Simon Costin’s set designs might be associated with McQueen’s shows for most people who have an interest in fashion. However, his career didn’t at all start out with rain pouting down runways. Rather with Bloomsbury squats, Tilda Swinton, and jewellery containing mythical sperm. Not long ago, he was in conversation with Gary Card, coinciding with his ‘Impossible Catwalk Shows’ exhibition at LCF. The talk stayed with us, and even though months have passed, we wanted to share some of the best parts that show an insight into the work of these two brilliant minds.
Simon started the story by mentioning how he used to squat a huge Georgian house in Russell Square, where creatives could work on their respective projects, free from financial obligations. In 1987, Simon created a jewellery piece for a gallery opening, which is now regarded as one of his most notorious pieces of work. It drew references from myth, and, at the time, it caused a public outrage for its alleged indecency. Simon explains the myth behind the piece, and why it nearly led to his arrest by Scotland Yard.
“There was a warrant for my arrest!”
Simon Costin: The incubus was a male goblin of some sort, that was supposed to visit sleeping animals. The succubus was the female version of this, who would draw off their precious sperm to give to the incubus who would then impregnate the nuns. It was just an excuse, really, for when nuns became pregnant and the monks had sustained cheating. This piece I made evolved out of that story, about hypocrisy. It was developed for an exhibition in this new gallery that was opening. They actually paid me for six months, to be in my squat and make these new pieces of work. And then I went on the radio the day before the exhibition. Tilda Swinton was opening it, because I had met her during Caravaggio. The radio interview was really early in the morning, I was tired, hadn’t gone to bed. I was explaining the story about the incubus and the succubus. You could sit there mildly horrified, but not overly, fine, so I left. During that day, the radio station had so many complaints, there was this antiquated law that it was outraging public decency, and they notified the police. I went back to the studio to carry on working. Madness moment. All of these people were ringing up, and there was a warrant for my arrest! Issued by Scotland Yard. In the morning of the show, the gallery rang and said “where are you?”, “I’m finishing off work”, they said: “don’t go anywhere”, “okay?”. They said “we’re coming to pick it up”, “well you can’t, it’s not ready yet”. Just stay put. So, they arrived in a car and said “Scotland Yard are at the gallery, they’re going to arrest you!”
Gary Card: Was this hugely exciting?
SC: No! It was really annoying, more than anything else. Frustrating! I had put a show on, worked on it for more than six months, and then Scotland Yard? Ridiculous. And it was totally unintentional, it wasn’t as if what I was doing was set up to… As far as I was concerned, it was a beautiful piece of work, it wasn’t graphically shocking. In retrospect, a few weeks later, when I’d calmed down, it was fine. But what had happened was that I had to hide in the basement of a bookshop, with all this work from the exhibition, while the legal department of the gallery sorted out the police. It was ridiculous. So, I hid and then Tilda came and picked me up, we went to the gallery, quickly put it in all of the cabinets, and had the private view. And of course, the case was nonsense. It sort of led to a certain amount of notoriety. So, the irony of it, is that all of our jizz is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art… Which is quite extraordinary, and I still can’t quite believe it, but they bought it. Not then, I hasten to add, some fifteen years after the event.
“There’s a thin line between overpowering what is being presented, and adding to it.”
GC: I’m sure everybody wants to know about your relationship with Alexander McQueen, and how you guys met, and what it was like to be working with him.
SC: Lee, funnily enough, wrote to me when he was a student. I had stopped making jewellery by that point, around 1990, I was doing pop promos, dabbling in set design. He wrote and asked if I had any pieces left for him to borrow for the degree show. He was just a student then, I didn’t know he was destined for greatness. We just got on, more than anything else. So I had this ongoing thing, saying “look, I’m doing sex now… look, look, look”. So that’s how that relationship developed. We were mates before we started working together. It was really exciting. He drew to him this whole group that was creepily named “the family”. The team was extraordinary, because there was no money in the beginning; he was working all hours, and so we all sort of banded together and made the shows.
GC: And when he started working for Givenchy, of course, the budgets must have escalated to an insane quantity.
SC: When he got sponsorship from Annex, that’s when it actually got bigger. That show, the untitled show that was originally called the “Golden Chalice”, (which they objected to, so it changed). This was a quarter of a million pound show, back then it was a huge amount of money.
GC: It’s a huge amount of money now!
SC: I mean no one, generally, spends that much money on their shows, apart from Chanel or Prada, the big boys. But back then, he wasn’t at that level yet. So it was a vast amount of money to play with, it was great. Some shows, he would have a very firm idea as to what he wanted, but generally not. I’d look at a collection, draw out threads for it and then work out extra layers of meaning to that, in the presentation. There’s a thin line between overpowering what is being presented, and adding to it. In this instance, the first part of the collection was black, and he wanted a white back wall. Then there’s a part of the set which has four and a half tonnes of water and plexi on top of lots of electrical lighting, which was terrifying to say the least. Nobody had done this sort of thing before. We couldn’t test the water effect, so poor old Katy England had to walk up and down in the rain. We measured the spread of the water and decided it wasn’t going to destroy anyones Manolo Blahniks, it just missed them. It was all very random, there was no health and safety.
GC: That must have been brilliant.
“We’ve gotten used to working in the wake of the ‘Tim effect’ and the huge significance he’s had on the way everybody views set design and this opulent, decadent setting that everybody wants.”
