Star Trek: Discovery's second season is now in full swing, and it brings with it new work from award-nominated costume designer Gersha Phillips.
Phillips has worked on 30 films and several TV shows throughout her 20-year career, and now she designs costumes for Star Trek: Discovery. For the show's first season, she designed new versions of the Starfleet uniform and reimagined the looks of the franchise's Klingon and Terran Empires, earning her a Costume Designers Guild Award nomination for Costume Excellence in Sci-Fi/Fantasy Television.
In the show's second season, she's reimagining the classic uniforms of Star Trek: The Original Series, envisioning the black-ops organization known as Section 31 and designing costumes for even more alien races.
ComicBook.com spoke to Phillips over the phone about her Discovery work across both seasons and various eras and versions of Starfleet uniforms.
Discovery Starfleet Designs
There's something about the Discovery Starfleet uniforms that you designed that remind me of classic, pulp sci-fi characters like Buck Rogers or Adam Strange. Even the Terran Empire designs kind of feel like they'd fit on a Flash Gordon villain. Did those things inspire your approach?
Gersha Phillips: I think it might be, because I actually have no visual for what Flash Gordon villains look like. I won't say no for sure, because I know I saw Flash Gordon or some parts. Was that a series or was that a movie?
It was a movie in 1980.
GP: Yeah, so I probably saw it, and that's what I'm thinking. I've seen a lot of sci-fi from back in the day. I'm older, so you know, I watched when I was young. I watched Star Trek, the original, with my family at dinner on Sundays. I remember watching it. I was in England at the time, because I was born in London.
So, I won't say no to anything like that, because I know that, for me, I consider myself kind of like a collector of images. Almost like a vampire, is what I usually say. I just collect images and visuals all day long. I feel like I do it all the time. Sometimes I go back and see something in my images or somewhere, then I'm like, "Oh that's sort of where that came from." Because I'm always collecting, and I'm waiting for things to come in, then they come back out as a design. So I can't say for sure. I may have, subconsciously pulled from those things, but I can't say for sure. Definitely, when I was doing those things, they weren't what I looked for.
Actually, the main Starfleet uniforms that we did, they came out of a combination of so many things, and they sort of evolved in the process. Because they were very clean, and they just had the gold zipper and the gold side panel. That was it, I had no deltas on them. And that actually may be the one I prefer, but then my producers felt like they needed to be busier in the front, and that's when we added the small deltas on the side panel, and on the top of the pants. So that's sort of the way that the uniform ended. But it's certainly evolved through... When I say "Navy", I guess the Navy comes through more in the color than anything else. Because there was a point when we were working the colors and I was asked, "What would I do with the uniform?" And I started looking at Navy and thinking "I think that we should use one color and come up with a different way of signifying our departments.prevnext
Mirror Universe Designs
GP: Then, the mirror, I thought the best thing to do was to make them black, the base uniform black. Then, the other thing that was said to me was that they're armed and armored all the time. Because they're always defending themselves. The way to move up in the Terran Empire was to kill your predecessor. So they were always ready to fight. In the elevator scene where Connor tries to kill Burnham, and then she ends up having to kill him even though she doesn't want to in order to survive and continue on, that was the idea, that they were ready for battle at any time.
It was funny because the first thought was, "Can you at least just come up with a glove?" Because we didn't have a lot of time to do anything, and I was like, "How can I come up with armor?" At that time, I didn't even think about what ended up happening in episode 13, where we had to do, like, 100 people in armor. I was only thinking about my lead cast and a few others. I think it was the Shenzhou ship I had to do. So we were thinking, "How can we do something that we could make it happen within the time."
So, we already had the black fabric, so that was really easy to do, and it was just making up the armor. The armor came from two things that I remember having in my little arsenal of things at the time. There was a harness that I wanted to make before, and I found this sort of asymmetrical harness, and I thought, "If I could take this harness, make it into a cool armored piece, that could work really cool. And then I found that, and I mixed it with the belt piece and the bottom leg piece comes from, I think it's some sort of, what's that look called? Steampunk. I think it was sort of like a steampunk theme that I saw.
