Costume Designer Sandy Powell Breaks Down Her Red Carpet Style: Sustainable Chic, With an Ode to Bowie

8:00 AM 2/2/2020

by Bronwyn Cosgrave

The three-time Oscar winner favors suits, which allows for comfort and the chance to channel a rock and fashion icon.

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"I wore trouser suits for the first time in 2016 at the BAFTAS and Oscars, when I was nominated for Carol and Cinderella and, again in 2018, for The Favourite and Mary Poppins Returns," says three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell. "I then realized that a jacket is more comfortable than a gown. It’s always freezing inside the auditoriums. Suits can also be worn with a flat or platform shoe, which also makes walking and standing around for hours much more comfortable. The evenings are so long!"

This awards season — during which the 15-time nominee is campaigning for her fourth Oscar, for her work on Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman alongside Christopher Peterson — Powell’s suits are also demonstrating her commitment to sustainability ("Everything is recycled and borrowed," she says) as well as David Bowie, whose directional flamboyance she has long admired.

  • Future Fashion

    "I had seen a photograph in a magazine of this suit and loved it," says Powell, referring to the oversized lemon and pink plaid suit by the Paris couture label Aganovich that, after modeling it herself in a recent W magazine shoot, Powell put to work again at December’s 32nd European Film Awards, where she was honored for The Favourite. Aganovich’s sustainable design practices appeal to Powell. According to Brooke Taylor — who designs the Aganovich label with Nana Aganovich — the suit, from their spring 2019 couture collection, is entirely made of "technically sustainable" paper. Heightening the impact of the oversized experimental "statement piece," as Powell describes it, are some dark accessories: a black silk blouse ("I love a high neck," says Powell of its cut), a glossy charcoal manicure (to "cover the permanent dirt under my fingernails from handling old clothes in costume houses") and her jet-framed spectacles from London optician Cutler & Gross. "I actually think I look naked without them," she says.

  • Minimalist Mood

    Just as legendary Old Hollywood costume designers — like Edith Head and Adrian — crafted premiere and Oscars attire that evoked the film a leading lady was promoting, Powell often looks to the costumes she’s crafted for her own red carpet inspiration. "I didn’t think bright colors or dress was appropriate for The Irishman," she says, explaining how the Mafia epic’s somber mood inspired the low-key look she sported at its October premiere at the TCL Chinese Theatre. The two-tone outfit incorporated a Michael Kors white cotton dress shirt with a detachable bow ("Again, a recycled red carpet look from the 2014 Venice Film Festival, when I was on the jury," remarks Powell) and her own vintage Issey Miyake trousers. Of her upswept hair, Powell adds: "I like an up 'do because it gives me height."

  • Star Suit

    Powell has looked to David Bowie for inspiration "since the very first time I saw him on Top of the Pops singing 'Star Man,'" she says, referring to his provocative 1972 appearance on the BBC show. After Bowie’s January 2016 passing, Powell enlisted Ian Frazer Wallace — the costume cutter with whom she frequently collaborates — to produce her own version of the "Life on Mars" suit, which London tailor Freddie Burretti had originally made for Bowie to wear in the 1973 video for the hit single. Powell first wore it to the 2016 BAFTAs (complete with a comparable white shirt and tie), and again to the Jan. 25 Critics' Choice Awards.

  • Showing Metal

    The crepe Loewe top featuring shimmering Perspex embroidery that Powell sported with her Thierry Mugler suit at the 63rd BFI London Film Festival’s international premiere of The Irishman is another recycled look. Powell first wore it to present the LaCoste Spotlight Award to Cate Blanchett at February 2016’s 18th Costume Designers Guild Awards. This time around, the mirror-like effect of the Loewe shell relieved the “monotony” of wearing head-to-toe black and lent Powell a sense of effortless glamour. The shiny embellishment "has the same effect as jewelry," she says.

  • Great Scott

    At the New York Film Festival’s opening night gala — where The Irishman made its world premiere — Powell was one of the evening’s best dressed attendees in a stand-out suit crafted for Moschino’s spring 2019 ready-to-wear collection by its creative director, Jeremy Scott. The print — covered with squiggles resembling those produced for preliminary couture sketches — reminded Powell of the drawn animation costumes she conceived for Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns. "I love this suit. I had to have it! And I immediately contacted [fellow costume designer] Arianne Phillips, who I knew was friends with Jeremy Scott, and asked her to put me in touch to request the loan." Now part of her own wardrobe, the suit is in Powell's regular rotation. She also wore it while co-hosting the Women in Film 2019 Oscar party. For extra NYFF gala polish, she wore black accoutrements including a T-shirt and a Venetian glass cocktail ring.

  • Classic Bowie

    "I didn’t know I was going to the [October 2019] Governors Awards until the day before, and this was the suit I had with me," admits Powell, referring to her vintage smoking jacket and trousers by Thierry Mugler. Though the ensemble — which Powell has owned since the late '80s — recalls Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic take on a men’s tuxedo, known as "Le Smoking," Powell’s two piece is actually another David Bowie riff (Mugler has collaborated with the musician since 1979). Lending sporty glamour to her getup are Stella McCartney’s Elyse Star Platform sneakers. Powell acquired the lace-ups — crafted from silver faux leather, sustainable wood and rubber — to wear during the 2015-16 awards season, when she was nominated for Carol. “I needed a platform that worked with a suit and found the Stella McCartneys. I put them on and knew they were perfect because they give me height and I can walk in them."

    A version of this story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.