Award-winning costume designer Nicky Gillibrand has worked in theatre, opera, ballet and film. As she prepares for the opening of The Duchess of Malfi at London’s Almeida, she tells Liz Hoggard about her journey
For costume designer Nicky Gillibrand, The Duchess of Malfi – her latest show at the Almeida – is all about suppression. “I’m not doing straitjackets, but I’m really quite interested in medical corsets, so for me it’s much more interesting to do research around things that support and contain bodies, and then work backwards from that. So, with Lydia Wilson playing the Duchess, I’ve designed her costumes to give a sense of entrapment.”
For more than 30 years, Gillibrand has worked across theatre, opera and ballet. She put Haydn Gwynne in skintight 1980s dance gear for Billy Elliot the Musical (her costumes were Tony-nominated), and turned opera singer Eva-Maria Westbroek into a busty, former pole dancer for Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 2011 work Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera House.
More recently, she worked on the National Theatre’s revival of Angels in America, which transferred to Broadway, and Richard Jones’ new production of La Damnation de Faust at Glyndebourne, where costumes and set were described by one audience member as “Donnie Darko meets The Handmaid’s Tale”.
The Jacobean revenge tragedy has been cut (“Rebecca’s done a really succinct version of the text”) and is in modern dress. “The play feels very current,” Gillibrand says, “so I’m trying to find pieces that indicate a historical quality. Everyone is in evening wear. Rebecca used the word ‘couture’ and she wanted quite a limited palette, so we’ve ended up with tones of black and white, and then flesh tones, which in itself is quite challenging. I am trying to describe the Italian court with the choices I make, and push the design so it has a wealthy quality about it, from the Duchess and her brothers, trickling down to the rest of the court.”
Webster’s play is shot through with treachery and incestuous desire. Newly widowed, the duchess lives in a world where one false move could lead to her death. Her brothers try to control her but she is also an independent woman who proposes to and marries the man she loves – her steward Antonio – and secretly has three children by him. “We’re not dressing her as a widow, interestingly. She starts off the play quite pale and gets paler. The power that she has is quite unusual for writing of the period. She’s being so strong but at the same time she’s overwhelmed by this male court.”
All the blood in the play will be black, she says, pointing to the Almeida’s arresting poster with Lydia Wilson almost tattooed in black ink. “Characters start off really uptight and end up demoralised and broken down.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working at Bermans and Nathans.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I did Peter Grimes at the ENO with Tim Albery in 1988, with the wonderful Philip Langridge as Peter Grimes. Around the same time I was working on Richard Jones’ Mazeppa.
What’s your next job?
I am having a very short break as it is my 60th birthday next year but I don’t really want to broadcast that…
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It would be an understanding of the distance between the stage and the auditorium, and how different the view from the stalls can be in comparison with the upper seating areas. It really does alter decisions regarding all aspects of a costume.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Moidele Bickel, the German costume designer, who did the film La Reine Margot, which was completely beautiful. Piero Tosi was a great Italian film costume designer. And I love Sue Blane’s work – I think about her costumes for The Draughtsman’s Contract most days.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t presume to know everything and always be open to learn from those people who have more experience, and to pick up anything that needs doing. It definitely helps to have an understanding of everyone’s role within the costume and wardrobe departments.
If you hadn’t been a costume designer, what would you have been?
I’d like to have been a tailor, because there are very few tailors in this country. It’s a real art form. You’ve got fabric which has a warp and weft, so it’s on the straight, and you’ve got to get it to work around a curved body. It’s completely brilliant.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, sorry. Would you like me to?
Gillibrand loves repurposing and upcycling clothing. “It’s far more satisfying than buying off the peg. When you’re working with a relatively small budget, which we do all the time, you have to go to all these cheaper outlets. I try not to go to Primark, so I set myself the challenge of finding vintage pieces that I can adapt or use in conjunction with something else.”
She sources pieces from a treasured outlet in Huddersfield, which she found 15 years ago when working on a big opera with a tiny budget at the Royal Opera House. “All the chorus had three costumes each and wigs. So we asked the chap to collect black clothing for us. When we went up, I was amazed and appalled that he had an enormous polyester trouser mountain, literally just from one week of gathering. He told me: ‘People wear them once and chuck them out.’”
