At St. Catherine University’s commencement last month, the speaker finally had the opportunity to walk across the stage and pretend to receive her diploma.
“This Is Us” costume designer Hala Bahmet, a St. Kate’s grad who worked for Prince on 1990’s “Graffiti Bridge” while still a student, doesn’t recall what she was doing the day her class graduated. She only remembers being out of town, already putting to work her studio arts and textile degree.
“I did graduate; I just didn’t get to walk. I actually received my diploma in the mail,” she said.
Underneath her academic gown, Bahmet wore an elegant, exquisitely made pinstripe suit. One of Bahmet’s Hollywood connections gave her a deal on the ensemble, now the most expensive garment in her closet. The Emmy nominee for her work on “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” plans to wear it often.
After the ceremony, Bahmet received a tour of the much improved St. Kate’s Apparel, Merchandising and Design Department from Prof. Anupama Pasricha.
Q: Did you hit up any “This Is Us” actor for advice on giving a commencement address?
A: One of the first people I told is Sterling K. Brown, the honorable, multi-award-winning actor [who has performed at the Guthrie]. St. Kate’s [contacted me] and then I told my mother, my daughter, my husband and my sister [Wanda Bahmet, Sophia Odegaard, Matt Odegaard and Natalie Bahmet]. I went to work; I just took him aside. He was so ecstatic. I had seen his Stanford commencement speech, and it was super-inspiring to me. It was wonderful to see him in that different environment. I told him, “I’m just going to watch your speech for some pointers.” [Laughter]
Q: What nugget did you share with the young women of which you are especially proud?
A: That’s a tough one. As as visual artist, I’m not a writer; I don’t write speeches. I have rarely written anything I need to recite publicly. It’s about hitting the right notes. In my speech, I feel like I hit on some of my most important issues right now. The issue of justice, and it was unexpected for me to hear the students talking about justice — social justice and equality.
My closing was the stuff that’s most important to me and everything that falls into that category, talking about my mother and the sexism she experienced [as a chemist] and some of my own experiences: Science is real. Black lives matter. Women’s rights are human rights. Love is love. Kindness is everything. No human is illegal.
Q: Were you nervous?
A: Once I heard the student speakers, who I felt spoke so eloquently and powerfully, that brought tears to my eyes. I wasn’t nervous about the speaking, I was nervous I might start crying because their speeches were so moving. Looking at all the graduates and feeling for them and knowing there is so much ahead of them, it was very emotional.
Q: Were any of the tears for not being able to wipe away all the grads’ loan debt?
A: You know, I wish I would do that. I wish I could wipe away my daughter’s college debt. [Laughter.] That was a wonderful thing [billionaire tech investor Robert F. Smith did by paying off the student loans for 2019 Morehouse College grads].
Q: What is the item in your house that gives away what you do for a living?
A: A room with glass doors that has five or six garment racks filled with wardrobe. I have sheets covering it partly, but it’s hoop skirts and medieval dresses and men’s poet shirts and crazy, wacky costume stuff. I also have bolts of fabric in there and a mannequin with a purple 1880s dress I designed on it, with the bustle and full pleated effect and the corset.
That used to be our piano room, but as my career took off and I needed to have more space for storage, we moved the piano into the family room and we call it the racks room now. I think it drives my husband crazy.
Q: What items do you have too many of in your closet?
A: I have many, many white shirts. I don’t know if I have too many because I think that maybe you can’t have enough crisp white shirts. That has become my de facto uniform for work just because it’s so easy. A crisp white shirt and jeans. That is my uniform.