By the end of Autumn de Wilde’s first feature film, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” the elaborate costuming, opulent fabrics and lush pastels might leave you wondering: Who engineered the period garb? Who was the mastermind behind Emma’s ethereal ball gown? How did the embroidery on Emma’s dress match so perfectly with the flowers on the tree she stood next to when Mr Knightley proposed marriage? If de Wilde’s youthful reimagining of “Emma” draws renewed interest in Jane Austen, much of the credit goes to the costume designer Alexandra Byrne.
The English designer had actually trained as an architect at Bristol University and planned on a career in set design. To experience creating those rich illusory settings for the theatre stage, Byrne went on to study theatre design at the English National Opera, enrolling in the Motley Course which placed her under the tutelage of the distinguished theatre and opera costume and scenic designer Margaret Harris. In 1989, her costume and set design for the comedy play “Some Americans Abroad,” directed by Roger Michell, secured her a Tony nomination for Best Set Design. But this process led Byrne to discover her true calling in costume design, which earned her greater recognition: From the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), she won Best Costume Design for Michell’s television film “Persuasion” (1995) as well as a nomination for his television series “The Buddha of Suburbia” (1993). Byrne continued to build upon that success, receiving her first Academy nomination for Best Costume Design in Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation of “Hamlet” (1996), and her first Academy award for the 2007 biopic “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” where she dressed Cate Blanchett, starring as the legendary monarch, in fabulous royal gowns.
In her career of over three decades, Byrne has also suited up superheroes in Marvel blockbusters like “Thor” (2011), “The Avengers” (2012) and “Doctor Strange” (2016).) The 57-year-old’s fondest memory as a designer comes from the filming of “Garden of Eden” (2010) in Spain, which was adapted from the novel by Ernest Hemingway set in the Jazz Age. “I designed a dress for Mena Suvari on a project where there was no time or money to overthink anything,” says Byrne on working with the film’s director, John Irvin. “The serendipity was the coming together of a good idea, a stunning piece of vintage gold lace fabric, brilliant cutting (from an amazing colleague, Dale Wibben) and Mena embracing the piece. Together, this delivered a crucial moment of storytelling, where Mena’s character wanted to cause shock and outrage despite her vulnerability.” Currently, as if to hark back to her roots in theatre, Byrne is dressing the Royal Ballet in Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella,” a comic ballet in which, by convention, costumes accentuate the dizzying routines, and we can surely expect Byrne to take it out of this world.
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