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Madonna has had a long fascination with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s love affair, an obsession that compelled her to write and direct W.E, a film about Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) who abdicated his throne to marry the stylish American two-time divorcee Wallis Simpson (Andrea Risenborough). For the rest of their privileged lives in exile from England, they traveled the lofty world of international high society, always photographed in memorable costumes. It was the couture-fixated Wallis who first pronounced, “You can never be too rich or too thin” and admitted, “I’m not a beautiful woman. I’m nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else.”
Many films have been made of the couple’s story. But Madonna revealed a sympathy for a life lived in the public eye, of being misunderstood and understood, of being a subject of both fascination and vilification. Hence the scenes of paparazzi camera flashes hunting the couple.
Madonna’s personal style has also been scrutinized and emulated throughout her career. She’s been idolized and reviled for controversial performances and statements. And she is intimately acquainted with the power of dressing “better than anyone else,” of wearing couture gowns and multi-million dollar pieces of jewelry.
“If W.E. had had a different director, there’s no question that the level of authenticity to the Duke and Duchess’s fashion and jewelry would not have existed. Madonna has worn couture many times and she’s worn million dollar pieces of jewelry,” explains her longtime personal stylist Arianne Phillips. “She understands the power and how it looks, how it feels and how you can’t cheat it.”
And the result is fashionista’s moist dream.
It fell to Phillips, also an Oscar-nominated (Walk the Line) and BAFTA-nominated (A Single Man) costume designer to tackle the daunting task of recapturing the couple’s signature styles and elaborate jewelry. Phillips wanted to pay homage to the Simpson’s personal relationships with couture houses — Dior and Vionnet — as well as jewelers — Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. And adding another eerie layer of personal connection, it was Madonna’s celebrity and personal relationships with these same couture and jewelry houses that enabled Phillips to have some of Simpson’s gowns and jewelry recreated for this independent film.
“Wallis was a very early Parisian couture client and a big client of Madeleine Vionnet, the mother of Paris couture in the ’30s,” says Phillips. “This was ground zero for 20th century fashion as we know it. Everyone bowed down to Vionnet, from Coco Chanel on down.” As luck would have it, the house of Vionnet has been resurrected after being bought in 2008 by Matteo Marzotto. Vionnet researched Simpson’s orders and made two evening gowns and two cocktail dresses for the film. One stand-out is the bias-cut shimmering lame halter gown Wallis wore to the party where she first meets Edward.
Thanks to Madonna’s close friendship with Dior’s former head designer John Galliano, he recreated four Dior originals because the Duchess had been — not just a client — but close friends with designer Christian Dior. Phillips worked closely with Saville Row tailors, Dunhill, for the Duke’s equally impressive wardrobe. To give you an idea of the Duke’s menswear influence, the Windsor knot was named for him. “Once you start reading about Edward’s tailoring and how fastidious he was about his clothing, you realize his clothing is equally as important as Wallis’s wardrobe. He was a very clever dresser, a very smart dresser. And clothes mattered to him a lot. They mattered to both of them.”
Phillips also asked Roger Vivier to make shoes for the film’s ’30s style looks, again an historically accurate choice. “Wallis was a huge Vivier fan and client because he famously designed the shoes for Christian Dior in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” says Phillips.”His business is owned today by David Della Valle who owns Todd’s and it’s been resurrected as a very elegant couture shoemaker. ”
D’Arcy had 30 costume changes, Risenborough had 60. Other than the 8 created by Dior and Vionnet, the rest were designed by Phillips after 2 1/2 years of research and countless visits to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Musee de la Mode et du Textiles in Paris and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
She did rent a replica crepe gown from London costume house, Cosprop, based on Simpson’s 1937 wedding gown designed by Mainbocher. And she also fashioned that iconic Elsa Schiaparelli navy suit with white leather scroll work. “She was famously photographed in Schiaparelli,” says Phillip, adding, “There was a feud between Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel. You couldn’t be a Schiaparelli client and a Chanel client. You had to choose sides.”
But it was the jewelry that was the key to the couple’s love story. Edward’s jewelry gifts to Wallis are legendary, on a par — in their time — with Richard Taylor‘s lavish jewelry given to Elizabeth Taylor. “I knew that the connection between the Duke and Duchess and their jewelry was huge,” says Phillips. So she made a short list of jewelry designers that she wanted to collaborate with. “I wasn’t asking people to create things that haven’t been done. I was asking Cartier if they could recreate facsimiles, paste versions of the real jewelry that they had made for the Duke and Duchess.”
Cartier ended up recreating 10 pieces, including the Duchess’ emerald engagement ring, her panther ring and the famous cross bracelet, which was sadly lost in the surf during filming in NIce, France. But the idea that paste would be simple was false. Phillips explains that even though they did use using real stones, they are still working on crystals (called paste in the biz) that must be cut like the real deal.
“It’s actually sometimes harder,” Phillips learned. “You need the same kind of fine hand and craftsmanship. So because they couldn’t do it in the time frame, we had to find someone that Cartier would agree to work with because they still have all the architecture and the drawings of the jewelry. And when the movie promotion is over, Cartier will destroy all the pieces that they made because they don’t want to devalue the real things. It’s quite dramatic, like recreating a Picasso or something.”
According to Pierre Rainero, Director of Image, Style and Heritage Cartier International, their cooperation was integral to the film because the jewelry reveals the Duke’s devotion/obsession with the Duchess.
“Wallis Simpson, who later became Duchess of Windsor, was at the time was a true international fashion icon. She defined particular style. It was extraordinary jewelry she wore that showed the delicate tender devotion of the Duke to the Duchess, who was, according to the wishes of her husband, the most elegant woman in the world. W.E. tells their love story that crystallizes around the jewelry.”
Both Van Cleef and Cartier also gave Phillips access to their museum heritage collections that are for exhibitions only. “We even used a great bracelet many times in the movie that was actually made for Elsa Schiaparelli by Cartier,” Phillips recalls. “We also borrowed estate jewelry from Neil Lane, who is a good friend of mine and Madonna’s, who owns and has worn his designs.” According to Lane, it was friendship alone that compelled him to design the W pendant worn by Wally (Abbie Cornish plays the modern character) a young woman is obsessed with the royal love affair. He also opened up his personal estate jewelry collection for use in the film.
Needless to say, the timing and security surrounding the jewelry proved challenging. “We had to select ahead of time all the jewelry we were going to use on which days for which scenes,” Phillips recalls. “A lot of the archival pieces had to come from Switzerland via Cartier. So when an archival piece arrived, it came with a handler from Paris plus two security guards. It was like nothing I had never experienced. There were a couple of times when scenes got moved up and Madonna had to use her personal jewelry. In one scene, where Wallis is spraying flowers with perfume, her black and white diamond earrings are Madonna’s Bulgari earrings.
“But we had hundreds of pieces of jewelry that we used over the course of the film. And even the facsimiles, we couldn’t have everything on set at the same time. Because the fakes were still valued to be worth so much because of their artistic value. It was crazy and exhilarating. I feel so lucky that I was able to tell this story in costumes and jewelry. It’s something that comes hopefully at least once in your career.”
On an end note, Madonna wore the Cartier facsimiles to the Venice Film Festival for the W.E. screening. And she really wanted one of Simpson’s cross bracelets of her own Cartier ended up making a special version (not identical to Simpson’s) and gave it to her after the filming.
Yes, it is good to be Queen.
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