“Let me tell you, I was an excellent receptionist,” says Toni-Leslie James, breaking out into a warm, relaxed laugh. “I never lost sight of wanting to be a costume designer, but I was an excellent temp, an excellent office manager. I worked my way up—I always believed you can learn something from wherever you are.”
Where James is now: an award-winning costume designer, with upcoming work on Broadway and Off-Broadway (running now, the Public Theater’s revival of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf), as well as the newest faculty member at Yale School of Drama, serving as Yale Repertory Theatre’s resident costume designer and assistant professor adjunct of design. It’s a far cry from where she was: a kid from the small town of Clarendon, Pa., whose loving mother encouraged her to pursue a bigger life following her graduation from Ohio State University in 1979.
James’s early career, which included stints as an Off-Broadway usher and wardrobe supervisor for Dance Theatre of Harlem, wasn’t enough to support her financially. That’s where her desk job at a commercial interior design firm came in. There she learned the intricacies of contracts, budgeting, and business practices. When she left office management to become the wardrobe supervisor at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, she brought her practical skill set with her.
Indeed, much to the surprise of her supervisor, who had seemed fine with a haphazard schedule of repairs and maintenance, James immediately produced a full costume stock inventory and detailed budget proposal within her first weeks on the job. Her largest project for the Ailey company, a revival of The Magic of Katherine Dunham, was constructed inside the one-bedroom apartment of James’s best friend in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, with James and her friends stitching together well into the night for a self-budgeted salary of $500 per week.
This pragmatic approach—part business savvy, part artistic vision, and large part hustle and good humor—has served James throughout her decades-long career. It is not enough to understand how clothing moves on the body and how to convey character with costume, though James does both with ease and skill. You also have to understand how to manage a budget, how to see the scope of the project from both the artistic and financial perspective. She tells as much to her students, whom she credits with reinvigorating her process when she first began teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University 13 years ago.
“Teaching has absolutely made me a better designer in every aspect. But the thing is, I knew how to design—I didn’t know how to teach! I’m sitting there wondering, ‘What is it that I bring to the table?’ What I bring to the table is that I understand design as well as business. I understand my process now in a completely different way, once I started to teach it.”
Her students keep her young, she says, as she balances new jobs, Broadway productions, and regional work, necessitating that the occasional class be held via Google Hangouts. And even this far into a well-established career, there’s always room for surprises.
“Mystery novels,” she laughs, when asked what might be next for her. “I always thought, if I wasn’t doing this, I think I’d be great at writing mystery novels. There’s still time to figure that out.”