Fin Lee: The Creative Force Behind Lady Gaga’s Grammy Performance Costumes

by Sabrina Smelko

onstage during The 58th GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on February 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.
If you were one of the nearly 25 million people who tuned into the Grammy Awards this past Monday, then you probably caught a glimpse of Lady Gaga’s David Bowie tribute performance — and while it was a special moment shared by many, it was extra-exhilirating for illustrator and artist Fin Lee (who operates under the pseudonym LOSTBOY ILLUSTRATIONS).

A few months ago, we shared a Life & Business feature on Fin, and since then, they’ve been involved in one of the most important and exciting projects of their career: that of designing and illustrating the outfits worn by Lady Gaga’s backup dancers during the performance.

In the span of one week leading up to the Grammys, Fin created nearly 100 pins and hand-illustrated each of 14 garments, all featuring unique, free-flowing, cosmic line-work from head to toe, inspired by Bowie himself. The creative process for Fin was thrilling, but almost more exciting was getting to share the visceral experience of watching the costumes come to life, on-screen, in the presence of family and from the comfort of home.

Today, in celebration of the costume work, Fin is joining us again to share more about the project that’s been kept secret until now; from what it was like working with Gaga and her team, to the logistics of the project, to how Bowie influenced (and continues to influence) Fin’s work. –Sabrina

Photo by Jeff Kravitz from Getty Images

How did you end up collaborating with Lady Gaga (on designing the outfits for the dancers in her Grammy tribute Bowie performance)? Walk us through that story.

I was unexpectedly approached by a college friend who currently works with Lady Gaga’s stylists to submit my work for consideration. I gathered up some portfolio pieces and within the hour was told I was a good fit. It was a surreal experience to get validation so quickly. I also was told that it was still a secret that Lady Gaga would be doing a tribute performance to David Bowie. I had just made a portrait of him a week prior to getting this gig, so it felt all too cosmic.


What was the inspiration behind the apparel?

After getting confirmation, I was sent some photos as references of what they were looking for: simple, abstract, and clean line-work on fabric. I started to doodle and compile some images and shapes I thought [of] when thinking about David Bowie. I was instantly drawn towards his love for Egon Schiele. His hero was also my hero. When he would get his portraits taken, there was such [attention] to detail towards his hands and posture. Just like Egon Schiele, he contorted his hand in beautiful positions to make more of a stunning statement. So I literally Googled Bowie’s hands and started compiling his hand gestures as an element of the costume. Then, from there, I looked at some of his album covers which had similar line-work and shapes of my own designs.

The research and “doodles” was such a free-form exercise and I enjoyed every minute of it. I also blasted his hits on my computer as I drafted some ideas.


It appears that you physically drew on the garments themselves. How did you execute the finals? Was that the intention all along?

Yes! Each garment of the dancers’ was hand-drawn. I had to find the right fabric marker for the fabric, but once I did, it felt right. I used a marker with a felt tip so it got that contrast within the line. My initial concept for the suits was a bit more sparse and spread-out. The details and added elements came about after some rehearsals. It was a very flux process. I got feedback within the week after executing the designs. I also pitched my concept of shrinky dink pins when they were looking for more pins to add to the costumes. I then was commissioned to make close to 100 of them that ranged from: eyes, thunderbolts, hands, and textural designs I usually like to doodle.


Did you know what Gaga was going to wear? How much insight were you given to other aspects of the performance?

I didn’t know what Gaga was going to wear until the night before. I was given a quick shot of the detail work of Marc Jacobs’ custom suit to give me more inspiration and direction. As far as the aspects of the performance, I did know that Intel was going to be involved and heard details of the show, ie: Intel’s face projection. But in general, I wasn’t told much about the actual performance due to NDA reasons.

How involved was Lady Gaga in the process?

To be honest, I’m sure she had way more involvement than I was told. I briefed mostly with an assistant who relayed all the information/pictures/progress meetings.


Were you given specific instructions and a brief, or were you trusted to run with your own vision?

