FASHION INTERVIEW: British costume designer, Sandy Powell speaks on her “Journey”

Sandy Powell’s sketches for the film Cinderella.

Sandy Powell, OBE, is a British costume designer who was born on April 7, 1960. During the course of her three-decade career, she has won multiple awards, including two Costume Designers Guild Awards, three Academy Awards, and three BAFTA Awards.

Powell became well-known throughout the world in the 1980s thanks to her work with director Derek Jarman. She designed costumes for both indie and studio releases, but she gained recognition for her extensive work on historical dramas. In addition to her fifteen nominations, she has won three Oscars for Best Costume Design: Shakespeare in Love (1998), The Aviator (2004), and The Young Victoria (2009).

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During an interview with The TALKS, Sandy Powell  speaks on her journey and where she sees herself.

Ms. Powell, your work in costume design is so legendary that apparently actors will simply say, “If Sandy Powell says to wear that, I just wear that.”

(Laughs) Well, that’s very nice, but it’s not strictly true! I have been around a long time, I do have years of experience, so on the one hand, it’s funny, but on the other hand, I hope it doesn’t make me sound like I’m intimidating or terrifying. I believe it was Bill Nighy who said that recently, and I think it was with a twinkle in his eye, especially because he does have a very strong opinion on the costumes.

Are there still days where you doubt yourself, despite three Oscar wins, and years of experience working with directors like Martin Scorsese, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Kenneth Branagh?

Of course, of course, I mean, usually this sort of doubt comes at the very beginning, when you first take a job. The most exciting bit about a job is getting it, if it’s something that you want to do, but then every time you start at the very beginning, and it’s almost like you’ve got a blank page in front of you, and you think, “Oh, my God, what if I don’t have any ideas?” or “What if I don’t have the best ideas?” But then there’s another voice in the back of my head that says, “Don’t worry, it always gets there in the end.” So I’m not crippled by it — put it that way. I just have those worries, and sometimes it even excites me because I think it’s good to be challenged. It’s good to start with a bit of fear.

“If that challenge isn’t there, that’s when you become complacent. Whether you’re a writer, or a painter, or a designer, you should be pushing yourself to achieve more than you think is possible.”

The journalist Ira Glass told us that being nervous just means you want to win.

There are actors who still get stage fright, even though they’ve worked in the theater their entire life. But that’s part of the thrill! If that challenge isn’t there, that’s when you become complacent. I think it’s actually good for everybody, whether you’re a writer, or a painter, or a designer, you should be pushing yourself to achieve more than you think is possible. The good thing is that some things obviously get easier with age and experience, you get more confidence… Now I’m the oldest person on set, which is kind of depressing sometimes. But other times, it’s great because I do have that authority you mentioned earlier. I feel confident about what I know, more than I did when I was 30.

Is it true that when you were first starting out, the filmmaker Derek Jarman advised you to make costumes for music videos for a while until you garnered enough knowledge and experience to step into the film world?

Absolutely! When I met him, I’d only worked in theater. I was only just out of college, and I hadn’t had any experience working with cameras or on film sets so he just said that it would be really good experience to start with music videos, which are essentially three minute films. That was really good advice. I was lucky that he actually directed a lot of the videos I was working on, so we then got to know each other. I was incredibly lucky actually to have such a generous teacher so early on in my career.

And then he offered you your feature film debut with Caravaggio. What do you remember about that time in your life?

Oh, it was incredibly exciting. At the time, working on a Derek Jarman film, that’s what I thought film was like, but in retrospect, it actually wasn’t like any other film at all. He just worked in a quite a different way to a lot of other film directors — it was very free, almost like the kind of experimental theater that I worked in prior to that, whereby everybody was involved. Derek was very much into including everybody in any decision made! We literally had people who were painting the sets, when they finished, they would come and help make costumes. Even the actors were helping to make the costumes. Derek would ask some PA who was sweeping the floor what he thought of the next setup. It was an extraordinary experience, it was incredible. I remember thinking, “This is it, this is where I want to stay.” I knew then that concentrating on film was what I wanted to do.

Do you still get that feeling of awe these days?

Yes, I do, actually. If I didn’t, I don’t think I could do the job. I’m so happy when I’m on set and I’m seeing something that I’ve created and it all comes together for the first time. That’s really very exciting. When the actor comes onto the set wearing something new, or you’ve got an entire scene with everybody looking how you want them to look; when you see the actors on the set with all the other components that complete the look. That’s when you can actually see it as a whole, and… Well, there’s nothing like it. It’s a real thrill. I remember on Gangs of New York, Daniel Day Lewis walking out onto for the battle scene in his long coat, and the big tall hat. The scene is set, and there are hundreds of extras ready for battle; the fight starts and everybody tosses their hats into the air. And it was just like, “Oh my God, this is magical.”

“I just keep looking at images that I like, and I let all of that sink in. And then suddenly, it comes out. One idea feeds the next idea, and it just sort of flows that way…”

What is the research process like for period costumes like we see in Gangs of New York, Shakespeare in Love, or The Favorite?

I really enjoy that process. The research always involves just looking at images: if it’s a period project, looking at the period, or if there are specific reference materials to look up… And then I go much broader, I just open books that I own, even if they might have nothing to do with a subject. I just keep looking at images that I like, and I let all of that sink in. And then suddenly, it comes out. One idea feeds the next idea, and it just sort of flows that way. That’s when it’s very exciting. I really do love doing films like that where it’s stylized and you can just push it, and even break some rules. But having said that, working on something like Living, for instance, was about making it look real and believable. And I enjoyed that challenge as well.

When you worked on the Bowie-inspired film Velvet Goldmine, the costumes apparently came from your own memories of Bowie as a fan, rather than actual research about him during that time period.

Yes! I mean, I did do research of course, but you’re right that it was both. I’d heard that film was being made, and I was just desperate to do it, because that was my early teenage years. That time in your life and what you’re soaking in has a lasting effect on you, you’re like a sponge, when you’re that age. At the time we were seeing things we’d never seen before with glam rock, and then punk, and all of that. It was new stuff and rules being broken. And so that’s how I came to Velvet Goldmine, and of course I did the research but a lot of it was just based on how I’d felt at the time, and what I remembered. It sounds very exuberant! (Laughs) And I think it shows in the film that we all just had an extraordinary amount of fun making the film.

The costumes really reflect that, they are so larger than life.

Yes, and you know, it wasn’t easy! It was very, very hard. We had hardly any money, but it didn’t matter. It was a deeply personal experience, I think, for all of us. I would stay up all night making things, not just because it was necessary but because I really wanted to do it.

Interview Credit: The TALKS

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