That's where the leg harness comes from, and I just put the two things together and I was like, "Oh, this could be really cool," sent it off to my illustrator and said, "You know, I need you to bring this together, and I need it to look brutalistic." It was all filigree and flowery like the carvings, the etchings on the armor. I said, "Let's get rid of that, let's put something brutalistic, and he came up with that great pattern that's on it. That sort of art-deco pattern based on some other images that I'd sent him from the art department, and what I said to him, basically.prevnext
Season Two brings the Enterprise into Discovery. The ship itself looks a little different than in The Original Series, but we've been told that it is the same ship. That's left me wondering about the uniforms you designed for the Enterprise crew. Are they meant to be the same uniforms from The Original Series but seen through Discovery's aesthetic lens, like the ship itself, or were you thinking of them more as different uniforms used between Discovery's uniform and The Original Series uniforms?
GP: I think it's kind of a combination of both. When I looked at our uniform, and I thought about how I could use the same shape and apply it to the Enterprise uniform -- I was really happy that our collar if you look at the black collar, it still has that almost like little V-neck feel that the original uniforms have. And I thought that even in the movies they try to update them. Because the bottom line is that uniform was designed in the '60s, and its design was a '60s aesthetic. So, to bring that into our world, and also, because you've got to think that we're actually talking about the future and we're talking about 250-some-odd years in the future.
So updating is required, I feel. [...] It just didn't make sense to me, or anybody else in our group, I don't think. As soon as they mentioned that I was going to have to do the uniforms, I pitched this idea that we would take our Discovery uniform and apply the colors and, basically, just update it into the Enterprise uniform. And I think that it just made the most sense, because what we're saying is, we're continuing in our storyline. That's how they would evolve.
They say that the Disco uniform is the old uniform, and everybody's moving to this new Constitution-class [uniform] because it was a Constitution-class ship. It was a special ship, and it had the newer uniforms. So eventually, in our Disco timeline, everybody would end up wearing those uniforms, and then that would sort of tie back into TOS and canon, et cetera, et cetera.
While we did talk about T-shirts, and doing that, my idea if we did show more of that world, was to do a T-shirt that then would look similar, possibly, to the original one or not. It's hard to say how it would've evolved, because it's also what looks good aesthetically. You have to make sure that you're doing something that makes sense and also looks good. And I think that, for the most part, it works very well.
The only thing that we didn't actually think about was rank at the time, because in Disco, the rank was done with pips on the badges. So, when we first shot the first few days of Enterprise uniforms, we forgot to put rank on. So then, I forgot who told us, I think it was marketing, actually. John Van Citters saw that we hadn't any indication of rank on our uniform. And so, me and my team, we spent like a night of trying to figure out how we were going to add rank bars on their uniforms. So that was an interesting journey, and it all happened during one night, so we had to figure that out... Then they had to go back and CGI all the stripes on the days that we didn't do it.
You know, it's another sort of evolving situation, but I do feel like the version that we came up with sort of works within the world of our show, Discovery, and I don't know if it'll go throughout everything that's coming up, because we're doing other shows now that have been announced. I'm not sure what will happen and what will be used from then and what will not be used, but we'll see.prevnext
Original, More-TOS Discovery Designs
You mentioned in a previous interview that your first design for Discovery's uniforms was more like The Original Series, using The Original Series color scheme.
GP: We did like three different versions of colors for that. When we were in that six-month prep, it felt like, we always had a date that we were trying to get in terms of a shoot date. There were many different ones, and each one of those dates, I was doing a different version of the three colors. And each time we did it, nobody liked them. There was a comment, the first time they thought it was too similar, it wasn't different enough, or it wasn't our own statement enough. And then the final one, we went with these sort of lighter colors. The idea is that they were sort of like metallic colors, and they just didn't look good.
We actually got so far as we built them, we ordered the fabric in large quantities of yardage, and we camera tested them on the ship and the combination just did not work because the ship actually overrode the uniform. They weren't striking enough. The colors were just too insipid, I'm gonna say, actually. They just didn't have enough vibrancy, and the ship's very vibrant and has such a strong look to it that you needed something that sort of held its own in there. I think that's what's really great about our uniforms now is that they look fantastic on that ship, and it's a great complement. They complement each other, it's quite lovely. And even when the Enterprise uniforms were on, that was a nice complement.
Where any of the ideas or designs you had for those more-TOS Discovery uniforms repurposed when it came time to design the Discovery uniforms?
GP: Yeah. The colors, definitely. I think the gold, we used the gold for sure, and we used the original, and I think the red and even the blue. At one stage, those three colors were the colors we were going to do, but we were doing them with the other compression panels, so definitely those three colors. The yellow is called "Harvest Gold" I believe. The blue is called "Denim Blue" and the red is called "Merlot Red". They're actual Pantone colors. We did have those. I think one of the iterations of the first group we had those colors.
