Wallis Simpson famously said that 'I'm nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else' - and boy, is that what she did. Grazia Daily caught up with costume designer du jour Arianne Phillips – who has styled Madonna for over 14 years – to talk about having Madonna as a boss, re-creating the Duchess Of Windsor’s incredible jewellery and collaborating with the likes of Christian Dior, Dunhill and Vionnet for the wonderful film, 'W.E.' (in cinemas this Friday 20th January).
Grazia Daily: What’s Madonna like as a director?
Arianne Phillips: She and I have this creative language together because I’ve been working with her for the past 14 years. I loved having her on the other side of the camera and being able to collaborate with her in that way. It wasn’t that different because she’s an idea person and she’s always directed me anyway, in terms of everything we’ve done from album covers to photoshoots to the play in the West End so we’ve worked in so many different disciplines and we have a real fluency in language so I feel like she’s been directing me for years! The only difference is that it’s more objective with her behind the camera, she has a real sense of an incredible aesthetic, the only other experience I’ve had like this was working with Tom Ford on A Single Man, most directors don’t know how to discuss the nuances of the fabric, colour and the silhouette, and the beauty of working with Tom and working with Madonna was the vernacular.
Grazia Daily: How involved were you on set? Were you constantly tweaking and fiddling with details?
Arianne Phillips: It’s different than a photo-shoot when it’s all about a tableau and perfection of detail. The thing about creating costumes is that the work is really done in the preparation and the research, and the fitting and I really believe once you create that costume and it’s been fit and agreed upon in all its glory. My job as a costume designer is to be there the first time the costume is worn in front of the camera and to commit it to continuity but what the actor does - if the actor chooses to role his sleeves up or his shirt, or in Andrea’s case, fold her dress up so she can dance - is really up to the actor. It’s not about getting in the way of their characterisation, it’s my job to help facilitate their work as actors and to give them something to work with as that character. It takes on its own life. Actors really understand costumes and their inclinations for what to do with their costumes is really the beauty of the collaboration.
Grazia Daily: Were there any style rules of Wallis Simpson that you had to abide by?
Arianne Phillips: It’s more about figuring out the world of how she did dress and looking at all the research and creating a language of what her silhouette was and what she gravitated to. Her silhouette was always very specific and she always made very specific choices, I tried to have that kind of confidence when I was creating her outfits and accessorising her with jewellery. The jewellery was a huge part of the look and what she was all about…
Andrea Riseborough as Wallis Simpson in 'W.E.'
Grazia Daily: We adored the Cartier cross bracelet that Edward famously gave her, how did you recreate that?
Arianne Phillips: When Madonna told me she wanted to work on the film and that she was working on writing the film, the first thing I thought of was the jewellery and how important it was going to be to portray it. Famously, the relationship between jewellery and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor was legendary so I said to Madonna, that’s going to be the biggest hurdle. Luckily, early on, we contacted Cartier and we recreated 10 iconic pieces that actually belonged to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The cross bracelet was at the centre point of their relationship! Van Cleef and Artel as well as Cartier made the vintage museum archive available to us so we were able to use beautiful pieces that they have in their collection that aren’t even for sale but are just part of the museum exhibition of their jewellery. Everything had to be scheduled ahead of time as a lot of the vintage jewellery from Cartier came from Switzerland or Paris.
Grazia Daily: What designers did you collaborate with for 'W.E'?
Arianne Phillips: I only collaborated with two fashion designers for the movie and that was only for Andrea Riseborough’s costumes. Andrea had 60 costume changes as Wallis. In the end, Vionnet made four dresses for us and Christian Dior made four as well. We used three of the Dior outfits in the film. I thought Dior was really important for the film’s authenticity and homage as Wallis was one of the very first Christian Dior clients and was also a client of Madeleine Vionnet so they were very important to include in the film and I didn’t want to attempt to recreate a Dior dress so thought it’d be more appropriate for Christian Dior to recreate a Dior dress. We went to them with some research and asked them to recreate the looks that she’d worn and they had evidence of in their archive and it was wonderful, I feel like fashion is a character in the film and it was so important to portray what Wallis and Edward really wore. In terms of presentation and the image that they put forth to the world, the world of luxury, couture, tailoring and fine jewellery on an independent budget was quite challenging so the collaborations benefitted us in so many ways. It gave us the authenticity of the relationship Wallis would have had with Christian Dior and they with Wallis Simpson and it also gave us beautiful quality for the film. I also used a lot of vintage and designed a lot of pieces for myself. We worked closely with Dunhill for all the tailoring for the Duke of Windsor’s outfits. They’re an English company and understand the Savile Row tailoring and actually gave us our own tailor from Savile Row who worked specifically on James’ costumes and we were able to recreate how Edward dressed and what he wore. It was just an incredible process.
Grazia Daily: There’s a beautiful scene where Wallis and Edward are on a yacht, how did you go about choosing those sunglasses for Andrea?
Arianne Phillips: I think we tried a few on to see what suited Andrea’s face but those are some vintage sunglasses that I found at a costume house in London and I thought they were beautiful. I used a lot of blue for the character and these had a wonderful blue tone. After all, they famously named a colour after her, called Duchess Blue, as Wallis Simpson famously wore a lot of blue.
Madonna in Vionnet at the Venice Film Festival
Grazia Daily: Has Madonna’s personal style been influenced by the W.E vibe at all?
Arianne Phillips: She’s always really loved the fashion of the 20s and 30s, she wore a beautiful dress that was made for her specifically by the House of Vionnet for the Venice Film Festival [above] that has a very 30s feel to it.
Grazia Daily: How did you vary what Wallis wore based on where she was?
Arianne Phillips: She had a wardrobe for London and a wardrobe for the South of France. They were very different. Her wardrobe in London was always very finished and she wore furs, hats and heavy fabrics while in the south of France - in the scene where Edward’s been abdicated and she fled to the South of France to take refuge from the press - it’s much more at home, it’s casual and intimate. Her clothes become lighter with lighter colours, quality and weight to reflect the lack of the public eye. But her version of casual t-shirt and jeans were a beautiful kimono, black linen trousers, and other elegant clothing made from silks, linens and cottons as opposed to wools and crepe and fur which she wore in London.
Grazia Daily: How did you go about making someone who was such a fashion icon your own?
Arianne Phillips: You kind of fill yourself up with as much research as possible and then you kind of have to throw it out and see what’s cinematically appropriate for the film you’re filming, that kept me focussed on the task at hand. If I think about how things are going to be perceived and the outcome, then I’d never come out of bed in the morning! If I focus on being true to who these people were and create a language for myself that I understand, then I can move forward in a much more confident and directive way and that’s the best way I can describe how to deal with the overwhelming task of recreating an icon like Edward or Wallis.
Andrea Riseborough and James D'Arcy