Profiles in Art: Michele Clapton, Part I

Michele Clapton is an Emmy and BAFTA award-winning costume designer. Based in the UK, Michele has worked on numerous high profile projects including Game of Thrones, The Crown, Sense and Sensibility, and The Devil’s Whore. You can see more of her life and work on her Instagram and website. We sat down to talk to her about her professional journey.

Interview conducted by: Tiffany Chan, Catherine Harlow

Edited by: Morgan Moore, Catherine Harlow, Tiffany Chan

Cover Image by: Adrien LaChappelle


Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with fashion/costume design?

I guess from a really early age (when I was around 7 years old), I used to create wild turbans and evening dresses out of towels and parade around the house. I was always aware of how clothes smelt and how they felt and how they fitted me. I spent hours in front of the mirror trying different styles. I remember convincing my mother that, so long as we used the school fabric, we were allowed to make the dress any shape (I have a no idea why she believed me!), so I had a little bolero over an A-line dress with six panel and everyone else’s was straight with a round neck. When the Headmistress said that I couldn’t wear it, I cried and said that we were too poor to make another!!

I didn’t realise that it was possible to have a career in costume, I grew up in a small village where there was no access to this. I couldn’t  imagine that a job like that existed..ah!  I’ve also just remembered saying that I would rather go to school barefoot than wear the boring school shoes!! (my poor mother!) In my early teens I poured over fashion magazines and copied the looks, I loved to create characters and try to imagine their lives. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be Jerry Hall or Marie Helvin! I adored the styles of Bowie and Roxy Music…and then later really got into Punk.

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Clare Thom, a designer for clothes shop PX, and student Michele Clapton, 1980
Image by Graham Smith (Source) 
Q: What was your professional path like? How did you get into the field (apprenticeships/schooling/general work experience)?

When it came to leaving school, I had no idea as to what to do. Luckily a careers advisor, after speaking with me about my interests, suggested I take a two year course in Fashion Design and Garment Cutting at a tech college in Oxford. I loved it, as it opened up my world a bit. I found it very restricting in the design aspect, but there I met an amazing woman whose name was I believe Mrs. Hill she was extremely elegant yet warm and encouraging, and she spoke about Zandra Rhodes and other designers of the time and of Costume Style. I had never had these discussions before, no one I knew had any idea about such things. I also met a Theology student called Sasha Bradell, who was wonderfully eccentric, and we formed a company called Perspiration de Paris! We designed mad punk clothes.

Following my time at Oxford, I went to London and took a three- year course at London College of Fashion. Again, I found the course at times incredibly frustrating and restricting. If I had known at the time, I would have chosen a different route or college, but I just didn’t know of alternatives. At least by attending these rather technical courses I learnt the crafts of cutting and construction. It was actually all the other things that London gave me that influenced my design skills. I worked at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in the evenings and at the weekends. I also worked sometimes in Chelsea’s antique market on a vintage clothes stall. I shaved my head and dressed in an extreme way and became part of the New Romantic movement… it was a wonderful time.

On leaving college, I opened a stall in Kensington Market, and I also designed clothes for a shop owned partly by Boy George, where each week a few of us would present our ideas and they would chose those that they liked and put them in to manufacture. I soon started my own label and showed at London Fashion week and organised a new way to show fashion at the ICA, using a combination of choreographers and young upcoming designers. But ultimately, after a few seasons I found fashion to be a tough business. I spent more time chasing payments and less designing, which was not what I had planned. So I took a break and moved into styling bands and particularly their promos. I loved the speed with which we had to work when creating for such varied briefs…I loved the story-telling…from Annie Lennox and George Michael through to Adam Ant, Bryan Ferry, and Sound Garden and so many more, it was great fun. I’ve always worked for myself, I have never assisted I’m not sure if that’s the best way in…but again, I didn’t really have another path. I think I would be a rubbish assistant as a result.I like to be in charge!

 

Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced as a designer?

I guess when I finally moved into film and TV, I found the rhythm of filming incredibly hard to conform to; I was more used to much shorter projects and the personal freedom they offered. I also found continuity hard, it was something that is rarely an issue in promos and commercials. Also working with actors who had opinions! I was used to models who wore what they were told to and made it look great! But I loved the storytelling, the idea of aging costumes and giving them their history. I also now enjoy the discovering of a character, so much of this comes from talking and being with the actor…it’s a wonderful experience when they are prepared to engage in this way.

 

Q: What are the greatest rewards of your job?

I love working with my team of incredibly talented people, I love discovering new talent and nurturing itI love to see a costume develop from my first sketch through to an incredible piece with so much love and craft invested in it. I love working as a team, and also the variety in the projects that are offered to me.

 

Q: Were there ever moments throughout your career when you doubted yourself/what you were doing? How did those moments resolve?

I guess at the time when I stopped my fashion company, I didn’t know what else I could do. I actually had my daughter during this time, so it gave me a natural break. I then met a photographer when he came to the warehouse where we lived; he wanted to use our place as a set (it was pretty mad and industrial).  He happened to see some of my samples, and drawings that I had started to play with. We spoke and I explained that I wasn’t really sure which direction to go in. He suggested I try styling, and asked me to work on his next project, which happened to be a new artist called Enya! So we met and it was her first photo session and it was wonderful, we got on really well and she asked me to style her first video, Sail Away…which was also my first video. From there, I continued to work with photographers and directors and artists, and that was my design life for the next 15 years.

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Still from the music video “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” by Enya (1988).
Q: What is the quirkiest side job you’ve ever worked?
I was the usherette on a short film that I was the star of!!!

 

Q: What inspires you? What motivates you to continue taking projects and creating costumes?

For me designing is a way of life, (my partner will confirm this!) even between projects I’m usually working on something, it’s almost that if I don’t have something I feel incomplete. Of course I have down time, but I would say that almost every day, even when I’m not officially on a project I will be drawing something or referencing. Even when we go for walks in the countryside, I come back with feathers and whatever else I think is of use!

 

Q: What advice would you give someone just starting out in the field? Or, what is the best advice that someone ever gave you?

Knowing what I know now, I would say directly from college I would join a scheme to be a trainee on film. Just get to know how it works. I would also recommend working on small projects that allow you to develop your ideas, collaborate with friends, anything to show your enthusiasm and style.


Loved this interview? This is only Part one of two! In the second part of the interview, Michele talks about her creative process and tells us some stories from the set of Game of Thrones! In the meantime, check out some of the other interviews in the series. 

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