"‘American Hustle’ is in the house!"

Deborah Nadoolman Landis happily announced this bit of good news with a laugh. The timing couldn’t have been better for the veteran costume designer, professor and director of the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT).

The most recent incarnation of “Hollywood Costume,” an immersive multimedia exhibition that she spent five years creating, was about to open at the Phoenix Art Museum on March 26, following the show’s blockbuster sold-out run at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London, where 268,000 visitors snapped up tickets as soon as they went on sale, and world tour stops in Melbourne, Australia, and Richmond, Va.

And while the Phoenix show would be a bit smaller than the London show, with 103 iconic film costumes on display instead of 130, Landis had managed to get hold of two costumes from the much-lauded film “American Hustle” — the sexy white dress worn by Jennifer Lawrence and designed by Academy Award-nominated Michael Wilkinson as well as the retro tuxedo worn by Christian Bale.

Like the London show that opened in October 2012 and became the most successful show in the museum’s history during its 14-week run, the Phoenix exhibition illuminates the costume designer’s creative process as well as celebrates and explores costume design as a key component of cinema storytelling. It’s also a rare opportunity for the public to see the clothes worn by unforgettable characters from such films as “The Wizard of Oz,” “My Fair Lady,” “Superman,” “Titanic,” “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” among others.

From its inception, “Hollywood Costume” was a true labor of love for Landis, a scholar, historian and practitioner of costume design and an ardent supporter of her fellow artists. The Academy Award-nominated Ph.D. is passionate in her ongoing quest to see the art of costume design universally recognized as an integral component of the storytelling process.

What better way to spread that word than through a rich multimedia exhibition?

That’s what she thought in 2006. At the time, Landis had already created the Costume Designers Guild Awards, written two books about her favorite subject and curated her first exhibition for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in 2004.

“I thought to myself, how can we keep the conversation going?” recalled Landis, who views her life’s work as a continuing campaign to educate and build awareness.  

The creation of “Hollywood Costume” came out of Landis’ desire to reach a larger audience after TV networks rebuffed her concept for a series on costume designers, modeled after the A&E series, “Biography.” She presented her vision for a grand-scale museum exhibition to Sir Christopher Frayling for his advice. The director of London’s Royal College of Art and a trustee at the V&A, Frayling was Landis’ advisor when she was pursuing her doctorate at the Royal College of Art.

He encouraged her to approach the V&A, which she did … only to have the proposal rejected.

A year went by until one afternoon in 2007 when the phone rang. Frayling was calling Landis, then president of the Costume Designers Guild, with some great news: The V&A wanted to make “Hollywood Costume” its lead exhibition in 2012. Unbeknown to Landis, the museum had conducted a survey, and “Hollywood Costume” had been the public’s overwhelming top choice for a future show.

Given the green light, Landis started asking family and friends to name their favorite movies — not favorite costumes.

It was imperative to have every genre and a broad spectrum of films represented in the show. “I really wasn't interested in getting a multitude of people telling me that their favorite costume was Audrey Hepburn’s in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’” she said. Costume design is a key element in every production, including modern films. “Actors will always be in the center of the frame, and their clothes are there with them.”

From her preliminary research, a list of favorites quickly emerged: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With the Wind,”  “Shakespeare in Love,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Searchers” and “Casablanca.”

Next came the tricky part — finding the costumes.

“It’s too expensive for studios to keep costumes that aren’t going to be used again,” Landis explained, “and when you’re making a movie, you don’t know if you’re making a classic. So how do you know what to keep? You can’t keep them all. Clothes have to work for their room and board.”

So Landis turned to Debbie Reynolds. The veteran actress had amassed an enormous costume collection, with the dream of one day creating a museum. Reynolds gave Landis carte blanche to choose what she wanted for “Hollywood Costume.” But in 2011, things fell apart when Reynolds was hit with a $6 million lien against the collection, and she was forced to auction off the costumes.

“Debbie’s clothes went to Korea, the Emirates and everywhere in the world,” Landis said. Undaunted, she began chasing down the costumes with mixed success. To replace the ones she couldn’t track down, the veteran costume designer scoured international film archives, museums, studios and private collections.

There were moments of serendipity. During a London press day prior to the opening of the 2012 show, Landis commented that she’d love to incorporate the white disco suit, designed by Patricia Von Brandenstein, that John Travolta wore in “Saturday Night Fever.”

Less than a week later, a call came in, asking if Landis was interested in having the suit included in the exhibition. The suit now belonged to a Saudi businessman based in London. When Landis’ assistant walked into his office, there was the famous suit, on a mannequin positioned in Travolta’s classic disco pose. Even better, the jacket was signed on the inside by the actor to the man who bought the suit at a charity auction after Travolta made it famous, the late film critic Gene Siskel.

More than just a static display of famous costumes, Landis always intended for “Hollywood Costume” to be a richly layered cinematic experience. Films are emotional, she said. “It’s just too disappointing to see a costume of a character you’ve loved from a movie you love [hanging limply] on a mannequin.”  

Envisioning the show as a Disneyland ride — “If I could have put our visitors in boats, I would have,” Landis joked — she enlisted the help of friends at the Walt Disney Co. Bruce Vaughn, a member of the UCLA TFT executive board and Disney Imagineering co-executive leader, sent a creative executive to London to walk the V&A galleries with Landis. Later, back at Burbank, imagineers, sketch artists and screenwriters, joined by Copley Center assistant Natasha Rubin, churned through ideas during an eight-hour brainstorming session that eventually yielded inspiration for the show’s design.

The resulting exhibition incorporates labels with first-person quotes, moving images, montages, animation, videotaped interviews and a commissioned symphonic score to create a narrative journey for the visitor.

Adding to the uniqueness of the exhibition are filmed commentary from interviews that Landis conducted with such legends as Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, Tim Burton and Meryl Streep.

“They’re the ones who talk about the costume designers’ contribution to the creation of real people,” Landis said. “They’re the ones who talk about their partnerships, the intimacy of their work with costume designers, how the costume designer is inspired from a written page of the script and then breathes life into a character that helps give that person a heart and a soul.”

Ultimately, Landis said, the “Hollywood Costume” experience is “not about the clothes. It’s about the conversation; it’s about the screenplay and then finally, it’s about how we feel when we are watching a movie — and the ride that we take with the filmmaker.”

The exhibition will be at the Phoenix Art Museum through July 6. This story was adapted from one posted on the TFT website.