With a background at fashion houses including Alexander McQueen, designer Evie Gurney has made her theatre debut on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage with Antony and Cleopatra. She tells Liz Hoggard how she drew on 1930s Hollywood, the Italian military and Beyonce to create the show’s look
In creating a wardrobe for one of the most famous and powerful women in history, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, Evie Gurney took inspiration from contemporary cultural royalty: Queen Bey.
At one stage during the National Theatre  production of Antony and Cleopatra, which opened last month, Sophie Okonedo emerges as Cleopatra in a ruffled yellow dress. It was inspired by the gown Beyonce wears in her video for the song Hold Up, part of the feminist revenge album Lemonade, to remind us how women have always had to fight to tell their stories. Gurney sees a direct link between the two. “For me Antony and Cleopatra is about a woman whose life was subject to much speculation and how she tackled that through her creativity in a public way and took the story back,” Gurney says.
Directed by Simon Godwin , the production has won rave reviews, with critics singling out Gurney’s costumes – from Okonedo’s gorgeous bespoke gowns to the sharp suits and military fatigues worn by Ralph Fiennes’ Antony.
Remarkably, Gurney has never designed for theatre before. Her background is in couture. She trained at Central Saint Martins, worked for fashion houses Ralph Lauren and Alexander McQueen, then last year took a master’s in curating at the Royal College of Art.
It was, she says, “quite a bold move” for Godwin to bring in someone from outside to design costumes for his revival of Shakespeare’s sprawling tale of love and political strife. But Gurney has always been passionate about Shakespeare. As a teen, she met Godwin at Anna Scher’s after-school drama club. They kept in touch as his theatre career soared, and she carved out a career in luxury fashion.
When Godwin decided to set the play among the global rich, he knew he needed a fashion expert. “Simon wanted someone who had quite a specific insight into that world, and how the people who live that luxury lifestyle shop, and what they wear. He was really striving to help people understand who these characters were – and who their contemporary equivalents might be – through dress.”
She came in for a script reading with Godwin “where we were mining all the information in the text about what people wear. There’s a wonderful bit where Enobarbus describes Cleopatra arriving in this golden boat dressed in a cloth of gold with her handmaidens around her. It gives you insight into this fantasy version of her. But I also wanted to show the real woman”.
By the time Gurney came on-board, Hildegard Bechtler had designed the set, and the actors were cast. “So for me it was about painting in the wardrobe,” says Gurney. “It’s an incredibly technical show, the set revolves, there’s a swimming pool and live snakes. And the extenuated set made me think of 1930s Hollywood, which was the last time I can recall women being very powerful and iconic.”
She took inspiration from the “liquid gowns and glistening silhouettes” worn by Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford, and pored over contemporary images of Queen Rania of Jordan and Sheikha Mozah, wife of Qatar’s ruler – elegant women of power who dress in a more modest way.
Gurney doesn’t want her costumes to look like costumes, though she allows herself the occasional flourish. She loves the way young people get the reference to Beyonce. “You see them perk up because it’s speaking directly to them.”
She knew her costumes would need to be robust. “Sophie’s performance is massively physical. At the end she climbs up the monument, 12ft off the stage, then comes down and picks up a live snake. So the last thing you want is for her to trip over a dress. But when she stands still the fabric pools around her, so she becomes like a sculpture. And you see the icon, Cleopatra.”
Q&A: Evie Gurney
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a Saturday girl at my mum’s friend’s fashion boutique.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Antony and Cleopatra.
What’s your next job?
To be confirmed.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That making mistakes is an essential part of the learning process. To be fair, I think people probably did say it, I just wasn’t listening…
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My inspirations come from everywhere, that’s what makes a creative job so exciting. In fashion terms there is always someone, somewhere, finding new ways to express themselves through clothes and that fundamental desire to find ways to communicate through clothing fascinates me.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
You won’t be to everyone’s taste so don’t try to bend yourself to something that you’re not. Many of the jobs I have been rejected for were lucky escapes. The people who were making the decisions were right: I wasn’t suitable.
If you hadn’t been a costume designer, what would you have been?
I would really love to curate a fashion exhibition, that’s my next ambition. I was working for Alexander McQueen when the Savage Beauty exhibition was on at the V&A and so I saw it several times. It was so inspiring, there is so much incredible storytelling stitched into those garments.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, I’m not a particularly superstitious person, although I do read my horoscopes, but I don’t make decisions based on them.
Rather than detailed sketching, Gurney works by draping and pinning cloth on models. “The great thing about the 1930s is the dresses were bias-cut, so there are no corsets.” And she pays tribute to the National’s costume department. “They’re able to do absolutely everything on site, from historical pattern cutting to menswear. I came in with my mood boards and they said: ‘Yes, we can do that’ to everything.”
“One of the best thing we did was dye all the silk fabrics to match Sophie’s skin tones. We brought in lots of colour swatches and put them next to her skin so she would really glow on stage. And Tim Lutkin has done an amazing lighting design, which plays with those really dusty golden tones of sunrise and sunset. So it’s a lot more subtle than slapping gold sequins on everything, because images of Cleopatra can get quite kitschy.”
The gown Cleopatra wears for her death scene on the monument is based on a vintage design by Vionnet, who was inspired by ancient dress. “When you see it under the lights it looks like bone. I wanted to have this very elemental presence so she looks as though she’s lying in a mausoleum.”
While Cleopatra’s world is all about seduction, Antony is a soldier in Egypt for pleasure rather than work. The costume Fiennes first appears in is a pair of wrap-around trousers, a floral shirt and beads. Then when he goes back to Rome, he reverts to “powerful, broad-shouldered, double-breasted, wide-lapelled suits”, which are based on the late Gianni Agnelli, the Italian head of Fiat. “So the energy is all up here in his torso.”
Caesar and his officers wear navy uniforms – while the younger members of his entourage are in sharp suits “based on the way men dress up for Italian menswear shows such as Pitti”.
For the battle scenes, Gurney has chosen genuine Italian combat gear. “A guy came in from the Italian military to do a consultation with us about the different types of uniform and when they were worn for ceremonial purposes, for service and for combat, and we followed that to the letter.”
Gurney was studying at the time boho was at the height of fashion. “I wrote my thesis on Queen Elizabeth I and the way she presented her image and power through dress.” After graduating in 2004, she moved to India for five years and worked with artisans who did dyeing, embroidery and beadwork. “I was one of those people who came out of Saint Martins with a million ideas but no idea how to sew a button on,” she laughs.
Later, while working at McQueen, her role was to take people around the 2011 Alexander McQueen retrospective, Savage Beauty, at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and she became fascinated by curating. She applied for a master’s at the Royal College of Art (“where the hot topics in curating are all about identity, representation and who gets to tell stories”). One project involved directing actors for a site-specific exhibition.
Theatre has been a “massive, massive learning curve”. She adds that she has especially loved sitting through previews with National audiences. “In fashion you have five months to build a collection of 30 to 90 ‘looks’, and then you have a 20-minute show where the model just has to walk in a straight line. But in that moment, that image goes global and that’s your statement to the world. You don’t get any feedback from the customer until it goes into stores six months later. Whereas in theatre you have a much more immediate dialogue with the audience, and the chance to play with it every night.”
Would she like to do more theatre? “Yes, I think so. I’ve had an extraordinary, privileged experience at the National because I’ve had such support. As a friend said to me, it’s like being asked to go and manage Arsenal football club for one match.”
CV: Evie Gurney
Born: London, 1978
Training: Central Saint Martins; Royal College of Art
Antony and Cleopatra runs at London’s National Theatre  until January 19