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Costume Designer Tailors MFA Experience via CMU's Stellar Program

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Pam Wigley
College of Fine Arts

Among the exceptional students who have graced Carnegie Mellon University's costume design program, Zhang Yu stands out.

When Yu arrived at CMU's School of Drama(opens in new window), the award-winning designer brought a decade of work with him, along with a bachelor's degree in fashion design and engineering from Shanghai University of Engineering Science and a master of fine arts degree and Ph.D. in theater and Chinese traditional opera from Shanghai Theatre Academy.

"Costume Design is not only my career but also the way for me to understand the world and to communicate with it," Yu said. "After working as a costume designer for years, the desire to learn about different cultures and how people understand and create theater in other places became stronger and stronger to me."

Recognized as one of the world's best costume design programs(opens in new window), CMU allowed Yu to customize his experience to meet his particular interests. For example, the kinetic fabrics class, which combines design, craftwork and mechanical engineering, pushed his boundaries and enriched his skillset.

At CMU, Yu designed the costumes for productions within the School of Drama as well as the School of Music(opens in new window). In 2020, amid the pandemic, he designed the opera "Batrice et Bénédict."

"I am very proud of this work as it was produced during the worst time of the pandemic, when all the classes suddenly became remote, and all theaters were closed," he said. "Even in such a hard and stressful time, we still successfully produced this show by shifting its on-stage mode to a digital format."

Yu said costumes were mailed to actors, and all the fittings were done online.

"I am very grateful that my professors and our studio manager gave me the greatest support and led me to overcome all the difficulties. It was definitely one of the most memorable projects I have ever done," he said.

At CMU, Zhang Yu designed the costumes for the opera "Batrice et Bénédict" during the pandemic. Costumes were mailed to the actors and all fittings were done online.


Zhang Yu


Yu designed costumes for "Tempatation of Monks," which was part of a Dance/Light performance at CMU in 2020.

Yu's journey at CMU was guided by professor and mentor Susan Tsu(opens in new window), the Bessie F. Anathan University Professor of Design.

"It is a blessing for me to have Professor Susan Tsu as the academic advisor for my time at CMU," he said. "She has such a free mind and sharp eyes, and always provides the most valuable insights and accurate advice on my work. She is also caring and supportive, willing to listen to students' voices and offer them help. I have greatly benefited from her extraordinary professionalism and noble personality."

And the admiration is mutual.

"An inventor/anthropologist/activist as much as designer, Zhang Yu is a truly singular artist who is ever curious, investigative and inspiring," Tsu said. "He is an uncommon, fascinating graduate costume designer possessing prodigious talent."

Yu also worked closely with the School of Drama's costume studio manager, Tiia Torchia Lager(opens in new window).

"She is the unseen hero in our program who always takes the biggest responsibility and hardship but leaves all the shine to the students," he said. "The great combination of strong leadership, diligence and kindness makes her a respectable role model for all the students of what a wonderful theater professional is like."

During his time at CMU, Yu was awarded prizes in costume design from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival and the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

His final CMU project was designing costumes for the School of Drama's spring musical, "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812."

After graduation, Yu plans to continue designing professionally.

"I am determined to have a career as a costume designer on both stage and screen," he said. "The education I have had here has given me the knowledge and ability to pursue this dream. And I feel ready for it now!"

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