Drama queen

Three-time-os­car-win­ner Sandy Pow­ell has dressed Queen Vic­to­ria, Howard Hughes and Wil­liam Shake­speare. Could her next project, Mary Pop­pins Re­turns, the se­quel to her child­hood favourite, make it four? Ros­alind Pow­ell spent the

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

Three-time-os­car-win­ning cos­tume de­signer Sandy Pow­ell spends a day shad­owed by her sis­ter Ros­alind as she works on the new Mary Pop­pins film

It’s 6.15am and my sis­ter, Sandy Pow­ell, and I are be­ing chauf­fered in a fancy Mercedes from her house in south London to Shep­per­ton Stu­dios. She’s telling me about the anx­i­ety dream she had the night be­fore, in which she was scram­bling up a muddy hill in heels, due to ap­pear on stage to sing and play the gui­tar.

‘I re­mem­ber think­ing, “I’ve just got to get through,” she says. ‘I al­ways do, some­how.’

It’s this gritty de­ter­mi­na­tion, com­bined with a strik­ing tal­ent, that has taken her to the top of her field in cos­tume de­sign. As a reg­u­lar col­lab­o­ra­tor with di­rec­tors in­clud­ing Martin Scors­ese, Todd Haynes and Neil Jor­dan, she has won three Academy Awards (for Shake­speare in Love, The Avi­a­tor and The Young Vic­to­ria) and two Baf­tas. In 2011 she re­ceived an OBE.

Her lat­est project, Mary Pop­pins Re­turns, the Dis­ney film di­rected by Rob Mar­shall and star­ring Emily Blunt and Linmanuel Mi­randa, is one of the year’s most an­tic­i­pated movies.

Film­ing is in its fi­nal weeks – on most shoots, cos­tumes are de­signed and made right up to the wire – and I’m join­ing Sandy for the day. I trot briskly at her heels while she rushes be­tween fit­tings, meet­ings and work­rooms, talk­ing with a rat-a-tat-tat de­liv­ery and de­sign­ing on the hoof – a male swim­suit one minute, a belt buckle the next. She has at least five con­ver­sa­tions about the colour of thread on a piece of fring­ing. I find the pace ex­haust­ing. She loves it. ‘Part of the fun of what we do is solv­ing prob­lems. There’s al­ways some­thing you have to deal with on the spot. You just have to think re­ally fast,’ she tells me.

I’ve grown up with her cre­ativ­ity at close hand. I’d be out­side with my mates, climb­ing trees; she’d be locked in her bed­room, mak­ing tiny dolls’ dresses. As a teenager, she wore pur­ple harem pants to match her pur­ple hair. To­day, she’s dressed in her work uni­form – Comme des Garçons jeans and denim jacket, T-shirt, gold brogues, neckerchief and sig­na­ture round glasses. She can be spot­ted a mile off with her bright-or­ange hair.

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing (and a lit­tle bit weird) for me to step out of our sib­ling world and into her pro­fes­sional one, even though we don’t al­ways be­have pro­fes­sion­ally. ‘I hate de­scrib­ing things,’ she snaps at one point, as we slip back into old roles: I’m an an­noy­ing younger sis­ter ask­ing ir­ri­tat­ing ques­tions rather than a jour­nal­ist do­ing her job.

Mary Pop­pins Re­turns is a shame­lessly nos­tal­gic and, at times, poignant se­quel to the 1964 orig­i­nal star­ring Julie An­drews. This one is set in 1930s De­pres­sion-era London and is drawn from the PL Travers books. Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mor­timer and Ben Whishaw) have grown up, and Michael, a re­cently wid­owed fa­ther of three, is strug­gling to cope. Un­til Mary Pop­pins (a bril­liant, but­toned-up Blunt) reap­pears and, along with lamp­lighter Jack (Mi­randa), brings magic back into their lives with nine new song-and-dance num­bers.

With a cos­tume bud­get of £2.5 mil­lion and a five-month prepa­ra­tion pe­riod be­fore the four-month shoot be­gan, Sandy, who is a vet­eran of the Dis­ney be­he­moth, hav­ing de­signed the 2015 Ken­neth Branagh-di­rected Cin­derella, had the lux­ury of time and money. ‘That’s the best thing you can have when you’re do­ing cos­tumes,’ she says as we sit in her of­fice, its walls cov­ered in fab­ric swatches and pic­ture boards fea­tur­ing images from March­esa Luisa Casati to 1980s boy bands. ‘We’ve been able to try things out, make mis­takes and start again.’

