Tamlyn Tomita as Yukari in "Avatar The Last Airbender" in a fighting stance, with costumed people in the background.

Meet the costume designer behind the fantastical live-action ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh blends wardrobe and supernatural-bending worlds together in what she calls her magnum opus

Tamlyn Tomita (center) as Yukari in "Avatar The Last Airbender."

Courtesy of Netflix

Words by Malik Peay

Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh is a builder of worlds as much as she submerges herself in the woven fabrics that contrive some of television’s most quirky characters and unusual universes. Known for her past costume design work in Prime Video’s Upload (2020), Khaki-Sadigh can make detached, dystopian realities appear real.

Most recently, the Vancouver-based costume designer built the lushly decorated universe of Netflix’s live-action take on Avatar: The Last Airbender, diving deep into 19th Century lore across Asian history to reference the four different elemental tribes' wardrobe. Seen mostly in the water tribe protagonists Sokka (Ian Ousley) and Katara (Kiawentiio Tarbell), their multi-shade blue protective attire was crafted to appear authentic and feel functional. Each Avatar performer has their fair share of scenes that include choreographed wire-work and martial art action stunt sequences. Before filming in 2021, the cast participated in a week-long “bending camp” where they trained and strictly reviewed their character’s bending movements and scene choreography in Vancouver, Canada.

“I really wanted to be a warrior and tough kid like Sokka when I was a little guy,” says Ian Ousley about playing Sokka over Zoom. “He masks his vulnerabilities with humor and he tries to protect the people around him.” This courageous and comical character is often draped in protective teal-strapped clothing equipped with a wide warrior waist belt, boomerang, and Indigenous designs—he can’t bend, unlike novice water-bender Katara.

“When I was growing up watching Avatar, what stuck out to me was to be able to see myself in a character on TV and especially as a little Native girl, you know, that representation wasn’t as prevalent. [Katara] is like kicking ass and she is the coolest person,” Kiawentiio Tarbell recalls to me, beaming from Netflix’s Los Angeles headquarters.

The new Avatar iteration accentuates Asian culture not only through onscreen characters, casting, and cuisine but also through the garb that the principal cast and background extras wear. Khaki-Sadigh gave these characters life, even though the characters are set in a fantasy world that defies physics, the interwoven fabric of Asian American identity lives within the seams in every scene. Here, she discusses her costume design mastery work and how being a fan of the show helped her approach design with care and a critical eye.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Kiawentiio as Katara in "Avatar The Last Airbender," with a stream of water floating in front of her.

Kiawentiio as Katara in "Avatar The Last Airbender."

Courtesy of Netflix

Malik Peay: As a costume designer, you really are the first line of defense of making these characters feel real and familiar to the Avatar: The Last Airbender franchise that has existed in other iterations before now. What felt like the biggest challenge when creating a wardrobe for all Four Elements?
Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh: When it came to designing for the live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender and creating the looks for the four nations represented by the elements, the biggest challenge was blending the cultural and historical accuracy while staying true to the original animation. The animation pulled so much inspiration from so many different cultures, and I really wanted to represent and showcase the cultural authenticity and historical accuracy of the real nations, cultures and regions that were the inspirations behind the Four Elements. It was important to me to make sure that i blended the two worlds, the real and the animation, in a way that honored both and stayed true to the fanbase. As a costume designer, our job is to be able to help tell the a story by helping visually build the characters and bring their world and personalities to life. It is important to help create a world that the viewers can fully immerse in and relate to. In this case it was really about making sure that everything was still relatable to the fans and did justice to the original show and still was respectful culturally and historically accurate.

MP: I felt the Indigenous influences in the water tribe’s costumes and throughout the other tribes. What was your research process like for this series?
FKS: The original animation takes inspiration from many different cultures during mid- to late 19th Century. I had to not only educate myself about the specific cultures that are referenced by the original lore but also the history of those cultures and the influences their history had on what, how, and why people wore what they wore in those time periods. I spent a lot of time doing research for this project before I started on the show and continuously trying to learn as we worked through the project. I was reading books, articles, watching documentaries and reading historical papers and basically any medium I could use to learn from. I was also very fortunate to speak with some Inuit elders and learn from them first-hand about their culture and history. As well as getting to work with many incredible Inuit artists that contributed to creating some of the trims, accessories, headdresses that were used in both the southern and northern water tribe. This was an incredible collaboration and an amazing learning experience for me.

