By Martin Lazzarini, from Buenos Aires
José Fernández, costume maker of practically every superhero and super villain since the Tim Burton Penguin and Cat-woman all the way to Iron Man and Black Panther, doesn’t have to be Hollywood’s best kept secret, and he never was, even though it seemed that way.
One of the biggest jokes in The Incredibles (2004, Brad Bird) is that the family of superheroes have their uniforms made with the same person, Edna “E” Mode (voiced by Bird himself). The animated character was based on a legendary Hollywood dressmaker of the Golden Age, Paramount Pictures’ Edith Head. Little did Brad Bird knew- I’m sure -that a similar situation happened in real life.
Indeed, most of the super-heroes of the big screen since 1990 are the handiwork of the same person, not only a male dresser, but at a Latin person to boot. To call him a costume-maker is to diminish his efforts. Designer isn’t quite right, because he is a hands-on creator. Given that his work has mostly to do with super-heroes, I’d rather call him “Hollywood’s Armourer.”
José Fernández began, in his own words, to give texture to Danny DeVito’s fat Penguin suit in Batman Returns. He ended up sculpting the mask for Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Then came the Batman cowl “because the first one did not fit (Michael Keaton).”
These were not days where a Latin anything could roam freely around movie studios. Latins were few and far between. Elizabeth Peña was still playing housemaids, and Salma Hayek was still a soap star in Mexico. Yes, there was the legacy of some Latin creators behind the camera, in areas where foreign-born collaborators was expected.
Super heroes uniforms in modern filmmaking straddle the line between special effects and costume making. Gone were the days of the old Batman show, where making a cowl required no more effort than what you can buy at a Halloween store. The modern super-heroes require special techniques of molding in polyurethane rubber. You need a sculptor more than a tailor.
Fernández quickly stepped up to do all kinds of creative work. Every imaginable non-normal, on-camera creation has Fernandez’s fingerprints on it – everything from Godzilla and the Bicentennial Man, to Sleepy Hollow (and as supervisor for the other Batman films) in the ‘90s, to Hellboy, the X-Men and all the Marvel characters ever since he set up his own shop – IronHead Studios, in North Hollywood.
Fernández continually acknowledges that he learnt from the best, but that should only make him a bigger figure in our own eyes.
How big is Fernández in the movie industry? As big as Douglas Trumbull, Ben Burtt and Ken Ralston are in theirs – the special effects gurus of 2001 and the Star Wars movies respectively – except that Fernandez is, in the uniform making realm – the synthesis of all three of them. He began his career getting his hands dirty with Penguin and Batman, but soon he went on to be an integral part of the making of the costumes of a great deal of the Marvel Studios superheroes. This means that Fernández has reigned over the design of superheroes uniforms ever since the genre became relevant. It’s the equivalent of saying that Louis Lumiere was still making special effects well into the 1950s.
DC and Marvel have toyed for decades with cross-over stories. At least in the comics, fans where able to see Batman and Superman join or battle Spiderman and Iron Man. What few people realized then, and still not enough people know these days, is that- just like in “The Incredibles” -they all went to the same costumer. Probably driving as their alter egos to the parking lot in North Hollywood, to bring their uniforms in disrepair.
José Fernández is a giant in the movie business, all the more so because only the people that matter know his value. But just like Bane eventually knows who Bruce Wayne is, and Tony Stark just reveals himself to the world.
José Fernández must join the league of Latin names we all should be proud of.