Costuming for Unfinished Sentences (image below).
When did you first realize you wanted to pursue a career in the fashion industry?
As a child, I made clothes for my dolls, and all through my teens, for myself, but I never considered it for a career until later on. I reached a crossroads after finishing secondary school, and I wasn’t entirely sure which path to take, creative or academic. It was my mother who came across the college I eventually went to, in her home town of Dublin. That was when my fashion career began, so you could say I stumbled into it.
Who has been your biggest mentors in this industry and what was the best advice they gave?
Top of the list, Meiling, her motto is ‘do the work’, and she offers support and a listening ear always, I value her friendship immensely. Abby Charles from Bene Caribe is always enthusiastic about possibilities, and we have collaborated many times. Ours may not qualify as a mentor relationship, but she’s definitely someone I appreciate having in my circle, and her best advice is always ‘go for it’
When did you land your first internship and what was the most valuable thing you learned from this experience?
I actually went straight to work after completing my fashion course, as the college I went to hooked its graduates up with jobs directly after graduation. I was a designer/ pattern cutter at a high-end ladies fashion brand. The most valuable thing I learned was at the weekly sales meetings, where data re what items were selling actually informed the decisions as to what got produced, the design alone was not the deciding factor. This was a revelation for me at the time, but really taught me the importance of considering and understanding your market, and a lesson I carry with me up to today.
The fashion industry has changed so much in the past few years, what’s the best advice you would give for staying ahead of the curve?
Oh my, well first of all, what curve are we trying to stay ahead of? To me, the biggest change in fashion, is the recognition that the pace of it was simply unsustainable. Environmentally, emotionally, ethically, consumers experiencing diminishing returns, in every way. The strongest emerging trend is the forsaking of trends. I believe now is the time to really double down on who it is you are as a designer, and what your brand is about. Even more pressing is the supply chain reshuffling that’s happening in this time of Covid-19. Paying attention to your production, and finding alternatives closer to your home or your market is probably a wise idea.
Why did you want to work in the film costuming industry?
Again, it was something I kind of stumbled into. A filmmaker friend asked me to do the costuming for a project she was working on. Well! I cannot tell you how much I fell in love with that process. Creating the costumes for a film, balancing budget, with the Director’s vision, liberally applying my own creativity. All the make-it-work moments, the planning and attention to detail, keeping track of all the cast members, changes, incidentals, it’s like a giant puzzle that you are solving as you go. Add to that the great people you meet on set, and the experience you all share. I absolutely love it!
Where do you draw your inspiration from and what is your process when designing for a client/character being portrayed?
Designing clothing and costuming overlap a little, but they are also quite different. Designing for a client, it’s a custom piece for them, so I’m listening, advising, and designing to their brief essentially. Designing for my SewLisa clothing line is a little freer. I mainly draw inspiration from fabrics, stylish women on the street, and wanting a feeling of ease and comfort in the clothing always. I enjoy browsing street style accounts on Instagram, I just love seeing a woman doing fashion her way, looking totally put together, or casually undone, but ultimately herself. I really want women to take SewLisa pieces and make them their own. That inspires me way more than a perfect ad campaign in a magazine or a billboard etc. When it comes to movies my process is methodical first. I break down the script, to know exactly how many changes each character has, and get an idea of the quantity of clothing that will be required. Then I allocate the budget, so I know how much I can spend per character, and after that I get creative. I love the initial scouting trip, seeing what’s available in shops and thrift stores and taking loads of pictures. Then I sort and edit the pics, and add them to the inspiration file for each character. I do some sketching and mood boarding, and at this point, I look for some feedback from the director so I know I’m on track.
What does it take to be a costume designer on set?
Like any job in the creative industries, it takes a lot more than just creativity and design skills. The costume designer is telling a visual story, that interprets the Director’s vision, and implements it for the screen. She is also managing the logistics of dressing all the characters, and coordinating sourcing, fittings, approvals, there are a lot of threads that need to be neatly woven together.
How specific do you get with each character?
Down to earrings and facial hair., DETAILED! Once I get the character sketches from the Director, I begin to understand and even embody the character. It’s important to know the actor also, so you know what you’re working with, and how you want to transform. Whilst sourcing, I will oftentimes find the signature piece for a character, and that is what I build their wardrobe around. It’s an instinctive and organic process initially, that gets ever more granular as principal photography looms, and we get down to itemized lists of the last remaining items we need to get for each character to have their wardrobe complete by the time shooting starts. (I literally got a teeny tiny adrenaline rush just typing that ha ha!)
What in your opinion makes for a great designer and does it translate into costuming?
All design is essentially solving problems, and a great designer is someone who sees things in a new or different way, and can engineer an effective or novel solution. A great designer will also have a strong ‘handwriting’, meaning their work is recognizably theirs, even as it morphs and changes to suit the various projects she may be involved in. This holds true for fashion and costuming.
When do you start to work on a film project?
As soon as someone mentions they have a project coming up they want to talk to me about, my imagination is working. Formal work doesn’t start till script is in hand, and contract settled, but I always set up a file for each potential project, and if I come across an image or article or anything I feel is related to the project I save it as part of my initial inspiration collage, so I’m building the world from get go.
What tools do you need on set as a Costume Designer?
Quick reflexes, steady nerves, and a well-stocked kit. You have to be able to press, mend or clean clothing on set in the event of an accident, and you don’t want to hold up filming. Too many items to mention, but back up options are a must also, I have a bin full of extra clothing I rotate in and out depending on what the shooting schedule for any given day is.
Do you merge your concept design re costuming with your brand aesthetic?
My brand aesthetic is sustainable, down to earth, upcycled, and I definitely maintain those qualities in my costume design. Being handy at repurposing and transforming things is a useful skill that translates well between fashion and costume design.
What is the relationship between you and the Director?
I’m part of the team that helps her tell her story. I try to get a lot of info upfront and sign off on looks and creative direction early in the preproduction process, as the experience gets more and more intense as filming draws near, so I prefer to have that conversation early on. I really make a point of understanding what the director is looking for, so I can deliver, adding my own creativity and flair on top.
What was the biggest setback you faced in your career and how did you overcome it?
Gosh, I’m terrible at these questions, they literally make me draw a blank… I wouldn’t call this a setback, because it’s probably my favourite thing about my life, but, when I became a mother, it was life changing. All the extra sweat equity I was pouring into my business, without stopping to count the cost, I could no longer manage. In a small business where you wear many hats, adding ‘mothering’ to the task list was a significant shift. But, the best way to overcome that is to develop flexibility. My children tag along with me very often, and have a front row view of what it takes to be an entrepreneur in the creative industries.
What advice would you give someone who is new in this field?
Be a sponge, the more you learn, the more info and understanding you can apply to your craft to get better and better. No two film projects are alike, and you can learn just as much or maybe more from a negative production experience as a positive one.