The components of that uniform were quite different than what we did now. Not quite different, but I think what I did is when we went to do the Enterprise, we based it more on the final uniform that we came up with, which I think, aesthetically speaking, it was the better uniform than some of the other iterations we had done before. We had, like, a textured collar that we had, and we had some other beaks that just weren't as good, I think. And they may come out in other uniforms. I have, like, a file of uniforms, that every time I need to make a new one, I go back to that file and I look at those components instead of bringing them back out again. So, I feel like they'll always be useful, and I'll always pull from those ones. Just like Enterprise, definitely, we looked at what we had done before and sort of pulled some of those components into this uniform, and I think that was good.
One of the things we were looking at back then was with command, gold, one of the things we tried is each color would have a different colored pant. So gold had olive pants, the red had brown pants, and the blue had navy pants. So we had even that combination, which looks crazy in my mind now, when I think back at it. I'm like, "Why would we try such a crazy thing?" But it was an idea of one of the producers, and you go on the journey, and you say, "OK, let's try."
The colors in those uniforms were much less forgiving than our navy is. So that was the other journey. Once we got it all right, then we had to solve the fit issues of everything and everybody. It was quite a huge undertaking. We had four months prep last year, but even with that, we didn't have enough time.prevnext
Klingons and Canon
The Klingons, I imagine, present a special challenge form a design standpoint because they're so ingrained in Star Trek canon. I know they're growing their hair again his season, which is kind of a nod to the Next Generation era from the hair and makeup department. Can fans expect to see similar nods that you worked into this year's Klingon designs?
GP: I will say, yes they can. It may not be right off in the first time we see Klingons. I'm trying to think of what I did to the first one. I feel like, this one, I sort of just went out on my own. There are some pieces, yes, that you can say that there might be some nods, for sure. Yes, I think L'Rell's dress definitely. I think the two ladies that I've been asked about, and I never remember their names. The ones that have that sort of cutout breast pieces from... Is that TNG as well?
The Duras sisters.
GP: Yes. I should actually start writing this down. It's really interesting, because I remember looking at those and thinking that was such an odd way of showcasing their breasts, but then I sort of, when I think about it, my idea of L'Rell's first costume as chancellor, I wanted something that sort of embraced both her femininity and also her power. So her dress does show cleavage, and I did it in a way that it's sort of a little bit on the provocative side. Actually, every time I think about it I sort of go back and forth. I liked what I ended up doing, and I think it was in interesting idea, because my thought was that the Klingons didn't look at anatomy in the same way that we do, in a human way, and that it was okay for her to have a dress that was V'd so low, and that it wasn't looked at as being sexy or anything. It was just being the woman that she was. And, when I approached it, the whole idea was that we wanted to show a little bit, I guess, vulnerability, and just allow them to feel a little bit more real.
One of the things with our Klingons last year is they were covered to the neck, always, pretty much. There were hardly ever arms, there were hardly ever shoulders. And that was one of those things where we were like, "That's what we really wanna do this time." So I wasn't even supposed to have arms out. I think, in the end, we didn't do arms in the first one, but as we progress, you'll see a little bit more when we see more Klingons during the season.
It's interesting because at the same time I want to use the words ,"I wanted them to seem more human." But that's not really the idea. The idea is just, I feel like, them just being more awesome, and understanding them from another perspective. So L'Rell was always a special case, so we knew we wanted to show more of her and have her feel more of a full character. And in order to be a full character, you want to see body, you want to see arms, you want to see more of her. So that was I think one of the things that we were always pushing for.
The way the producers put it to me and my showrunners, basically, is that they wanted to show this other side of Klingons. So, the idea is that they're no longer at war. So, this is the idea of what peaceful Klingons can look like, which I think is kind of like a cool idea. Because the other thing that's from TOS, Klingons would always dress everybody was the same. And I think they sort of applied that to all aliens, where we try to create aliens that look different within the species. So within our Klingons, there's like five or six, maybe even more, different looks. So each person has a slightly different characteristic and we wanted that to be something. Like the human race, the Klingon race has many different types of people.