Members of the water tribe in "Avatar The Last Airbender" in an icy and snowy environment.

Members of the water tribe in "Avatar The Last Airbender."

Courtesy of Netflix

MP: When it comes to creating a fantasy world for the audience to believe through costuming, what is your main goal in terms of enforcing believability through wardrobe?
FKS: I feel the more the character and the costume and the surrounding world blend in together, the more relatable and believable it is, especially in a fantasy world. Costumes are usually the silent storytellers, you want them to be noticed but you don’t want them to stand out and overpower the scene. They need to seamlessly blend in with the character and the background, to create authenticity to the world and the story they are a part of. The more organic and authentic they feel to the story the more they enforce the believability of the fantasy world you are trying to portray.

MP: Knowing the cast has to have a lot of room for movement in their costumes, how were you sourcing fabric materials for the performers’ wardrobe that would feel functional and practical?
FKS: This was a very important part of the process for us as there are lots of action sequences in the show, and for the most part the cast has the same look. Not only did we have to look at the comfort, flexibility, weight, and mobility for action sequences, but also making sure that the garments flowed and moved organically with the actions. We tested a lot of fabrics, did a lot of mock ups that we tested with cast and stunt actors to ensure that the costume did not infringe on their performance and actions. Changing some of the designs around to make sure we accommodated for the movement and comfort. There is a lot of trial and error to the process. I believe that when you put a costume on a performer it should be comfortable enough that it becomes a part of them, it should be something they put on and not have to fuss with or feel cumbersome by it. The costumes should feel like a second skin and an extension of that character.

Gordon Cormier as Aang in "Avatar The Last Airbender," in a fighting stance.

Gordon Cormier as Aang in "Avatar The Last Airbender."

Courtesy of Netflix

MP: Do you look for practicality when curating the cast’s costumes or more so rely on movie magic?
FKS: I think you need both. Practicality is important, but so is authenticity and that takes movie magic. You need both and you need to know how to perfectly blend the two as to not take away from the visual appeal and the viewer experience. For me it has never been one for the other to be honest. It is a balancing act and you have to figure out when to use one or the other and when you need both as things go along. 

MP: The fire, air, earth, and water nation costumes are enhanced by the mixed martial arts acts and occasional moments of projectile natural elements. What costume in this series felt like your magnum opus because they all immersed me into the world of Avatar?
FKS: I would have to say the entire show would be my magnum opus. I have been a big fan of the original show, I wanted to work on this project since they announced it, and to have gotten the opportunity to design and create the costumes for the live action and bring the world of Avatar to life is truly a dream come true. This show has been the biggest project, the biggest challenge, and the most gratifying project I have had the honor of designing in my career thus far. I set out wanting to do the show justice, and I am really proud of what me and my team were able to achieve.

Ken Leung as Commander Zhao in "Avatar The Last Airbender," with warriors in samurai-like costumes behind him.

Ken Leung (center) as Commander Zhao in "Avatar The Last Airbender."

MP: Why do you believe the costumes in this series are so integral to each’s character’s background?
FKS: We use clothing to portray many silent messages in daily life. We tell our mood, where we come from, where we are going, and how we feel. We use clothing as a mask to hide our true self, a shield to protect and hide behind or as a badge of honor to show who we are. Just like real life, the costumes on each character tell a bit of their story and their journey, where they come from, where they belong, where they are going, if they are hiding behind a mask or who they truly are and what they may be holding on to. As each character’s journey progresses and their story arch changes, their costumes tell a bit of that journey. Their costumes are a representation of themselves, their nation and their growth as they move along their story arch.

Published on February 26, 2024

Words by Malik Peay

Malik Peay is a Los Angeles-based, Black freelance journalist who writes about film, music, fashion, travel, culture and food. In addition to JoySauce, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Bon Appétit, Essence, i-D, The Hollywood Reporter, Condé Nast Traveler, and INSIDER, among others.