Before the garments were even made, I was given a lot of freedom to form ideas. I knew that they wanted to have a boiler suit, but the design of it (and color) was a progress. So even getting the garments into my hands was a process and took some time. It gave me more room to let go of the piece and have them bring it back with feedback. I absolutely felt like they trusted my skills and abilities to make this happen. I think that if I was given more specific instructions I would have felt boxed-in and my work wouldn’t have been able to grow within the time I had with the garments. 

Did the element of dance and movement affect how you approached the illustrations?

Absolutely. I knew that the dancers weren’t going to be stagnant, ’cause let’s be real… Bowie tribute and Lady Gaga? There was absolutely going to be movement. I think my line-work and textures inherently were a good fit for this project. I made a lot of movement with lines that felt like a time lapse. Seeing one element go to the next on the garment was thrilling to see. I also made it a point to draw the hands first and then go from there. The hands felt super central to me, especially knowing Bowie’s history with really emphasizing his hand postures. I had no idea, though, about the choreography. I couldn’t have dreamed how much life these artists brought [to] the garment. I simply drew on top of a garment. They elevated it, especially with the makeup done by their crew. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it turned out in movement.


What was the best aspect of working on this project with Gaga?

I think the best aspect of this project was just to be a part of a tribute that celebrated an artist who thrived in his gender flexibility, gorgeous costume choices, and quite simply, his absolute cosmic weirdness. I see his spirit in a lot of my queer community, especially among many performance artists I adore. It was an absolute honor to be able to contribute to this aspect of his life.

  David Portrait

Did you cater your approach to this project versus any other project? Did you adapt or suspend any of your routine business processes?

As I previously stated, I really started off this process the way I normally do other projects: I just doodled. Free-form thinking and drawing is a great exercise for any type of project (mainstream or personal) to loosen your hands and mind. I think a lot of cool ideas come out when there’s less pressure to draw. As far as my own routine, I was not able to go through my days as I normally would have (since I was more of an “on-call” artist, that I’ll be talking about in a later question). I did, however, continue some of my daily practices which include: loads of coffee and Netflix/music in the background.

What was the budget and turnaround time on this project?

Since this was a commission, I was given a rate per suit and a rate per pin. Any supplies I bought I [was] reimbursed [for]. So thankfully, I didn’t have to personally worry too much about the budget since I was given a set rate for my work.

The turnaround time for this project was quite short. Because there are so many various aspects to actually approving a design of the garment itself, I was essentially an “on-call” artist. I waited for the random phone calls to either pick up garments or finding out it would be dropped at my house. Every day felt different from the last, so this experience was unlike any other commission I’ve ever done. Usually, I work on a piece and [I am] given a deadline far in advance. This was super fluid in schedule and I just made sure I was ready all week. So with so much back and forth with the garments… the last night/morning of the Grammys, I ended up refilling and reworking the garments as well as creating four new garments. I had an all-nighter, thanks to my pack of Red Bulls and Project Runway Juniors [playing] in the background.

All in all, I was able to produce almost 100 custom-made shrinky dink pins, and drew on 14 suits in a span of a week.

Did you get to attend the Grammys? How did it feel watching it come together?

I did not attend the Grammys, but I did watch it on TV with my family. It was such a beautiful experience to have. My family has supported my art career since day one. It’s super challenging for an immigrant family to accept their child as not only an artist, but as a queer artist. It’s taken some time, but I truly feel that I’ve really worked hard and they see now that my work can grow into more creative and mainstream projects.

What’s next for you? Is apparel illustration / fashion something you’re going to pursue further?

Honestly, I didn’t even think this was [somewhere] my work could have taken me. It’s given me a new outlook on my own creative practices and the potential of size/growth. I would love to work with more designers: whether it be on the clothing/shoes/apparel or even a more conceptual collaboration (ie: murals, rooms, etc). I absolutely fell in the love with this process and now it’s a bit hard to see my own only on paper.

Did anything happen as a result of the project that caught you by surprise?

I was beyond thrilled to see that a shot of Lady Gaga and a dancer in my suit appear in the Los Angeles Times printed newspaper the day after the Grammys. I have been such a big fan of LA Times and one of my goals as a freelance artist is to work with them to get an illustration gig… so ironically enough I got that opportunity, but in a different form.

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