Over the past 30-odd years, my sis­ter Sandy, 58, has built a rep­u­ta­tion for her brave use of colour and bold, un­com­pro­mis­ing de­signs that push bound­aries. Her work, she says, is not for the shy and re­tir­ing.

Al­most 450 cos­tumes have been made for Mary Pop­pins Re­turns, along with 467 pairs of shoes and 228 hats. Her team of 50 in­clude a su­per­vi­sor, as­sis­tant de­sign­ers and a tex­tile artist, set cos­tumers and pat­tern cut­ters, seam­stresses, tai­lors, milliners and dy­ers, many of whom she’s worked with for years. Her depart­ment, which cov­ers a space of half an acre, houses of­fices, sew­ing ta­bles, wash­ing ma­chines, man­nequins and 180 rails of cos­tumes, for both prin­ci­pals and ex­tras.

‘Tra­di­tion­ally, a nanny’s coat would have been navy blue, but I wanted Mary to add bright­ness to a dark, grey world’

Not one to do things by halves, Sandy is also de­sign­ing the cos­tumes for an­other pe­riod film at the same time – The Favourite, set in the early 18th-cen­tury court of Bri­tish monarch Queen Anne and star­ring Olivia Col­man, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz – for which she’s ne­go­ti­ated a work­room at Shep­per­ton, so she can work be­tween both projects.

Sandy’s de­sign process al­ways starts with the script and dis­cussing ini­tial ideas with the di­rec­tor, be­fore plough­ing through her vast col­lec­tion of ref­er­ence and fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy books, as well as re­search­ing on­line. Next, she’ll source fab­rics, and col­late swatches ac­cord­ing to char­ac­ter. ‘I’m usu­ally in­spired by the fab­ric first. It sounds corny but some­how it speaks to me.’ She’ll make rough sketches and talk to her pat­tern cut­ters, pin­ning ma­te­rial on to man­nequins, and then to the tex­tile artist about colour schemes and print­ing, be­fore the cos­tume is fine-tuned dur­ing fit­tings with the ac­tors.

The orig­i­nal Mary Pop­pins is the first film Sandy re­mem­bers see­ing as a child. How in­tim­i­dated did she feel about re­work­ing such a time­less clas­sic? ‘I wasn’t scared, but I was wary. You’re try­ing to do an­other ver­sion of an iconic look. And, in a way, her char­ac­ter can’t change too much as she’s al­ways the same per­son. Like Peter Pan. Or James Bond,’ she jokes.

She wanted her Mary to look more chic than the orig­i­nal. ‘El­e­gant and strict, but not se­vere,’ she says. ‘No fuss, no frills, but­toned up.’ Geo­met­ric pat­terns – stripes, zigzags and chevrons – fea­ture heav­ily in her seven out­fits, as well as polka dots, which add a bit of whimsy, along with her bow ties.

The most im­por­tant look to get right, she felt, was the sil­hou­ette for Mary’s ar­rival out­fit, ‘as ev­ery­one re­mem­bers it’. Us­ing as a tem­plate the iconic image of Julie An­drews in an Ed­war­dian, an­kle-length coat nipped in at the waist and with a flower pok­ing out of her hat, she cre­ated her own 1930s ver­sion, adding a small cape, ‘as it works well with move­ment’, and mak­ing it cobalt blue. ‘Tra­di­tion­ally, a nanny’s coat would have been navy blue, but I wanted her to add bright­ness to a dark, grey world.’ Sit­ting atop her lip­stick-red hat is a robin rather than a flower – in homage to the an­i­ma­tronic robin in the Spoon­ful of Sugar scene in the orig­i­nal. It took a while to get the robin ap­proved by Mar­shall. ‘I think he thought the first one was a lit­tle bit chubby,’ she says. ‘He’s a per­fec­tion­ist – but ab­so­lutely lovely.’

‘I adore work­ing with Sandy,’ Emily Blunt tells me over email. ‘Her in­ge­nious cre­ativ­ity and bold flair is re­ally in­spir­ing, ac­tu­ally. She was very in­ter­ested in my take on Mary and was very col­lab­o­ra­tive in how she wanted to in­cor­po­rate all the char­ac­ter’s idio­syn­cra­sies and ec­cen­tric­i­ties into the cos­tumes. I feel the char­ac­ter re­ally came alive once I had on her beau­ti­ful clothes, which are so ex­cit­ing and gor­geous that it’s hard not to feel ter­ri­bly vain and ter­ri­bly mag­i­cal all at once!’

