Costume Designer Sandy Powell’s Always on the Hunt for Good Designs

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Three decades after her start in show business, Sandy Powell has made such a mark with her work, that “costume designer” is often not needed as a prefix because people know the name. And if they don’t, they know the Brit artisan’s face and her fiery orange hair.

The Academy Award-winning costume designer of such films as “The Aviator,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Young Victoria” is the recipient of Variety’s Creative Impact in Costume Design Award at the 24th annual SCAD Savannah Film Festival on Oct. 29. Although she will not be present in person for the honor.

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Straight out of college, Powell worked on music videos. Her first job, when she was 21, was with choreographer Lindsay Kemp, who had taught David Bowie, but the aspiring costume designer’s life would change when she met filmmaker Derek Jarman.

It was Jarman who introduced Powell to set life — her first film was 1986’s “Caravaggio,” starring Tilda Swinton that he directed.

“It was my first time on a film set of any description,” Powell says. “He took me around each department and explained what everybody did. I was 23 years old, very young.”

Recalling that experience, she adds: “There was hardly any money, but everybody mucked in and did everything. It was fantastic — what I thought filmmaking was. It wasn’t until I moved on and started with other directors, I realized it wasn’t like that. Still, it was such brilliant grounding.”

She has worked with Martin Scorsese — their last pairing was “The Irishman,” which landed her an Oscar nomination alongside co-costumer designer Christopher Peterson — Neil Jordan and Todd Haynes, to name a few.

Some of the stars Powell has worked with include Leonardo DiCaprio (“Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Departed”), Cate Blanchett (“Carol”), Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”) and Julianne Moore (“Far From Heaven”).

“You know them [in real life], but what’s exciting is exploring a different character with them each time,” Powell says.

In “Mothering Sunday,” which is screening at the SCAD Film Festival and being released by Sony Pictures Classics on Nov. 19, Powell reunited with Colman, Colin Firth and producer Elizabeth Karlsen, whom she calls “a dear friend. I’ve known her since the ’80s and we go way back.”

The period drama takes place in 1924, with Odessa Young as Jane, an orphan maid about to have a day off. Mothering Sunday is a U.K. tradition when servants were given a holiday to go to their “mother church” usually with family. The film moves between decades, something that drew Powell to the script.

“There was scope for the costumes,” she says. The film covers “the early ’20s, a flashback to the teens, flash-forward to the late ’20s. There are the late ’40s and early ’50s, so it’s always quite nice to not get stuck in one period, and to be able to sort of explore and expand and work with the characters.”

On a much larger scale, Powell’s work on “The Irishman” spanned five decades, from the 1950s to 2003.

“It was like doing three or four films in one at the same time,” she says.

Powell had 102 changes for Robert De Niro’s character alone.

“I always wanted to have the real ’60s sharkskin. You have to really hunt. Sometimes you can hunt vintage fabrics, and it was a real hunt. We tried to get something that resembled all these fabrics. Everything now is much lighter in weight. Suit fabric is much lighter now than it was back then.”

Contemporary modern suiting is made for comfort. “All the suiting fabric is fine and comfortable. It has a certain look and I can spot it a mile away. If you use that kind of fabric, in a suit made for the ’20s, it’s completely wrong. It’s too soft.”

Whether working on a smaller film or a Scorsese epic, she will always seek to find original pieces and vintage fabrics where needed.

For “Mothering Sunday,” director Eva Husson wanted the central Nivens family to be bohemian with the idea that maybe Firth’s character was a publisher.

“It was a bit arty and fairly conservative, but not as conservative as the others. One of her references was the Bloomsbury set.”

Powell used vintage suiting for Firth’s character, Mr. Niven, the master of the house. “It’s becoming harder and harder to find — it’s getting to be more and more of a problem,” she says in her search for period-accurate textiles. “He’s quite casual in his suiting, so it’s a bit more of an informal suit.”

Colman’s looks were inspired by English author Vita Sackville-West. “I took the essence of that and dressed Olivia along those lines with slightly artistic and looser looking clothes — with nice jewelry.”

Powell has said the biggest misconception of costume design is people often think it’s about designing gowns and dresses.

“If I think over it, I design more for men than women. It’s not gowns. That’s what people think we do. It’s just as big a skill. It’s what doesn’t get recognized — the people wearing ordinary clothes — because everyone is looking at the sparkly number.”

Powell, who has 15 Oscar noms and three wins, has seen more interest in the changing field of costume design.

“Within the last 10 years there’s been tremendous focus on promotion. I don’t even remember thinking about any of that in my early days. I did get nominations way back — but no one asked me to do interviews,” says Powell.

Up next for her is a musical version of a much-loved classic. She’s keeping mum for now, but is very excited about the project.

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