I think we created some really awesome costumes for the Klingons this season, and I'm kind of in love with a lot of them. The later ones, for sure, there are some nods to TNG Klingons... As the season rolls out, everybody will definitely be seeing that, and I'm sure there will be many questions and some are obvious and some of them are not so obvious. I think, in general, people will recognize it and be saying, "Oh, that's what she's doing here."
Mary Chieffo has talked about how Klingons are traditionally a patriarchal society, so some of them may have a problem with a female chancellor. I was going to ask if that factored into how you designed her costumes, either to project modesty or defiance of that. But it sounds like you see it as almost a non-issue for Klingons, that they don't sexualize, physically, the same way that humans might.
GP: I think that's more what I was trying to say, is that they don't. And take out that whole thought frame out of it. I mean, I feel like when you're dealing with other species, it's kind of nice to be able to drop all of our rules and regulations around certain things [...] and allow them to be what they are. So, I thought that was a bit of an interesting way to go. And I think we'll continue to play with that, it should be something that's really interesting as we go forward. But yeah, I think trying to get out of the rules of what we have in our society.prevnext
Michelle Yeoh is back as Georgiou this season, and now part of Section 31. What were some of your design goals and ideas for Section 31? Has the spinoff show affected your approach?
GP: Not really, because I didn't know about that until much later. But I definitely told them that I'm very, very interested in that one, and I'd like to do that. So that'll be exciting. But I think it was an interesting journey, because I think, again, it's something that evolves because you don't know.
I mean, I knew that Section 31 was going to be a thing this season. They told us that last year. Basically, they told me that there were two versions of how we were going to do it, whether we were going to create a Section 31 uniform, which is what I thought we were going to do. Then, just before, when I started crafting it, the showrunners basically said, "No. Let's just use them as individuals and not do a uniform." And I was like, "Oh, great." Because at least a uniform allows me to do something, and then you can still have people that don't have to be in uniform. Because that was my thought. I thought: "Oh, well Georgiou wouldn't wear a uniform, because she's not going to conform."
I think she's on the journey of finding herself as well, and how she fits into this world. And, in the beginning, everything that she's doing is trying to get back to her mirror universe, to the Terran Empire. So, the idea was to keep some of those pieces in her costume and always dress her a little bit with the Terran mind and the Terran practices and bring those elements into her costume. I think she wears her knife for quite a bit of the time. So we have to figure out how she's gonna be armed. The idea was that we went back and forth with it, but I think she predominantly is always armed, and she's always in black, and there's always leather elements to her.
Section 31, basically, I was told that they're in black. And I was like, "Oh, that's wonderful." Because obviously you don't know me, but I love to wear black 90% of the time. I hardly wear color, and if I do, it's just pieces here and there. So the fact that I got to do, like costumes that were all black, all the time, I was like, "Oh, this is cool." And we were able to find some really great pieces that we sort of used for the Section 31 crew that were on the ship. And the thing, again, is that the idea is that Section 31 recruit a certain type of person. They're not the Starfleet military look. You know, the Starfleet has a very clean, athletic, perfect body-type that we've used for Starfleet, but these guys fall into a different category. They're a little different. They come from different worlds, and they come from different ... They haven't come from military necessarily in the same manner, depending on what their specialties are, what they bring to the caravan. So that was something interesting, too, so we played a little bit with that as well.
My idea, basically, was to come up with something that looked futuristic, interesting, and just pushing the envelope here and there a bit. That was always the goal. And it's such a hard line, because for me personally, one of the things I really want to be able to do or have other people do, is when they look back on this that it still resonates, it still looks good in the future. It's like when you watch Blade Runner, the original one, I still believe it because of the way that the costumes are so great in it. You can accept it as the future. There's different versions of that, as well, out there. You know, there's different versions of, you know, I think Fifth Element does a similar thing, but in a very different way. And Prometheus. There's so many different versions of the future now, out there, that we're competing with. And some do it really well, and really interestingly, and some do it safe and on the more subtle side. So I look at them all and I'm always really fascinated. For me, the biggest thing is that when you look back on it in 20 years, does it still speak to that time? Or does it feel dated? And that's sort of what I'm hoping: That it still resonates and it looks to the future.prevnext
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The first season of Star Trek: Discovery is available to stream in its entirety on CBS All Access in the United States, through CraveTV in Canada, and through Netflix in other international markets. The first season is also now available on Blu-ray and DVD and via digital storefronts
New Star Trek: Discovery Season Two episodes become available to stream Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS All Access.prev