‘The most ex­cit­ing bit is when you have a di­a­logue with the ac­tor and they sud­denly find the char­ac­ter,’ Sandy says. Alchemy hap­pened in the fit­ting room as soon as she put Mi­randa in a swal­low-tailed jacket, flat cap and neckerchief. ‘In an in­stant, I knew how he would look, and so did he. Sud­denly, he was that char­ac­ter.’ She re­mem­bers a sim­i­lar trans­for­ma­tion when she worked with Leonardo Dicaprio when he played cor­rupt bro­ker Jor­dan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013.

‘He usu­ally wears track pants and hood­ies,’ she says of the Hol­ly­wood ac­tor, with whom she’s now worked on four films. ‘He might wear a tux to an event, but he’s not the sort of per­son to walk around in a Sav­ile Row suit all the time. It made him be­have dif­fer­ently.’

The cos­tume Sandy has laboured over most for this film, though, be­longs to Topsy Turvy, Mary’s crazy cousin, played by Meryl Streep, who is ex­pected at the stu­dios at any minute for her fi­nal fit­ting. In­spired by pic­tures of Nancy Cu­nard and Edith Sitwell, Sandy is dress­ing Streep in a ki­mono top and harem trousers based on a pair of 1920s silk py­ja­mas she found in New York. The tex­tile artist John Cow­ell and his team of nine worked on the cos­tume for three weeks, bleach­ing out black vel­vet and hand-paint­ing it with an art-deco pat­tern in or­ange, pink, turquoise and yel­low. At Streep’s re­quest, she is wear­ing a vi­brant or­ange wig, in homage to Sandy’s hair. ‘She wanted ex­actly the same hair colour, with the yel­low bit and ev­ery­thing,’ says Sandy.

Streep ar­rives straight from the air­port, wear­ing a felt coat, and greets ev­ery­one like old friends be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing inside the fit­ting room with Sandy, her as­sis­tant, a pat­tern cut­ter and a milliner. Half an hour later, Streep emerges smil­ing, the fit­ting a suc­cess. ‘You have to get peo­ple to trust that you’re do­ing the best for them, and their char­ac­ter,’ Sandy says. ‘Every­body has in­se­cu­ri­ties, and lit­tle things that an­noy them – you have to fig­ure that out re­ally quickly.’

‘I wasn’t scared, but I was wary. You’re try­ing to do an­other ver­sion of an iconic look. Like Peter Pan. Or James Bond’

Sandy has worked with some of the big­gest names in the in­dus­try (her next film af­ter Mary Pop­pins Re­turns is Martin Scors­ese’s The Ir­ish­man, star­ring Robert De Niro, Al Pa­cino, and Har­vey Kei­tel). She’s never been starstruck, only ‘a lit­tle bit ner­vous’, she says. Deal­ing with big egos is a skill. ‘It’s not a power game, but I like to let an ac­tor know that they don’t have con­trol over me. It’s a col­lab­o­ra­tion. We’re on an equal foot­ing.’

My sis­ter and I grew up in a work­ing-class fam­ily in south London. Our mum Mau­reen was a sec­re­tary and our late dad Syd was a casino man­ager in Soho, and they had as­pi­ra­tions for their daugh­ters. Our mum taught Sandy how to sew and, aged 12, she be­gan mak­ing her own clothes. At 17, she had a ‘eureka’ mo­ment when she saw the late chore­og­ra­pher and dancer Lind­say Kemp per­form his sem­i­nal show Flow­ers at the Round­house in London. ‘I was struck by the fan­tas­tic vi­su­als, it was like noth­ing I’d seen be­fore.’

Five years later, at the end of her sec­ond year at Cen­tral Saint Martins, where she was study­ing the­atre de­sign, she signed up for Kemp’s dance classes at Pineap­ple Dance Stu­dios and asked him to look at her cos­tume de­signs. She quickly be­came friends with Kemp, who of­fered her a job de­sign­ing his show Ni­jinksy in Mi­lan the fol­low­ing year, and she never re­turned to art school.

My mem­ory of Sandy from around this time is of an aloof, ex­otic char­ac­ter liv­ing a life I didn’t quite un­der­stand. She was a for­mi­da­ble force to live with and a hard act to fol­low, but my pas­sion was for writ­ing, not art and de­sign.

Her in­tro­duc­tion to the film world came in 1984, when Derek Jar­man saw a the­atre show she had de­signed. Af­ter work­ing on a se­ries of pop videos with him, she de­signed the cos­tumes for his biopic Car­avag­gio. ‘There were lots of things I didn’t know,’ she ad­mits. ‘The ac­tor Michael Gough asked if we could wash his stock­ings, as he’d been wear­ing the same pair for weeks. An­other ac­tor hid his cos­tume as he thought we’d lose it.

