The work of a costume designer sometimes goes unsung. Certainly, you may well watch a production and notice the beauty of the clothing – the flow of a dress or the authenticity of a period design – but as the saying goes, God is in the detail and rarely do audiences have the chance to take an up close look at those all-important flourishes that make them zing off stage seemingly effortlessly.
With McQueen, James Phillips’ evocative drama dedicated to one of Britain’s most important fashion designers, now playing in the West End, it seemed a perfect time to show off these skills in all their glory.
Tasked with the daunting challenge of bringing this almost universally revered late fashion icon’s work to the stage is theatre designer David Farley, who allowed us to photograph his work up close to show you every painstakingly sewn embellishment and golden feathered detail of the show’s decadent pieces. Take a look in the gallery above, and read on to discover more about the West End’s very own autumn collection and its creation five years in the making.
The writer is a very old friend of mine, so I’ve known this piece since it was first conceived; it’s been one of those designs that’s been around in the back of my mind for the last five years. I knew that there was the gold coat in the play – it becomes almost a character in the piece – so we knew we had to create that. I knew I had a bit of flexibility, that McQueen still has time to change it to a certain degree before it becomes the finished garment that we know, but it still had to be very recognisable as the piece that people were able to see at the V&A [in the McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition].
All of those feathers are actually rows of feathers sewn onto a small band of fabric, so you’re not sewing individual feathers onto the coat. But it was a good five days’ work for two or three people to do all that and then painting them all gold, building the structure. It was a very tricky one. I was quite happy to see, when I went to the V&A, that ours is shinier than theirs! I think our gold finish was better than he got!
The black dress that Stephen [Wight] appears to create on stage was the biggest challenge. The brief was that he should cut freehand and pin together a garment that becomes this beautiful dress. So you could imagine a fair bit of R & D [research and development] was required to get that to work! We did a few cheats, there is a pre-built underskirt that he pulls out… it looks like he’s pinning it onto her, but actually there are some very well placed small poppers that allow him to do that.
The costumes for the dancers were tricky in terms of choosing what garments to take reference from. The clothes also have to be stage friendly: They’re fine if you’ve got girls walking down a runway and back again, but put them onto a contemporary dancer who needs to get their legs up over their head and then lift someone and spin them around, you’ve got a mass of constraints put on your there. So one thing we decided to do was to not try and recreate any whole garment, we cherry picked: ‘Okay, let’s take a top from there, that skirt detail, reduce the colour palates to just greys, silvers and blacks…’ So there’s lots of experimentation. I chose things that were more dancer friendly that you could get lots of movement in but hopefully helped reflect an eclectic range from his earlier collections.
You absolutely notice a change in the actors when they put the costumes on. Particularly with [Tracy-Ann Oberman’s] Isabella Blow outfit. Tracy is a wonderful actress and the way she brings that character to life is amazing. Putting the wig on her and the flow and opulence of that outfit – it has that great big cincher which really holds her round the waist, kind of hugs her – you can really see it allows her to carry herself in a different way, which is wonderful.
The McQueen label was aware of what we were doing; we asked them for help and they said they wouldn’t give any, but they wouldn’t get in our way. Essentially a garment is a functional item and is therefore not covered by copyright law. Costume designers are often showing recreations of things on stage; we’re not trying to sell any garments so it’s not as if we’re taking away their business, if anything it’s promoting it.
What was wonderful was having the absolute support of the McQueen family. His sister Janet had read the script before we started work and wrote us a beautiful letter saying how well she thought it captured his spirt.
I need to do him justice and show this creativity but without upstaging the emotion of the piece, letting the story be told. It couldn’t just be a spectacular show all about fabulous costumes, the heart and the story needed to be able to sing.