as well as a bachelor in fine arts. Eichberger next attended the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland to pursue her master’s after being awarded a Mary Churchill Humphrey Scholarship.

A costume designed by Eichberger as part of her master’s thesis at Edinburgh College of Art. Photo provided by Jessi Eichberger.

“The fact that I was trained in two different fields helped me get accepted into the Edinburgh College of Art,” Eichberger said. “Also, every designer to whom I have shown my resume felt my degrees gave me the potential to be a more well-rounded costumer and person, because I developed skills in multiple areas at UofL.”

Shepherd, her former mentor, said it’s more than just technical skill that makes Eichberger a success. Her personality is what got her through any obstacles in her way.

“It takes an incredible amount of courage and self-confidence to accomplish what Jessi did in the amount of time that she did it,” Shepherd said.

Landing in La La Land

After receiving her MFA, Eichberger worked as a costume shop assistant at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Fair and then faced a big decision – moving to either Los Angeles or New York City. Thanks to advice from well-known costume designer Eduardo Castro, who works on the ABC fairytale show “Once Upon a Time,” she took a leap of faith and moved to L.A.

“I made the move. It was a risk,” she said. “I sent out emails and would literally drive house to house and drop off my portfolio in designers’ mailboxes, just hoping to get a call back.”

At one house, Eichberger left a portfolio for Mary Zophres, a longtime and well-respected designer in Hollywood who created costumes for movies including “O Brother Where Art Thou,” “The Big Lebowski” and “Iron Man 2.” Another portfolio went to Dan Lester, the assistant costume designer for the third film in the Divergent series, who had an opening for a production assistant. Eichberger began working with Lester on “Allegiant.”

Later that year, Eichberger received an email from Zophres, who asked her to interview for a production assistant position for a new movie. The project was “La La Land.” Eichberger was thrilled to get the email, let alone the position. It was only her second job since moving to L.A.

“It’s about being persistent, but it’s also about luck,” Eichberger said. “ ‘La La Land’ was the result of me putting my portfolio out there, and it just happened to be at the correct time.”

Zophres’ team worked closely together to create the costumes, and Eichberger gained invaluable experience by listening to how Zophres guided her crew, conducted fittings, and exchanged ideas with director, Damien Chazelle.

“As someone new to the industry, I think this experience was instrumental to my understanding of how a film is created. There’s something magical about seeing distinct departments creating these separate elements that fit together seamlessly when the cameras start to roll,” she said.

“On any given day I could see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone rehearsing one of their dance routines just outside our office with the choreographer or catch glimpses of concept art and miniature models being created for the iconic traffic scene at the beginning of the film.”

The crew’s work on “La La Land” resulted in the Oscar nomination for costume design, one of 14 nominations for the film.

“I will always be grateful for [Jessi’s] hard work on “La La Land” which was a complicated film to design with such a small crew and budget,” Zophres said.

Eichberger, who calls herself a very small cog in the Hollywood machine, was honored to be working with such a team.

“Working on “La La Land” was thrilling; there is no other word to describe it,” Eichberger said. “It was great to see the cast and crew receive the recognition they deserved.”

Dressing for Success

Eichberger is not slowing down. She has spent the past year as a costume production assistant for Emmy award winning costume designer Lyn Paolo, working on shows including “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” and “Shameless.” Under Paolo’s guidance Eichberger recently joined the Costumer’s Union, a major accomplishment in the field.

“It has been my pleasure to mentor Jessi and to pave the way for her to join the Costumer’s Union here in Los Angeles,” Paolo said. “She is professional, intelligent, and truly talented. I look forward to working with Jessi for many more years.”

Eichberger’s long-term goals include working her way up through the ranks, gaining experience in every role in the costume world and eventually reaching the title of designer. Right now, Eichberger just counts herself as lucky to be working among such esteemed coworkers and supervisors.

“I haven’t made this journey alone,” she said. “If I’m ever fortunate enough to see my designs on the silver screen, it will be because I’ve had the incredible support of so many.”

Her UofL mentors have no doubt Eichberger will accomplish her dream.

“She was meant to work in no other business,” Shepherd said. “It’s only a matter of time, and she’ll be there. She’ll walk the red carpet.”

Story by Lindsay Wehr and Erica Walsh. 

UofL Magazine
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