“I’VE REALISED IF IT’S NOT SOMETHING I WANT TO SEE, WHY SPEND NINE MONTHS OF MY LIFE ON IT?”
With Arts Council funding in tact, London was a playground for experimental theatre companies that showcased the protean power of clothes. What “sewed the seed” for Powell was an encounter with Lindsay Kemp, the maverick choreographer who taught Bowie dance and mime, who took her under his wing after being impressed with her personal style. “I went up to him after a show during my work experience year – in a purple Louise Brooks bob and purple harem pants – and said I’m a student, I love your work, can I show you mine?” She never made it back to college.
“Another time I cold-called somebody, it was Derek Jarman. Having done theatre for a couple of years I thought, I want to do film and I want to do his films. And I got his phone number via a friend in Heaven [the club] and said, do you want to come see a show I did at the ICA?” The chance of reaching your icon this way today seems as likely as an increase in arts funding. “Oh God, of course you wouldn’t do that now,” she quips. “I would be horrified if somebody just phoned me up!” It’s her shyness towards show business, not an unwillingness to nurture young talent that elicits such a comment (budding costumiers rest assured, I witness a CV being opened that came through her letterbox that morning).
“I was extremely lucky that the people I admired took me up, someone completely inexperienced, and were generous with their knowledge,” she continues. “They were my first teachers, better than some of the teachers in college.”
Jarman, for instance, introduced her to the world of pop videos – or “mini films” as he called them – until bringing her in on her first feature production and a costume designer’s dream, “Caravaggio”. “I realised a Derek Jarman film is not normal film-making. He’s an artist and a designer and he treated each job like it was a party.”
Powell has cleaved to that artistic vitality throughout her career, but is lucky to have struck the indie/mainstream balance to be “above the bread line”. It’s a much-sought after but rarely occupied place. “What I spent most of my career doing isn’t the really low budget – student projects, is what I’ll call them – but mid-range dramas,” she says, having once referred to Martin Scorsese as an art house filmmaker with a bigger budget. They’ve now collaborated together on six ‘art house’ classics.
Those projects are a costume designer’s rare luxury: time, quality of craftsmanship and an opportunity to hold out for a fund-seeking labour of love. Take “Carol”, director Todd Haynes’ generational romance between two women in 1950s America, which has been 11 years in the making. Driven by a stellar lead cast, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, the film finally premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and earned Rooney the sought after Palme d’Or award for best actress in the process. “There are still very few female-driven films,” notes Powell, letting her own political leanings emerge. “And the money for mid-range projects has gone.” Luckily, she treads the same waters as a handful of industry veterans who take a critical lens on the structures of gender, sexuality and class.
“Nowadays there’s a lot of work around, but it’s all aimed at the lowest common denominator,” she says. “It’s all mega buck franchises parts 1, 2, 3 and 4, or it’s Marvel or Disney. This format works – let’s do it again with some other people in it. I would rather make considerably less money on something that’s good than do the whole superhero thing.” It’s why she’s had the last year off, and still hasn’t confirmed her next wave of films. “I’ve realised if it’s not something I want to see, why spend nine months of my life on it?”