Royal Opera House head of costume Fay Fullerton: ‘My first visit to Covent Garden was for the interview’
Having started out as a junior costumier at Covent Garden four decades ago, Fay Fullerton has risen to lead the department. She tells Tim Bano how her 180-strong team brings designers’ visions to life on stage
In 2010, a letter arrived in Fay Fullerton’s in tray. It looked semi-official – a jury summons, she thought. At the time, she was acting head of costume at the Royal Opera House, working on several productions at once, and reaching a critical point in the costume creation process. “I was so busy I sent the letter to personnel and asked them to try and get me out of it,” she says. But the letter came back with a suggestion that she may, actually, want to open it. As it turned out, the Queen had appointed her an MBE for services to dance and opera.
Even if the MBE was a surprise for Fullerton, it was no shock to her team or to the creative community. She has been at the Royal Opera House’s costume department for 41 years, joining straight out of design school as a junior costumier, and since then dedicating decades to creating costumes that have ranged from the decadent to the downright bizarre.
During her time at Covent Garden, Fullerton has worked on a vast number of productions, enough to see the repertoire many times over. Although she’s reluctant to pinpoint a favourite – “it really is like saying which one of your children you like the best” – some of the stranger things she’s had to work on stick in her mind. In 1991 she helped to create the costumes for Mozart’s Mitridate, Re Di Ponto. Paul Brown’s designs not only pulsated with gaudy, vivid colours but also, strikingly, featured huge bustling bottoms that thrust outwards from the hips several feet wide – “Those panniers were huge. That was a bit of a challenge,” Fullerton laughs.
There was also Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 2011 opera Anna Nicole, based on the life of the Playboy model, for which Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes turned up the saturation levels of the Royal Opera House stage to the maximum. The term ‘shocking pink’ was never more appropriate.
None of the great successes – or indeed the failures – are entirely to do with Fullerton, she points out, as her role is different from actually designing the costumes. It’s up to the production’s director or choreographer to appoint a designer, and then Fullerton and her teams give physical forms to those designs, making them flexible enough to withstand the strains of performance.
For the head of costume, that means a lot of coordination. From her office in Covent Garden, Fullerton can see almost the entire department. She looks out at the men’s and the women’s workshops where costumiers cut fabric, the pattern room stacked floor to ceiling with rolls of cloth and boxes of fabric samples, the offices of designers, supervisors and administrators. “I’m in the middle of it,” she says gleefully.
In and around those areas are the dyeing room, the hat and jewellery rooms, a room for opera shoes, one for ballet shoes, wigs and make-up, a stockroom and revival workroom where costumes are brought out of storage and resized for new casts. Fullerton is in charge of all of that: 100 expert staff, plus 70 more freelances, casuals, apprentices and work-experience students.
But when she enrolled at the London College of Fashion in the mid-1970s, she had her mind set on high-street fashion. “When I got there, I realised fashion is here today, gone tomorrow, and I was taken by the whole concept of creating costumes for the stage, of creating a character,” she says.
At that time, places like the Royal Opera House used to advertise their jobs on the college noticeboard. “We all used to go to the noticeboard and just decide which job we wanted.” Fullerton admits that there weren’t a lot of people rushing to the opera house, nor did she have any particular interest in the art form at the time. “My very first visit to the opera house was when I went for the interview.”
Q&A: Fay Fullerton
What was your first theatre job?
Junior costumier at the Royal Opera House.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
When I started, information wasn’t as accessible as it is now. My advice is make the time to find out as much as you can because it’s there.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Gordon Hutching, my manager when I was a costumier, who passed on all his knowledge and advice, and recommended me for his position when he left. Maria Bjornson and Philip Prowse, who encouraged me to do work that was more senior than my position.
If you hadn’t been a costume maker, what would you have been?
I would like to have developed some sort of interior design business – buying and selling property to do them up.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Fullerton got her first role at the Royal Opera House in 1977 – her very first job at all, in fact – as a “very junior costumier”, and she’s been there ever since. She has risen through the ranks to coordinator of the workshops, managing costumes for new productions and finally, in 2013, the role she holds now as head of costume at one of the most renowned opera houses in the world.
The production process, she explains, starts 18 months before the show opens. The designer presents the concept to Fullerton and the costume team, allowing them to match expectation to budget; nine months later they start work on the prototype costumes, cutting and fitting right up to the show’s opening. But it’s not as simple as that: each department will be working on three or four shows at once.
It’s her 180-strong team, she says, that keeps her going. “They are so driven, so clever. The whole design process works so smoothly, like a production line, because the team are all experts.” That was proven, and not for the first time, a couple of weeks ago when world-famous soprano Kristine Opolais had to pull out of the forthcoming production of Wagner’s Lohengrin, replaced at the last minute by Jennifer Davis. So slick is the costume process, Fullerton insists, that even the 11th-hour crisis of refitting the costumes barely raised an eyebrow, even though the production opens in just a couple of weeks.
Costume-making is almost dying, and that’s so sad. When we try to recruit, it’s difficult to get the skills that we need
But the pool of talented costume makers, she warns, is dwindling. “It’s an area that is almost dying, and that’s so sad. When we try to recruit, it’s difficult to get the skills that we need.” Fullerton puts that down to training: when she was at the London College of Fashion it involved practical training five days a week. Now she worries that training is too theoretical.
To counteract that, the Royal Opera House has just started a costume construction course with South Essex College and the University of the Arts London. “We wanted to give students the training that they should be having,” she says.
The decline in practical courses, Fullerton reckons, is budget-driven. She adds: “The more time you spend learning the practical side, the more expensive it is.” And despite its reputation for opulence and colossal budgets, the Royal Opera House is feeling the financial pinch too, encouraging it to move increasingly into co-production.
Often the ROH is the lead producer, making the costumes and collating all the information into a ‘bible’ that is sent to the other opera houses. Co-productions bring out the competitive streak in Fullerton: “You’re always in competition. And I always want to be the best.”
She is always reading, always learning and trying to keep up with developments in the fashion and design worlds. “What’s out there? What should we be doing? We are an international house, we have designers from all over the world, and I need to be one step ahead of them,” she says. “I need to know what’s happening outside this building.”
That is possible because of her knowledge of the creative process, having risen through its ranks over the years. Other heads of costume, she explains, have been more business-oriented.
She says: “I think you need both. You need to be able to discuss everything with the designer and you need to be able to know what you’re talking about, not just financially but in a creative sense. When you look at the designs you know exactly what any issue is going to be from day one, whether it’s workable.”
And Fullerton remains fully involved in the creative process from start to finish. “I go to fittings, I go to rehearsals, I go to first nights, I see the designers on a daily basis.”
On the side, over the years, Fullerton has also worked on her own designs, such as Will Tuckett’s dance piece Elizabeth, and Debbie Allen’s 2009 West End production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring James Earl Jones and Adrian Lester.
But she has no ambition to work anywhere else and, besides, there is no more senior position in her line of work in the whole country. No other role is in charge of costumes for both an opera and a ballet company. Anything else would be a step down.
“What we do changes every season,” Fullerton says. “It’s so fresh every year. Every so often I think, ‘Do I want to stay another year, another two years?’, but I’m never bored here. It’s always new.”
CV: Fay Fullerton
Born: 1956, London
Training: London College of Fashion
• Elizabeth, Royal Opera House (2013)
• Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Novello Theatre (2009)
• Kulture2Couture Trailblazer award (2007)
• Honorary fellowship, University of Exeter (2008)