‘Both Lind­say and Derek were artists and de­sign­ers, in­ter­ested in vi­su­als,’ she says of her men­tors. ‘I learnt a lot

from them in a short space of time.’ Derek also gave her some valu­able ad­vice: ‘Come to work ev­ery day as you would go­ing to a party – and have fun.’

In 1994 she re­ceived her first of 12 Os­car nom­i­na­tions, for Sally Pot­ter’s Or­lando, win­ning her first five years later for Shake­speare in Love. She keeps her three stat­uettes in the of­fice of her home in Brix­ton, which she shares with her long-term part­ner (she also has a house in Italy where she spends a lot of her time). ‘Of course it’s great win­ning things,’ she says, ‘but it’s a com­pe­ti­tion you didn’t en­ter your­self into. You want to win, that’s hu­man na­ture, even though you’re telling your­self the whole time, “It doesn’t mat­ter, it doesn’t mean any­thing.”’

Back at Shep­per­ton, Streep is prepar­ing to leave but asks to see the de­signs des­tined to be the pièce de ré­sis­tance of the film – a col­lec­tion of exquisitely hand-painted, pas­tel cos­tumes for a song-and-dance se­quence in which the Banks chil­dren and Mary and Jack burst into a fan­tas­ti­cal, colour-co­or­di­nated world. Dis­played on man­nequins, the cos­tumes (with ruf­fles and ties all painted on) have been de­signed to look 2D – just like ‘when you stick your head through the holes of cut-out fig­ures at the sea­side,’ Sandy says.

‘Oh, they’re di­vine. Look at that!’ says Streep, ex­am­in­ing the fab­ric. ‘You have to get up close to know what you’re look­ing at.’

One of the dresses, Cow­ell later tells me, took eight peo­ple a week to paint. We are in his work­room, a steamy space with caul­drons of dye, and swatches of bright fab­ric. Sandy wants to dis­cuss the thread on a bit of fring­ing on Streep’s cos­tume (again) and whether to dye it, stitch over it or dec­o­rate it with rib­bon. ‘Picky, picky, picky,’ says Cow­ell. Ev­ery but­ton on Mary’s coats has been in­di­vid­u­ally made; welling­ton boots have been cus­tomised to make them look more pe­riod; count­less robins, hand­made with threads of fine cot­ton, were dis­carded be­fore the one with the right ex­pres­sion was found.

‘You’d be sur­prised how many letters I get from peo­ple com­ment­ing on the de­tail,’ says Sandy. ‘When I watch a film, I no­tice if some­thing looks a bit brash. It dis­pleases me be­cause I can see what’s missing.’ She is, she agrees, a per­fec­tion­ist.

‘If you’re a cer­tain age, ex­pe­ri­enced and have been around a long time, you know what’s achiev­able. I don’t ex­pect the im­pos­si­ble – I’m re­al­is­tic,’ she says. ‘But if you know that some­thing’s doable, you shouldn’t set­tle for less.’

I won­der if she de­mands the same level of per­fec­tion­ism from her team. Sandy can be in­tim­i­dat­ing to the unini­ti­ated, com­ing across as brusque.

‘I try not to be hor­ri­ble to some­one who’s done some­thing not to my lik­ing,’ she says. ‘But I’ll ask them to try again.’ She doesn’t lose her tem­per, ‘but I might get a bit sulky.’

Even Mi­randa calls her ‘The leg­endary Sandy Pow­ell’. Why? ‘Be­cause she’s one of the best in the world at what she does and it’s very cool to wear her clothes ev­ery day,’ he tells me. ‘And she walks around like an X-man with that bright-or­ange hair.’

It’s time to go home at the end of an 11-hour day – short by her stan­dards, usu­ally it’s 14. As we drive back, I ask if she thinks she’ll get an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for this one? She sighs. ‘I think the film’s re­ally good, but it com­pletely de­pends on what other films are out there, and there’s a shed­load of sump­tu­ous cos­tume dra­mas,’ she says, be­fore turn­ing her at­ten­tion once more to the prob­lem­atic fring­ing, which has now been dyed. ‘Hmm, those colours are too dark,’ she muses, look­ing at a pic­ture that’s been sent for her ap­proval. Back to the draw­ing board. Mary Pop­pins is in cin­e­mas from 21 De­cem­ber

‘Oh, they’re di­vine. Look at that!’ says Streep, ex­am­in­ing the fab­ric. ‘You have to get up close to know what you’re look­ing at’

Sandy is flanked by her cos­tumes for Mary Pop­pins and Jack the lamp­lighter

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