Fashion Focus: The Marvellous Ms Clapton
Sometimes the ultimate visual extravaganza for a designer isn’t the runway. It’s the silver screen. Michele Clapton’s award-winning work as a costume designer is a testament to this fact.
From crafting costumes for George R R Martin’s baroquely-detailed world in Game of Thrones to recreating the royal outfits in The Crown, Clapton’s sartorial influences over the last 20 years have run so deep that they’ll be remembered as pop-cultural tropes for decades to come. But Clapton did not take the conventional route to becoming a costume designer.
A punk rocker
Clapton grew up in a village outside Oxford in England, where there was no real access to fashion. But she always had a certain pizzazz and an eye for good clothing, even when she was dressing up from her mother’s wardrobe as a young girl.
“As I grew up, I started gravitating towards punk while experimenting with how I dressed. I started exploring textiles and pattern-cutting. I always looked at magazines and made what I saw in them. I became aware of how you can express yourself through clothing,” says Clapton.
“As a child, I didn’t feel particularly pretty, so I liked the idea of looking different. I was a tomboy in some ways. I was the only girl on a motorbike and even though I wanted to be feminine, it wasn’t in the way other people were. And I started designing little collections, went to college in London and decided to study fashion,” she recalls.
After graduating from the London College of Fashion, Clapton presented two collections at London Fashion Week but quickly realised that in the fashion industry, business always trumps creativity. So she joined the Institute of Contemporary Arts, a place where fashion and performance could intersect, and started designing for choreographers, dancers and real people.
“Eventually I started styling (music) bands, from Boy George to George Michael. I had a daughter and my time became more precious. I think it helped me learn how to achieve a look quickly, a look which is also iconic. Later, I moved into films. That’s when my daughter was older. With musicians, you want a quick result but something that is strong. With films, you have more time to think. It’s a slower pace. I was very lucky that I found my way into this,” says Clapton.
Catching the movies
After working for films like Mamma Mia! Here we go again (2018), and TV series like Sense and Sensibility (2008) and The Devil’s Whore (2008) among many others, the BAFTA and Emmy award-winning designer is all set for yet another blockbuster Disney film – The King’s Man. The gritty film is a prequel and the third one in the Kingsman series. Clapton reveals how the period spy movie is different from some of the projects she has worked on so far.
“I don’t usually have budgets this big or the time to work on details,” she says, “The director (Matthew Vaughn who has produced films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and directed X-Men: First Class (2011) along with the previous The King’s Man) is so passionate about these details and so he encourages this process. You require that intensity.”
The King’s Man is a nod to British tailoring, sharp cuts and patterns that pay homage to period suits. Clapton says, “I loved working with Harris (Dickinson who played the role of Conrad in the film); he looks very stylish and I got a chance to experiment with colours, cuts and patterns. Sometimes the modern man can look terrible in period suits but it was about how he wore it. And, I also loved working with Gemma Arterton (who plays Polly) and there’s this suit she wore that I would’ve liked to wear as well.”
Perhaps this is why the costumes in The King’s Man, from double-breasted checked coats to polka-dotted pocket squares, also ended up becoming a franchise for Mr Porter – the online retail destination that houses more than 450 luxury brands, including Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga and Gucci.
“It wasn’t something I had in mind while I was working on the collection,” says Clapton. “It happened when Harris, who is a young man, started wearing these clothes and he loved them. It was really exciting to maintain the authenticity of the costume but also make it wearable for the modern man. There’s a really fine line between the two. However, it didn’t have any bearing on the costumes I designed for the film.”
Even though fashion and costume have always been strictly demarcated, Clapton believes there is a real symbiotic relationship between the two. “Every time a film or a TV character becomes popular, fashion buys into it and will take elements from it and it will influence designers. It does inspire fashion shows and filters down. Plus, people buy into the character and want to emulate it somehow,” she muses.
It’s no surprise then that Clapton loves fashion designers who bring the same kind of flamboyance to their designs as she does to the characters she dresses on screen. “I love John Galliano for his colours and proportions. I love Vivienne Westwood for her brave cuts and how she distorts the figure. From the slightly more youthful lot, I love Craig Green. And, of course, I loved Elsa Schiaparelli,” she smiles.
Clapton’s work cuts through both time and geography and this is also why it takes her around the world. She reveals how many of the cottons, saris and fabrics that she uses are often sourced from India, and her jewellery line, MEY Designs, is entirely produced in India.
Michele loves Bollywood films too. “I love the life in these films and I like how it is influencing other genres as well. And I feel it isn’t particular to India now but opening up to a more diverse cultural realm. In Bajirao Mastani (2015), the costumes were beautiful, along with the lighting and set. I also like a lot of earlier movies like The Apu Trilogy,” she exclaims.
The eternal optimist
Clapton’s personal style is far more eclectic than that of other designers. “I always try to be quite individualistic,” she says. “I don’t like to be compared to others. I like big boots, loose clothing and hats. I take time to think about how I want to look. How clothes feel on me can affect my mood. It’s important how they fit me. I know a lot of designers say they don’t care about how they look and they tend to wear the same thing every day. I do often wear the same thing, but I care about how it looks and what it says,” she says.
With the pandemic ruling the world, Clapton knows that this is a particularly hard time, especially for younger people who are also freelancers like her. “With the coronavirus, a lot of projects aren’t happening. And because it’s all freelance, there’s no safety net for all of us. A lot of people in the film industry are also suffering. Though I know a lot of people have set up small projects and have been creating things for themselves and making independent films,” she sighs.
“It’s hard,” she continues. “But I would say, try to remain as optimistic as you can. I find it hard to not be creative and I kept trying to make projects for myself. But if there’s something you do every day and suddenly it’s taken away from you and you are not able to be with your team and your friends, it’s bound to take a toll. I am lucky that it wasn’t an issue for me financially, but mentally, it has been hard.”
After The King’s Man, Clapton has another film called The Secret Garden coming out. “It’s a beautiful little project. I’m hoping something wonderful will come along after that,” she says. “That’s the beauty of this profession. You don’t know what you’re going to be doing next year. Hopefully, it is something exciting. I don’t like doing the same things.”
From HT Brunch, December 13, 2020
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