Sandy Powell on a career in costume

By Sam Rogers

“Costume design is about collaboration and communication... It is part psychology, part art”.

“The role of a costume designer is to help create a character, to make them come to life through the power of clothing,” says Sandy Powell, the celebrated designer behind the Oscar- and Bafta-winning costumes of The Favourite, The Young Victoria, Velvet Goldmine, Shakespeare in Love, and The Aviator – and now, winner of the London Design Medal 2022.

While many of us are familiar with Powell’s work, it was her viral autograph suit in 2020 that made the costume designer – and her signature orange quiff – a household name. “People stop me in the street now,” she says, equally amused and proud. The calico suit that caught the attention of the masses was a bid to save Derek Jarman’s creative studio in Dungeness, Prospect Cottage. Powell wore it throughout awards season, and during that time it became a rich tapestry of celebrity signatures.

“It started as a silly idea, and it just snowballed,” she recalls. “I had such fun doing it. It gave me a mission. And, I didn’t have to think about what to wear once! Looking back now, I’m very proud of it.” Her suit raised £16,000 at auction and is now part of the V&A’s collection.

Though Powell’s impact on the London design scene is clear, the fact that costume design is often overlooked as a leading design discipline is not lost on her. “It’s not as simple as just designing clothes and putting them on a person,” she notes, adding that it is usually period pieces or fantastical films that are deemed to be “good” costumes. “Designing a contemporary wardrobe, or something that looks ‘ordinary’, requires just as much, if not more, work,” she explains.

Powell makes a key distinction between her craft and that of fashion designers. “It isn’t fashion; fashion is about trends and selling clothes. Costume design is about collaboration and communication; with directors, actors, your team, and the audience. It is part psychology, part art, really.”

It is also about problem solving. “Costume design is about achieving more than you have the time or the budget to do,” she says. “It’s about making allowances and compromising, constantly.” Which isn’t to say that Powell’s career has been about settling. Quite the opposite.

The Brixton native learnt to sew at a young age, and was dressing her Cindy dolls in bespoke creations – crafted from patterns she cut and Laura Ashley fabrics she picked – by the age of 10. After quitting college in 1981, she moved to designing for the stage in dance and theatre. “I was a bad student and I knew what I wanted to do. I was determined and ambitious. And fearless, I suppose.”

She sought out her creative heroes – David Bowie’s choreographer Lindsay Kemp, and the aforementioned artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman – “procuring” their numbers from acquaintances and forging rich working partnerships with both.

Though she cites Jarman’s Caravaggio as seminal to this day, Powell has worked with over 20 directors on some 50 films in her four decades in the industry. Arguably, her collaborations with Martin Scorsese (in Gangs Of New York, The Wolf Of Wall Street and The Irishman), Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven and Carol) and Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite) are her most celebrated.

In all that she does, having fun is crucial for Powell, who attributes her mantra – that you should go to work with the same level of enthusiasm as if you were going to a party – to Jarman, too. “And that isn’t to say it isn’t stressful work. But, there’s good stress and bad stress. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on jobs and with people who are great. There is no point in doing it if you are not having fun.”

Surely the recognition and awards (she has three Oscars and three Baftas) also help to make it feel worthwhile? “In film, it’s the people who have worked on the right project that year who get awarded. I’m very grateful and appreciate the fact that my work is recognised, but the London Design Medal is more exciting because it’s design across the board, not just me and other costume designers. This is a huge honour.”