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Arianne Phillips And Her Magnificent Obsession


“The other people in the exhibit, like Ed Harris, Todd Haynes, and Vittorio Storaro, these are heroes of mine and they are people who have informed my work. To think that I could even be considered in the same context as them is like winning ten Oscars, seriously,” says acclaimed costume designer Arianne Phillips, whose Oscar-nominated creations for Madonna’s film W.E. are included in the second series (out of three total) of the Persol Magnificent Obsessions: 30 Stories of Craftsmanship in Film exhibition at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, along with various notes, rare sketches, video interviews, and materials from films such as Amélie, Far From Heaven, The Last Emperor, and Million Dollar Baby. “It’s both awesome and daunting—it feels a bit like we aren’t in Kansas anymore,” she says of being included in the project. Modest as she might be, the frequent Madonna collaborator and two-time Oscar nominee has earned her spot in the museum next to the nine other filmmaker greats, like special effects guru Douglas Trumbull and composer Ennio Morricone. Binding the elite group together is a story highlighting the obsessive workmanship behind some of film’s most iconic moments. In the case of Phillips, it’s her deep obsession with the transformative power of costume. Before heading to the museum last night, where Persol hosted a party to unveil the exhibition and honor Phillips, Patricia Clarkson, and Todd Haynes, the costume designer talked with yesterday afternoon about the W.E. artifacts that are now on display, working on Madonna’s MDNA tour, and her own obsessions.

You created more than 60 different outfits just for Andrea Riseborough (who plays the legendary Wallis Simpson in the film). Tell me about some of the artifacts and materials from W.E. that made it into the exhibition.
Lucky for us, our director Madonna has an extensive archive of her own with a full-time archivist, so the costumes from the film are being preserved there. A lot of times when the film is over, you can’t even find them because the costumes are being used for promotional purposes, but we have the costumes in perfect condition. There is a day dress (blue and white silk) that is not based on any dress Wallis actually wore. That’s one of my favorite pieces, and there are a few dresses based on ones by Madeleine Vionnet, but there is also one of the Schiaparelli black and white crepe dresses, which is quite famous. Interestingly enough, one of the real ones is on display at the Met right now (for the Prada/Schiaparelli exhibit) and it’s the exact same one I looked at in the costume archives when I was researching for this film and made our version (pictured, above). We also worked with Cartier and re-created jewelry pieces based on pieces the Duke and Duchess owned. They are actually going to be destroyed once this exhibition is over because just like a great painting, they can’t have replicas sitting around. Trust me, Madonna and I have cried many times over this.

How closely did you work with the curator Michael Connor on selecting these pieces for the exhibit?
Michael came out to L.A. where I live, and when they first asked, I was really excited, especially for costume to be recognized in such a way. I am always looking to speak about costuming publicly because it’s an aspect of filmmaking that is not completely understood. He really went out of his way to make sure I was involved every step of the way. We went through all my archives, which were pretty fresh because we only had finished filming a year ago. I was about as involved as you could get in putting this together.

How do these pieces fit into this overarching concept of obsession in the exhibition?
In terms of magnificent obsession, I leave that up to Michael Connor and Persol. I am obsessive about details, I really am and I admit it. But also, I worked with a director, Madonna, who (I worked with her over 15 years) is magnificently obsessed with details and that’s very apparent in the film. I try to infuse those details into a costume to help the actor harness this character and help catapult the actor. Costumes really serve two purposes. Visually, they obviously form the character, and really enrich the viewer and help set a time and place. But also I believe it’s equally important for the actor. Costumes should be a way to catapult an actor into a time and place. Those visceral, tactile aspects are equally important, like how the dresses felt on Andrea and how the suits felt on James D’Arcy.

Specifically, what elements of costume design do you obsess over?
You are speaking my language. I obsess about perfection every step of the way. I always feel there is more that can be done. I do a lot of research and I try to diversify it as much as possible and this film really tapped into that. And I obsess about the organization of it. I am always very obsessive about my presentation, I do elaborate presentations to the director and this helps my process and filters what will be valuable in the design process. I am really big on accessories and color and silhouette. I really want to know cinematically how a costume will work visually. And, I am obsessive about how costumes fit an actor. I guess there is no limit to obsession, really. That is the problem with obsession, it’s a mind-set, it’s a hindrance and an advantage. You have to know when is enough. Sometimes your first inspiration is your best inspiration. For me, obsession means going to whatever length possible to get the job done.
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