With projects such as ‘American Honey’ to “The Perks Of Being a Wallflower’, Alex Bovaird has obtained a notable collection of work as a successful costume designer. Lift-Off looked to her to find out how her career began, the inspiration behind the costumes in the recent film ‘Thoroughbreds’, and her advice for any aspiring costume designers looking to get started in the industry.
Interview by Lauren Macaree
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in the industry and how did you go about making it a reality?
I always loved movies and I always loved clothes, but I have never been someone who knew exactly what they wanted, until it happened. I was living in New York and I had a friend that was in production and asked me if I knew anyone that wanted to be an intern for a costume designer. She wasn’t talking about me, but at the time I was still cobbling together a living from various freelance jobs. I was working with a brilliant fashion designer called Gary Graham and I was assisting a producer at MTV. I had also been selling buttons and trims to designers for years. I was still scratching my head about how to wrap these things up and go forward with a proper purpose when my friend asked me about this internship. I had thought that it meant a couple of afternoons a week, but it turned out that it was the routine 12 plus hours for 5 days and the whole shoot. Production is a full commitment and the more I imagined it, the more I realised that costume design could be the perfect fit, combining my love of culture, travel, clothing, film, stories and characters. I remember the first day on the job and being given a mammoth list of missions to go out on and people to check in with and that it was forever fluctuating, I felt like I had been run over by a truck by the time I returned home, and I remember thinking, this is amazing and exactly what I want to do with my life!!
Is there a specific film that sparked your interest in the industry?
There were a few really powerful films that struck me deeply and turned me on to the power of film – Rosemary’s Baby, Naked, The Time of The Gypsies…. I thought that I might want to be involved in visual story telling but I hadn’t thought about costuming until it ran me over like a truck. (Or lorry for the UK peeps!)
What is the role of a costume designer?
What I do is to break down the script and draw out who the characters are, whilst scrambling all the thoughts and ideas from the writer and director, and then I go out into the world and start gathering or creating clothing that I think the character would wear. I assist in telling the story through the clothes. I have fittings with the actors and we figure out what everyone in the entire film is going to wear and then I hand each costume off to the set team and I stand by to make sure everything goes as planned.
What day your day to day consist of?
During pre-production I do a lot of research, one of my favorite aspects of the job. I go to libraries, scour the web, look for clues on how to dress the people I have to dress. I create boards to present to the director and producers, and often share these with the cast. As kick off gets closer, my team and I go on shopping bonanzas, pull clothes from the rental houses or source fabrics, and we very swiftly turn an empty space into a working costume shop. Once filming begins, I start my day on the wardrobe truck. I go over the sides for the day, instruct the set costumers, get the background dressed and if there are new costumes being established that day I will stick around set until I can break away to resume the forward planning.
How do you choose your projects?
I am looking to work with good filmmakers first and foremost. When I admire the director and click with him or her, then it really inspires me to go out and work for them. Film production is not for the faint hearted, we work incredibly long and stressful hours, but I find it super fulfilling and it is much more rewarding when you like the people you’re working with! I have been very fortunate in that I have enjoyed most of the experiences so far.
You have an extensive list of notable credits, such as “American Honey”,“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”, and “The Foreigner”, to name a few. Was there something in particular that drew you to any of these projects?
American Honey was a dream project for me. I am a massive fan of Andrea Arnold the director and when I heard about the subject matter, a unique teenage subculture criss-crossing America , I dove into the research immediately. I knew that the experience making the film would be something special and it was probably my passion for the project that won me the job.
Perks was a job I did as the assistant designer to my beloved mentor David Robinson. David is a naturally gifted artist who makes costume design seem effortless, he is also a wonderful man and taught me how to be calm and free about my work, and that at the end of the day it’s just clothes! I did anything David asked me to work on and still would! Perks was a challenging project for us because of the sheer volume of costumes but I loved the end result and think very fondly of our time in Pittsburgh making the film.
I got to work with another director I’ve admired, Martin Campbell, on The Foreigner. One of my career goals is to do a James Bond film, I just think the locations, the gowns, the romance, the drama, all of it, would be so much fun! Martin directed my favorite Bond film, Casino Royale, and to work with him was such a treat, he has total command of the set and knows exactly what he wants. I would love to work with more veterans and I also wanted to do a big action movie, so when I got the script from my agent I put together a pretty extensive look book to try and impress Martin, which worked!
Another significant credit is of the recently released “Thoroughbreds”. How did you get involved with this project?
For Thoroughbreds I was sent the script by my agent and I was just blown away. It’s rare to read such brilliant material, and even though Cory Finley had never made a movie, I was convinced this was going to be a killer project. Cory and I met in NYC to have a creative discussion and I was excited to delve into the world and minds of such intriguing characters.
