the gentlewoman

The Calling

When cinema’s leading auteurs are looking for show-stopping costumes, it’s designer extraordinaire Sandy Powell that they turn to. Scorsese, Haynes, Jarman and Taymor have all enlisted the services of the 58-year-old, three-time Academy Award winner, whose transformative work is underpinned by exhaustive research and innovative solutions to conundrums such as how to make jewellery that doesn’t make noise on Meryl Streep. Sandy Powell explains all as she answers our questionnaire for creative visionaries.

Sandy Powell

Richard: What’s the first thing you do between waking and beginning work?

Sandy: You pick a good moment to ask. I flew from LA to Savannah last night and slept right through; I just woke up! The first thing I do is drink hot water and lemon. Then I get ready really quickly. I’ll be out of the house or hotel in 45 minutes, wherever I am in the world. On a workday, that would be 5.30, 6am maybe.

R: Do you have a regular workspace?

S: I’m currently in Savannah for preproduction on a film called The Glorias – A Life on the Road, about Gloria Steinem and the rise of the women’s movement. At the very, very beginning of a project, I like to do a couple of weeks at home in south London; quiet, thinking. In my office there, there’s a desk and a chair and the room is lined with bookshelves. A filing cabinet with my drawings in. That’s about it. Then once it all gets going, they set up a workroom with offices wherever I happen to be working.

R: What happens in there?

S: The process is much the same whether a film is set in the 1970s or the 1700s. Having read the script and had a discussion with the director, I start the research. I have an extensive collection of books and photography; contemporary and period fashion, street photography, photojournalism. I plough through those, building up catalogues of images directly related to the period or just looking for pure inspiration.

R: What takes up the biggest share of your day?

S: In the middle of a project, administration – actually talking to people, solving problems. The smallest part is designing. That gets done in your sleep, when you go to the toilet; when you have a second to stop. I’d love to sit at my desk and create all day long, but I guess a lot of creativity takes place through talking to people.

R: Do you use the phone much?

S: No, no, no. I much prefer not to. If I’m on a big film, like Mary Poppins Returns, which was prepared and filmed entirely at Shepperton Studios, I literally go around visiting people in each department. Inevitably, they have questions – about, say, the placement of the buttons or how to make some Charles wellington boots have a turn-of-the-century look. How can we make jewellery that doesn’t make a noise on Meryl Streep?

R: How do you make jewellery that doesn’t make a noise on Meryl Streep?

S: Right, so she is wearing armfuls of Art Deco bangles in a big song and dance number during which there is dialogue; of course sound departments hate things like that. So we had them cast in rubber.

R: How many people do you manage?

S: On something as big as Mary Poppins Returns, there are probably 50 in-house and more outside. Then on a low-budget, independent film like The Glorias, 10 maybe, if we’re lucky, which means doubling up and working very long days. I try to work with the same handful of very close people on every job. My assistants manage squadrons of people on the bigger projects; my role is to have an overview. Usually, you look back and think, “I don’t know how we got that together.”

R: What was your first job?

S: Ever? I had a paper round when I was 12, in south London, in the days when children could still go out at six o’clock in the pitch black and deliver newspapers. But more relevant, at 16 I worked in the costume department of the National Theatre during school holidays. It was just after it had been built on the South Bank and it opened with a production called Tamburlaine. I was paid £20 per week to sweep the floor and make the tea in the men’s cutting room.

R: When did it occur to you that it might be a career?

S: Quite quickly. I’d think, “Oh, I could do that hem. I could do that button for you.” My mum used to make mine and my sister’s clothes, so she’d taught me how to follow a pattern, how to cut, how to use a sewing machine from a very early age. But it probably wasn’t until I saw Flowers by the Lindsay Kemp Company at the Roundhouse in 1976 or ’77 that I realised I wanted to be part of that world. I went to art school to study theatre design a few years later, when I was 20. Then meeting Lindsay Kemp and Derek Jarman – the first people to take me, this young, inexperienced, green person on – was the biggest influence on me.

R: How far ahead do you know what you’re working on next?

S: In this industry, you never know. There’s always talk of what’s next, but you can only take that seriously when it’s confirmed to start in the next few weeks. I don’t know what’s happening after March and, actually, that unpredictability is half the fun.

December 2018. Interview by Richard O’Mahony. Portrait by Brigitte Lacombe, courtesy of Sandy Powell.