SC: You couldn’t do it now, because the models were potentially slipping on~
GC: And was that a problem? Did anybody actually slip?
SC: No, not at all. We did stick sandpaper to the bottom of the shoes and things like that. But what I learnt about the show was that halfway through, everything stopped. The models exited, and it’s annoying because it’s not on youtube. They’ve cut all of that bit. There’s a section where we just pumped black ink into all the tanks, and the white catwalk turned into a black catwalk. Lee had the “Jaws” music playing.
GC: I would like to move on to working with Tim, and what that’s like? As set designers, we’ve gotten used to working in the wake of the ‘Tim effect’ and the huge significance he’s had on the way everybody views set design and this opulent, decadent setting that everybody wants. Nobody has a clue about how expensive that is, a lot of the time, they just want the Tim Walker look. I’ve had emails asking me “can you get a bit “Tim Walker-y” in this shot?”.
SC: It’s all the time now, isn’t it? Every ad job… their mood boards, it’s just awkward.
GC: It’s great, but is it funny for you to see people — essentially, ripping you off — taking a lot of the things directly from you? Is that funny or frustrating?
SC: You can’t really avoid it, can you? We work in a public medium, our work is in magazines, on TV or whatever, it’s inevitable in a way. Yes, it’s slightly annoying. Do you find it annoying?
GC: I find it incredibly annoying. If I see a particular large high street brand, which is very famous for stealing~
SC: I know who you’re talking about.
GC: And when I see it I just think “I know exactly~ You’ve just taken that from the pages! And you haven’t even tried to change it! You’ve just stolen it”, why not just employ me? It would be far nicer.
SC: Large corporations are shameless, absolutely shameless.
GC: Because you can’t touch them.
SC: I don’t really pitch anymore, in that way, because of being ripped off. There was a bank, where I had to pitch this idea. I took all the mood boards in, it was for the opening of the new Tate, the Turbine Hall. This particular bank took over the rehab. You probably know who it is: they were really enthusiastic with everything, saying “the new CEO is with us tomorrow, would you be able to leave this with us and pick it up tomorrow?”. Fine, okay… STUPID. So I left it, picked it up the next day, the new CEO apparently didn’t like it. Fine, never mind. But a friend of mine was working at the Tate, and I said, “would you be able to take pictures of everything?” They ripped everything off. It was totally shameless. Intellectual property on what we do is really hard to fight for.
GC: I have had this conversation as well, with our agency, “is there anything we can do?”, “you don’t really stand a chance”. So we just have to grin and bear it. I often say this to myself, “isn’t it nice we’ve had such a huge cultural effect,” when actually, I’m just seething. I must tell you as well, how often I get your stuff sent to me and asked to “do you”. I have to politely tell them that it’s really famous, actually, and “it’s a very dear friend of mine, I couldn’t possibly just steal”.
“It always astounds me how people have no concept of how much stuff costs. “
SC: It’s weird because I get the same with Shona [Heath] sometimes, or Michael Howells.
GC: And I get you…
SC: No, but it’s the same, you go into a meeting, and it’s somebody else’s work that you know. It’s really cringe and embarrassing. When you try and explain “no”, but you could do something else, they don’t want it. It’s like, “what do you mean you can’t do that?”. But clients generally, are quite visually illiterate for a start, which I find shocking. Unbelievable.
GC: It always astounds me how people have no concept of how much stuff costs. That drives me insane. That things are quite possibly half a million, and that there’s no possible reason to do that. That’s always fun.
SC: They don’t understand the man hours. They can understand the materials, something being made in metal as opposed to cardboard, but if you say “it’s going to be made in cardboard, but it’s going to take a month of hand crafting”… That’s really difficult to explain because they don’t work like that, they sit behind a desk.
” I’ve been told by other set designers that [during a shoot] you’re supposed to stand next to the photographer, obediently, pitching in ideas of the set being ever so slightly to the left…”
GC: Money/motivation. What drives you? Are you somebody who loves making things? Or are you somebody who wants to ruthlessly make as much money as possible?
SC: I think we all know the answer to that one. We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing if we wanted to make money. You’d be a photographer. I didn’t say that. Motivation is creativity. There are a lots of jobs to do that are paid well, but are actually soul destroying. No, I’m not motivated by money.
GC: Are you somebody who turns down work?
S: Yes, because it’s not interesting. I wouldn’t be doing that if I was just starting out though, I’d be doing everything I could possibly do.
GC: My favourite question to ask you would be “what do you do on a shoot?”, I don’t know what the etiquette is. What do you do? I’ve been told by other set designers that you’re supposed to stand next to the photographer, obediently, pitching in ideas of the set being ever so slightly to the left… or some bullshit. What do you do? Because I run away from that as much as possible.
SC: I run away from that. I look busy in the corner and wait to be called on. It’s tough, it’s hard because there is no rule book for what we do. There is no, as you say, the etiquette of being on set. Some photographers I know want you to be involved, want you to suggest stuff. Usually the European ones, the American ones don’t want anybody~ It’s much more give and take here.
GC: Look busy, get the next shot ready. When is it a good idea to jump in and say something subversive?
SC: “That looks a bit rubbish”.
Gary Card image by Walter Hugo
Simon Costin image via SHOWStudio
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