It’s only fitting that the leading lady in Tom Ford’s second directorial endeavor would frolic around onscreen in a variety of high-end threads. You’d expect nothing less from the fashion guru turned director. But a closer look at Amy Adams’s overly pristine and buttoned-up wardrobe provides a telling glimpse into the heated psychological journey that her character is about to embark upon. And that was intentional. Arianne Phillips, the costume designer behind Nocturnal Animals, had all that in mind when she was creating the clothes for Adams’s character. “Because Susan worked as a gallerist in the art world, presentation is everything,” Phillips explains. “But she has this inner life that was complicated and all these feelings of pain and loss and regret. So it’s even more important that she have this very specific exterior, kind of like a wall that she presents to the world to not give clues into what’s going on in this tumultuous inner life.”
The Emmy Award-winning costume designer was thrilled to team up with Ford seven years after his directing debut, A Single Man. While she assures us that costumes and fashion are very different worlds, Phillips does admit that the budding film director possesses a sense of fabric and texture that makes him the ideal creative partner. “He certainly has an elevated aesthetic,” she reveals. “Many directors I’ve worked with don’t have that understanding or knowledge. Our conversation is elevated on that level.”
We caught up with Phillips ahead of the film’s Nov. 18 release to discuss teaming up with her favorite director to bring the characters of Nocturnal Animals to life, dressing Adams in both modern-day aesthetics and college-age flashbacks, and what pressure she feels to be stylish in her own everyday life.
Yahoo Style: What was it like working with Tom Ford as a director?
Arianne Phillips: Well, it’s the second time I worked with him. I also worked with him on A Single Man, his first film. Tom is one of the most prepared, smart, fun, clever directors I’ve ever worked with. I love working with him. I think my only complaint is that he doesn’t make enough films. I had to wait seven years between A Single Man and Nocturnal Animals. He’s fantastic. He knows in his head when he’s written a script what his characters look like and what they feel like. And my job as a costume designer is to expedite the director’s vision and to interpret the director’s ideas. So we spent a lot of time talking and poring over research. I bring a lot of visual research and create multiple documents and mood boards, and he does the same. Together we figure out this world that we’re creating, which also informs the production design and the set and the props. Everything is an aesthetic puzzle that works in tandem together towards the same goal.
Does the fact that he is so well versed in the world of fashion make him the dream director for a costume designer?
Costumes actually are not really about clothes. Clothes happen to be the tool that we use, but they are really about creating characters and helping to tell the story. Fashion as a costume designer is a reference point in general. Any film that I have worked on, I always look to see what is current at that time in fashion to create a relevance. I don’t necessarily use it. If I’m doing a film set in the 1950s, I’ll look at what was fashionable at that time and if it made sense for the character. This is a contemporary film; it’s a very aesthetic world. Amy Adams’s character is a gallerist who works at a very high level, and so that character would be aware of what is relevant fashion-wise. But Tom and I actually never talk about fashion when we talk about the film. We are talking about character and the story and what makes sense to move the story along, where the character is from, where they may be going, what is the tone of the film. … So it’s actually a very different conversation. But he certainly has an elevated aesthetic in comparison to most directors I’ve worked with. He definitely has the vernacular to speak about textures and fabric. He can understand that conversation. Many directors I’ve worked with don’t have that understanding or knowledge. So our conversation is elevated on that level. And he’s interested.
How was the process of dressing Amy throughout the different time periods in this film? In the modern-day scenes, she is a high-fashion gallerist, and then we see her in many flashbacks from her college days.
