Nina Escobedo credits her grandmother for sparking the childhood interests that ultimately led to her becoming a professional costumer working in Chicago.
“My grandmother taught me to sew at the age of four,” recalled Escobedo. “It started with buttons and embroidery. Once I had legs long enough to reach a sewing machine pedal, she taught me how to make pillowcases and aprons.”
That early tutelage inspired a deep passion for wardrobe and costumes in Escobedo. After two years as wardrobe supervisor for Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated that she pivot. So Escobedo, who lives on Chicago’s North Side, is now taking part in the City’s Chicago Made workforce development initiative linking residents with film and television productions shooting in the city.
Escobedo received on-the-job training from Local 769 costumers Jennifer Jobst and Angela Verdino as they prepared for an upcoming Netflix feature film to be filmed at Cinespace Chicago Film Studios.
“I’m kind of here to ‘shadow’ as they put the production together, and I can assist as long as I am supervised,” explained Escobedo, adding that she also took Zoom classes for several days that explained the jargon and procedures used by a major production.
“On the job, in film, there is not a lot of time to explain stuff,” she added. “For example, one of the lingo things is, ‘NDB’—non-deductible breakfast—and I had no idea what that meant. Everyone was asking, ‘Nina, did you get your NDB?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know.’”
A Minnesota native, Escobedo moved to Chicago in order to attend the Douglas J. Aveda Institute in Lincoln Park to study cosmetology. She then took what she said was “a left turn” to work in a salon.
“I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she recalled, and ultimately heard about an opening for the wardrobe supervisor at Lookingglass, where she worked from 2018-2020. The pandemic led to the demise of her job, and Escobedo found herself out of work for the first time.
“It was heartbreaking and hard to navigate at first,” Escobedo said.
Her unemployment was short-lived. A former colleague informed her of an opening in the wardrobe department of the upcoming Apple TV+ thriller series Shining Girls, which debuts in April and stars Elisabeth Moss and Wagner Moura.
“They said, ‘We need someone to start tomorrow, so can you go COVID-test right now?’ I had been sitting on the couch eating junk food, and ran out the door to get tested with my sweatpants on,” Escobedo said.
As her work on Shining Girls was wrapping, she learned of the Chicago Made program. She was unsure of whether to apply, particularly since there was only one opening for wardrobe personnel. But she set her mind on landing the spot: “The pandemic made me think, ‘I’m going to take advantage of every opportunity I can—why not? What do I have to lose?’”
Escobedo values Jobst and Verdino sharing their time and experience. Chicago Made has offered “the training that I wished I had going [into my previous television work],” she said.
“I am so happy to be with them—they’re so patient and they’re so knowledgeable. They are on the job, but they spend time with me and explain all these things.”
Escobedo loves learning the differences between the comparatively drawn-out pace of costuming for the theater and the rapid timing required to do so for television. At the core of both environments though is problem-solving, the aspect of her duties she appreciates the most.
“I love this job because of the community,” she added. “I’ve never been in this job because of the money—it’s my passion. It is the fire in my belly.”
Launched in late 2021— with a second round of applications opening this summer— the Chicago Made workforce development program offers job training and placement to Chicago residents ages 24-50, primarily from underserved areas, to help meet the industry’s increasing demand for skilled workers. The program is an initiative by the Chicago Film Office at the Department of Current Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) and the XD-TECH consultancy.
NBC Universal, Netflix, The Walt Disney Company, and Warner Media provide on-set training for the program. A number of local firms and organizations, as well as unions IATSE Local 476 and Local 600, have provided support as well.
A record 15 productions filmed in Chicago in summer 2021, bringing with them nearly $700 million in economic impact. The Chicago Made program links projects such as those with workers from across the city.
This series, from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), asks Chicagoans in the film industry to share their experiences. Learn more at ChicagoMade.us and join the conversation on social media using #ChicagoMade.