FILM / Snappy dresser: Since she has kitted out Tom Cruise and been nominated for an Oscar, the costume designer Sandy Powell has been rushed off her pins. Sabine Durrant talks to her about leather and vampires and Derek Jarman

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Black leathers,' said her publicist. 'She'll be wearing black leathers.' There could have been other clues. Her long, straight, red-tinted hair, for instance. Or her elfin features. Or the fact that her pager would be going off at 10- minute intervals. Perhaps the publicist felt that for Sandy Powell, costume designer for stage and screen with knobs on, it's the accoutrements that count. But if so - black leather] Bit of a disappointment isn't it?

No rubberised ball-gown? No weird little kilt? No clinging white silk sheath? No sumptuous upholstered patisserie of Elizabethan jags and folds? No spats, no tails, no needle-sharp suit, no crow- feathered doublet and hose? These are the fantastical, twisted and wonderful creations that Powell has become known for, through her work for the dance companies the Cholmondeleys and the Featherstonehaughs, for such films as Derek Jarman's Caravaggio and Edward II and, most recently, Sally Potter's Orlando. Her current remit, though, is for Neil Jordan's film Interview with a Vampire (black leather with red stains? She's not telling) and for the Cholmondeleys new show, Metalcholica, in which the seven dancers will model on-the-road, Easy Rider biker gear, so perhaps she's already slipped into character. 'Actually,' she says coolly, sipping her hot water and lemon in a coffee house in Soho, 'I always dress like this.'

Sandy Powell is rather grand these days, or at any rate rather too busy to worry about her own appearance. (One of the bleeping messages is from somebody wanting to photograph her. 'But I look terrible,' she cries, lying blatantly.) Her involvement with Jordan's film - in production at Pinewood with Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Kenneth Branagh - has raised her profile considerably. She shrugs: 'As it's one of the biggest films being made at the moment, simply because you're working on it people think, that's it, she's the person to employ.'

On top of that, she's just been nominated for an Oscar for Orlando. 'People kept telling me that I would be, but I was all, 'No, no, no, no, I'm not going to think about it, so I won't be disappointed if I'm not.' Then I was at Pinewood, watching the rushes and somebody came up and told me they'd had a phone call . . . Everybody else around me seems to be much more excited than me. I think I'm just trying to keep calm.'

Trying, but perhaps not quite succeeding. What with pulling the Cholmondeleys into shape, tying up the threads for Vampire, popping off to Belfast for the Baftas (another nomination for Orlando) and preparing for next week's ceremony in LA, not to mention moving house, she's rushed off her kinky black boots.

'My days at the moment are just mad. I'm just trying to fit everything in. I can't find anything in my house, everything's in boxes; I fly off on Friday and for Metalcholica I've been running around all the wholesale shops for leather jackets trying to find the cheapest. I ended up in Brick Lane, and in fact the workshop there is going to be making up all the trousers for me like really cheaply. So that's a real relief, and because I've managed to do that bit cheaply we're able to do a final set of costumes for the finale which are a bit extravagant. Lea (Anderson, the choreographer) said we could get away with one costume for each dancer, but I thought it would be much nicer if we could do a change, much more interesting, so . . .'

Powell, who is reserved for much of the time, hardly pauses for breath as she gets into her stride, darting looks at the clock, tearing at her almond croissant. On the one hand, she's the poised habitue of the film set, slicing through tight or baggy budgets with a dressmaker's ease, shepherding vast armies of seamstresses, gently adept at the calming of ruffled feathers: 'Often the director won't have seen a costume until it's on set for the first time and they might say, 'Ooh, I don't like that. Have you got one in green?' And you panic and have to talk them out of it, tell them why you've done it that way, say the actor looks fabulous.'

On the other hand, she's the determinedly committed artiste, rigidly loyal to certain non-mainstream directors and choreographers. She and Lea Anderson (the mainstay of the Cholmondeleys and the Featherstonehaughs) were students together in the late Seventies and continue to work together on two shows a year. Powell, who also designed Mick Jagger's kit for his Urban Jungle tour ('and I'm not proud of it'), does it for love and honour, not money - sometimes she even funnels her fee back into the budget.

The clothes for Vampire or The Crying Game work because you don't notice them, they don't interfere, but her costumes for Anderson, outrageous, flamboyant, sexy, are an integral part of the choreography.

For the Cholmondeleys, she takes seven differently shaped dancers and dresses them like real women on a fantasy night out. 'Modern dance can look so drab,' she says. 'A lot of people are stuck into using stretch fabrics and things like that and are into concealing bodies. I think it's crazy, that's what dancers are there for, to show their bodies off.'

The Powell look also screams out from the work of Derek Jarman. 'The best director in the world, the most generous, unselfish, giving person ever' gave her her first film job on Caravaggio, let her make her 'hideous mistakes' (unsubtle distressing of fabrics, she remembers wincing, 'when you get a can of car spray and just spray it on') and asked her back again and again. 'I learnt as I went along,' she says now.

It was on behalf of Jarman, in fact, that Powell made a splash at the Evening Standard 1992 awards. Both she and Jarman had been offered awards for Edward II; Jarman, who was appalled by the paper's coverage of gay and lesbian issues and of himself personally, turned his down. Powell, at Jarman's urging, decided to go . . .

'Some people from Outrage had managed to infiltrate and distribute leaflets which were basically quotes from the Evening Standard over the year which were fairly offensive. When I got up I said, 'There are some people in the audience distributing leaflets please read them and if you feel the editorial policy should be changed, please write to the Evening Standard to say so.'

'I also explained why Derek wasn't there. I thought that was the least I could do really. I was really nervous the day before, but actually the adrenalin was really going. It felt like an achievement.'

After her speech, Powell was banned by Bubbles Rothermere from attending the post-award party. But this year, she was invited back - the recipient of another award, for Orlando. 'I couldn't believe it,' she says. 'I just thought it was a joke. But all credit to them really.'

By now, Powell knows her award ceremonies inside out, but that doesn't prevent the odd frisson of panic. 'Good luck at the Oscars,' I say as we part, 'I hear it's 90 degrees in LA.' A chill wind blows across her neat features. 'Oh my God,' she says, 'Oh my God, it's not is it?' She taps the bottom of her chin. 'My dress is going to be up to here . . .'

'Metalcholica' opens at Watford Palace Theatre (0923 225671) on 24 March; then at the Place Theatre, London WC1, 29 March-9 April, and touring until 15 May (071-383 3231)

(Photographs omitted)

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