Matthew Hemesath

Emmy-nominated Kohawk is successful costume designer

Before Matthew Hemesath ’01 stitched his way to the Big Apple to work with celebrities like Halle Berry, Viola Davis and Keanu Reeves as a costume designer, he sewed his first dress for the CoeAlliance drag show at Coe College.

Matthew Hemesath

Growing up in Calmar, Iowa, Matthew acted in every high school production. He planned to study theatre arts at Coe to pursue a career in acting, and a work-study position in the costume shop proved to be life-changing. At the time, he didn’t know how to sew or that costume designing was an art and field of study. This prompted Matthew to declare an art minor to take full advantage of art history and studio art classes in preparation for graduate school. Afterall, nearly 100% of Coe graduates are employed or in graduate school within one year of graduation.

“I decided to focus on theater right away. I realized I only had so much time in college,” he said. “Coe helped me see costume design as wearable art. The small classes and lots of time with professors were great. [Professor of Theatre Arts] Susan Wolverton even created an independent study for me because I’d already taken every costume design class available. It was treated as a profession, and it helped me see it could be a career possibility and not just a hobby. It was super valuable.”

A staple of a Coe education, real-life experience, solidified his career direction if there was any doubt left.

“The single most important and impactful experience was the New York Term my junior year. I can’t overstate what that experience did for me. I learned this is where I wanted to be,” he added.

Loyal Kohawks like Holly Hynes ’78 across the country and around the world have opened doors for countless Kohawks. Holly was the head of costumes at the New York City Ballet when Matthew got her phone number before leaving for New York. He landed a three-month internship position at the New York City Ballet working with professional dancers and designers and running errands in the famed Garment District neighborhood in Manhattan. These valuable alumni relationships are recognized by The Princeton Review which ranks Coe 20th in the nation for Best Alumni Network among private colleges and universities. 

“I still know and work with the people I met during my New York Term internship. The person I shadowed at the New York City Ballet actually hired me as her assistant after graduate school, so as soon as I graduated I moved to New York permanently with a job secured,” Matthew said.

After Coe, Matthew earned his MFA in costume design from Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama in 2004.

He worked in theater before landing his first job in television for the “Today” show. And at 28 years old, Matthew later joined “Saturday Night Live.” With four days to plan an episode’s entire wardrobe and only three minutes to do costume and makeup changes during the show, Matthew’s experience in theater proved to be a strength. 

“Because it is live, there is no room for error. I learned to work with celebrities. I had to keep my cool when they came in for their fittings or if I was helping them with a wardrobe change. I was nervous and starstruck, but I reminded myself they are just people who need help doing their job,” Matthew laughed.

After eight years of weekend and night shifts at “Saturday Night Live,” Matthew joined the crew of daytime soap opera “One Life to Live” shortly before it was canceled and moved on to work on popular shows like “Dr. Death,” “Boomerang,” “America’s Got Talent” and “Mozart in the Jungle.”

His first job in film has been showcased on billboards around the world. The iconic sleek black suit Keanu wears in the “John Wick” blockbuster franchise was co-created by Matthew. 

“As the costume designer, I create or approve the wardrobe for everyone that appears on camera. It’s a collaboration among many people. I oversee a team of talented people to help me realize my ideas and their ideas. We research, sketch, shop and choose clothes that fit the character and body of each cast member. And I have another crew on set that takes care of actors. They help the cast get dressed and make sure they look the same in each scene,” Matthew said. 

Depending on the size of the project, his crew ranges from a dozen people to about 40. And while traveling around the globe to work on sets in locations like Japan, Mexico and Morocco have been a highlight of Matthew’s career, it isn’t close to the thrill of learning he was nominated for a Daytime Costume Design Emmy in 2017 for his work on “Sesame Street.”

“My jaw hit the floor. I was shocked and couldn’t be happier. I felt super proud to work with a talented group of people and my brother. My brother is also a costume designer, and we co-costume designed on the show. Our whole crew was nominated for the Emmy,” he said.

Matthew found the journal he kept during his senior year at Coe. As he works on the new television series “Girls5Eva” on Peacock with actress, writer and producer Tina Fey, he’s been reflecting on his college days.

Coe made it possible for Matthew to be an A-lister himself in the costume design world. He’s a rising star in Hollywood that can always count on his mentors.

“I could never have imagined leaving Coe. I’m very lucky to be where I am and to have so many wonderful people in my life,” he said.

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