Gillibrand didn’t train as a theatre designer. She studied printed textiles at Leicester Polytechnic. “By the end of that course I hated doing small repeat patterns for Hermès scarves. I was much more of a free person, so I came down to London and worked as a fashion illustrator.” To earn extra money, she worked at costumiers Bermans and Nathans. “It was a complete eye-opener. Bermans had an ‘originals room’ with utterly amazing pieces – Dior costumes with matching shoes and hats. And in the rag room, where you dressed poor characters, you found pieces tailored by really brilliant early costume makers. You could examine the insides of pieces – it was a massive education. And on the top floor there was a room of 1930s evening dresses all falling apart. I can remember going through thousands of white petticoats and each one was different.’
She was there for two and a half years and learned to make hats. “I intended to become a freelance milliner but then I met [the stage designers] Tom Cairns, Antony McDonald and David Fielding. I convinced Tom I could draw and so I assisted them for five years doing costume research and drawing. It gave me a chance to see how designers worked with directors.”
Eventually, she struck out on her own, working on Peter Grimes at English National Opera with Tim Albery in 1988 and Richard Jones’ Mazeppa for Dutch National Opera three years later, with sets by the Quay Brothers. “Two enormous productions, but when you’re younger you go: ‘Oh, I can do that’.”
A career high came in 2005 working with Stephen Daldry on Billy Elliot, her first musical. One of her design sources was the photographs of Keith Pattinson, who spent a year documenting the miner’s strike in Durham. “He’s actually a theatre photographer now. I emailed him and he gave me access to his unbelievable photographs. In the rehearsal room, Stephen had his pictures blown up really big. I’m from the north of England and seeing those different generational looks was so helpful for me and all the actors. There were virtually no shops then so I based the clothes on what you could buy from catalogues.”
Dressed simply in black, Gillibrand clearly has exquisite taste but she can do kitsch. For Anna Nicole at the ROH she made all-in-one body suits in flesh-coloured Lycra to recreate the curvaceous silhouettes of the dancers at the pole-dancing club. “I did a lot of research on breast enhancement. Prop designers Robert Allsopp sculpted the fake boobs and we incorporated them into the costumes. And the Greek chorus were dressed in turquoise like Californian newscasters.”
With opera you’re preparing months in advance, but with theatre “you’re only in a week before the actors start”. There are other issues, too – she admits designing the costumes for Angels in America was challenging with such “a cast of stars with a lot of opinions”.
She says: “Marianne Elliott wanted real clothes. We didn’t want to over-theatricalise it. Andrew Garfield was very specific about what he wanted to wear.” Most of the suits were made by the National’s wardrobe department. “I didn’t want a sad 1980s look. With that cast, it had to have more of an ‘up’ quality.”
Designing the costumes for the angel, she had to accommodate the fact that the performer, Amanda Lawrence, was physically puppeted around the stage. “When she was flown around by her helpers, I wanted them to be really beautifully costumed rather than hiding them in black, which you always see.” The puppeteers wore a textured surface based on feathers, like an army of cycle couriers.
The joy of Gillibrand’s work is she’s always looking at it from new perspectives. She tells me about a 1960s book she read about colour theory used in Scandinavian psychiatry. “Interviewers would ask candidates to choose a colour, and if black, brown or grey were your favourite colours, you weren’t worth employing because they were such negative colours. And blacks and greys are my favourite colours,” she laughs.
Training: BA (hons) Textile and Fashion, Leicester Polytechnic, 1978-81
• A Little Night Music, National Theatre (1995)
• Billy Elliot the Musical, Victoria Palace Theatre and Broadway (2005)
• Angels in America, National Theatre (2017)
• Anna Nicole, Boris Godunov, (Royal Opera House)
• Cendrillon, Der Rosenkavalier, Don Giovanni (Glyndebourne)
• La Traviata, Don Carlos, Wozzeck (Opera North)
• The Wind in the Willows, Royal Opera House (2012)
• Institute Benjamenta, the Brothers Quay (1995)
• Gold medal for costume design at the 2003 Prague Quadrennial for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Agent: Tracey Elliston at Judy Daish
The Duchess of Malfi is at Almeida Theatre, December 10- January 18, 2020