In the flashbacks, we were referencing what would have been current at the time for a young woman from Texas from an upper-middle-class family who moved to New York. And so we were looking at a lot of ’90s fashion and also pictures of real people and referencing that world. We definitely came back and looked at what was relevant and made sense for her character during that time period. So that was a lot of fun. And then we had to juxtapose her contemporary life, as the film is contemporary. So we had to share her journey as a young/almost a middle-aged woman who is a successful gallerist and what that would look like and the difference between the arcs. As a costume designer, I’m always looking for a beginning, middle, and an end in a story and where the character starts and where a character goes. This film is really interesting because you have that emotional arc for sure with Amy Adams’s character, but then you have a geographical element and we go back and forth with that timeline. So we have separate worlds. We have the current world that she lives in in Los Angeles as a gallerist, and then we have the world when she was discovering who she was and who she wanted to be and her relationship with Edward and her relationship with her mother, and making those two worlds different.
Amy seems like she is the type of actress that looks good in anything that you put her in. Did you find that to be the case?
She’s a brilliant actress and she’s extremely beautiful, so yes, definitely. The thing that I found the most impressive about her is her lack of vanity, her willingness to do what was right for the character. That was really refreshing. She was really open to this physical transformation that had to exist for this character to be believable onscreen. And so we had a lot of fun figuring out who Susan was and what her character was about.
Amy’s modern-day, contemporary self is very fashionable. What were your inspirations for her look?
Most of her clothes we created and I designed. I was looking at contemporary gallerists, women who would be in her position, women of her age and her psycho economic power that would make sense and what they wear. Because Susan worked as a gallerist in the art world, presentation is everything. And of course we know that she has this inner life that was complicated and she has all these feelings of pain and loss and regret. She’s in an unhappy marriage, so I think it’s even more important that she have this very buttoned-up precise, specific exterior, kind of like a wall that she presents to the world to not give clues into what’s going on in this tumultuous inner life. So that was really important. Any professional woman who has great success, I think there is always some kind of cost that we have to make, and this film addresses that. I think the costumes really help show the presentational side of her world and how is it is so different from what is really happening in her inner emotional life. The costumes really helped create that steely visual quality that was essential for who that character is.
As an award-winning costume designer, how much pressure do you feel to dress stylishly in your everyday life? Do you feel like people pay more attention to what you are wearing all the time?
Oh, God! I don’t think so. I hope not. My work is all about illusion and fantasy. I think I have learned from working with people like Tom and people like Madonna, who I’ve worked with for 19 years, not to invest in how people perceive you and to be true to yourself. Ultimately, I dress the way that I feel like it. I don’t feel that pressure. I don’t even subscribe to it. I think if I did, I would never get out of bed in the morning.
What is your personal style like?
I think it’s a mishmash of utilitarian. I mix things. I love designer clothes, but I don’t love a head-to-toe designer look. I wear jeans from the Gap. I love vintage. I just try to mix it up. It’s hard for me to characterize my style. I wear a lot of boots. I have a tendency to have an ’80s rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic, I guess.
When you dress somebody for a movie, you’re obviously working to fit into a storyline. But when you work with people like Madonna, are you going for more of a shock factor and looking to push the boundaries, fashion-wise?
My body of work with Madonna expands everything from music videos to her tours to album covers, even as a director. So everything we do is different, and it’s usually always inspired by the material and what story we are telling, kind of in the same way of being a costume designer for film. So everything I do with her is really job-dependent. There’s really no formula. I think that’s the beauty of what I do. I personally have chosen a career that is a mix of costume design for film and also I do some theater. I also work in fashion. I think it’s what I call creative ADD. Every job has its own need. It is its own journey; its own adventure. Every job I do with Madonna is completely different, depending on if it’s a live tour or a video or a photo shoot for a magazine. All of the needs and the material are different. Generally the way I approach my work is I’m always looking for the underlining meaning and the why. Sometimes it’s about looking sexy and fun and fashionable, if I’m doing a fashion shoot for instance, but I usually try to get meaning, and I think I on occasion work with people who have that certain sensibility. Aesthetic without cause can be quite empty, so I find that to give meaning to a story, whether it’s a fashion shoot or a costume designed for a movie, is really essential to what I do. I don’t dress people for the red carpet. That’s not really what I do by choice. But whether if it’s a fashion shoot or a costume design for a movie, I love the idea of character or telling a story.