Where did you draw your inspirations from for this film?
My approach was to start with reality and so I looked around and saw what preppy kids in Connecticut were wearing, and then I was attempting to infuse some sort of strange casual elegance to the clothes since the girls were existing in that ridiculous house. I looked at old film noir movies to be inspired and tried to give the characters a bit of a 40s and 50s sheen and also went to classic American designers to get some key pieces like Ralph Lauren, Brooks Bothers and Tommy Hilfiger.
When coming aboard a project, how does the process generally work? What is the general working relationship and process between a concept artist and the director?
I create boards full of imagery for each character and often for the world in general. These comprise mostly of pictures, archival photos and art photography, specific garments, colors, mood inspirations. I will work with a concept artist to get approval on a costume that we do from scratch. I will do a rendering myself and give them some references, and then they will do a much better illustration that really brings it to life. I show these to the director and often the producers to get approval before we go forward with making the costume. Sometimes there are changes to be made and the concept artist will adapt the original illustration.
What have been the most challenging and most enjoyable projects you have worked on?
Every film seems to have its particular challenges. Often we will be filming in a certain location which makes what I’m looking for hard to come by, so you have to be resourceful in getting what you need. On American Honey I begged a western shop to open for me on a Sunday and it was 4 hours drive one way and 4 hours back. I knew the snakeskin boots that I already had for Shia were going to work, but you can’t really just present one option and because everything was done at the last minute, I hadn’t yet picked up another pair, so I drove all day to make sure everything went well for the scene. I think that’s called dedication! Not only was this film a challenge for me, but it was for sure the most enjoyable project that I have worked on as well. Sometimes they go hand in hand.
Last summer I worked on a film called The Spy Who Dumped Me in Budapest, and then I took the rest of the year off! It was an interesting situation because the studio realized they had solid gold and wanted to push up the action and the stunts and make it into a much slicker movie than we all started out designing. In this business you need to stay a few steps ahead to be on your game, so with this film I was always playing catch up. Sometimes a project will be a bumpy ride and you just have to stay on until the engine stops. I think that all our hard work has paid off though, it looks like it’s going to be great!
From your personal experience, does it take you any time to adjust to projects that are quite different from each other, or do you simply complete one film, figure out your next approach, and go on from there?
Each one has been a specific beast and I will usually try to crew up with the most suitable people, and with skill sets that the film requires. Creatively with a new project I find I just need to make a start and jump off from there. The world I see around me will usually feed me the most, whether that’s at the costume rental houses in LA or the streets of Brooklyn. I am generally someone who intuits what feels right when I see it than conceiving something wholly from my imagination, but the racks in the fitting room usually have a bit of both.
What do you think the biggest surprise about the role of a costume designer would be to an outsider?
Probably how unglamorous it really is! The physical labor that goes into it – whether it be schlepping garment bags of clothes, pounding the streets of an unfamiliar city, the haphazard structuring of your daily life, getting up at 4am to head to work, these are all things that most people don’t know about when they say “oh your job sounds like so much fun” – which , by the way, it is!
If someone wants to pursue a career as a costume designer, how would you recommend they go about it?
Most people that I know in the business studied fashion or costume, or worked in the theatre before coming into the department, but there is room for misfits like me who have a lust for new worlds and a visual instinct. I would say that studying is invaluable and that I wish I had a broader knowledge of construction and things like that, but I can also hire people that are experts and I can concentrate on the bigger picture, and on trying to keep everyone happy.
My career path is a bit more happenstance and a lot less traveled but whatever your education is, costume design for film is a very specific process, and so the sooner you can start working in the costume department the better. I worked for free at the beginning and even though I deserved to get paid and perhaps should have, it gave me access to people and projects that I wouldn’t have been able to get access to had I not done this.
I got to have the glory of being an intern that saved the day, and so for me this really helped me break in. I always tell the production assistants and interns to go that extra mile, if you are working 12 hours, may as well do 13, and also pretend that you love doing returns and driving non-stop to do pick ups – everyone knows that it sucks but if you have a joyful ad positive attitude about your work, people will want to hire you again and they will be grateful to have you.
What would your top three tips for aspiring costume designers be?
- Assist as many different costume designers as you can, everyone has something to teach you.
- Don’t try to push your ideas onto the actors, if they don’t feel comfortable in something, it won’t go well.
- Do your research!
(Any other advice you would like to voice in order to help the next generation of costume designers? Or what is next for you?)
Be flexible, don’t make too many plans because they will probably change, and be prepared for total exhaustion!
I’m not sure what’s next for me – I’ll wish for more work in Europe, a period piece, and hopefully some fantastic directors.
Thank you for your time!