Home - T Singapore

The Costume Designer Who Creates Both Period Garments and Superhero Suits

By Terence Poh

 
Profile in Style: Alexandra Byrne

“My favourite piece of clothing at the moment is my indigo Isabel Marant jumpsuit... Easy, practical, and pockets! When I’m working, clothes become very feasible, and there is usually a strange subliminal shift in the dressing style within the workroom towards the style of the film. When I was working on “Mary, Queen of Scots,” there was an alarming amount of double denim after the first few weeks of making.”

/
 
Profile in Style: Alexandra Byrne

“I love this photo because I am working with my great friend and colleague Jenny Shircore; both of us are totally focused on the balance and position of one hairpin amongst hundreds! We have worked together many times — we know and respect each other well enough to be free to say what we think, ask banal questions and to laugh through crises.”

/
 
Profile in Style: Alexandra Byrne

“I loved working on “Emma.” The novel has such a strong voice. Director Autumn de Wilde was passionate about the clothes and we had the luxury of making one-off costumes because there were no stunt or action requirements within the script. This meant that we could use vintage pieces of fabric and embroidery, combined with new prints and dangerously fragile muslins and silks.”

/
 
Profile in Style: Alexandra Byrne

“I smile when I see Emma’s ball dress... We started making it and I recognised the moment when you have to put your hands up to your team and admit that you’ve got it wrong: The dress was looking lifeless and heavy — wrong fabric combinations! Fashionable Regency dresses are interesting and intricate because of the way colours and buoyancy build with translucent layers; the petticoats are as important as the top layer.”

/
 
Profile in Style: Alexandra Byrne

“I visited the Sagrada Família in Barcelona with three of my children just after the nave was completed. The four of us all have very different tastes and sensibilities, and we were all stunned and silenced by the extraordinary space filled with light and energy. There is a clear sense of Gaudi’s fervour and belief that he should emulate nature. It overwhelmingly felt like a place of fusion and synthesis — columns and arches, foliage, beasts and people, mass tourism and faith. I feel that our visit was well-timed within the evolution of the cathedral — the balance between Gaudi’s solubility and new technology was dynamic; computerised precision had not taken over.”

/
 
Profile in Style: Alexandra Byrne

“This is a photo taken in one of my workrooms. I share my desk chair with my dog — we jostle for space. Otherwise, for every film, we set up a costume department and the workrooms needed for that particular project. My choice is always for a large open space so that my work desk is freely connected to as many areas as possible — cutters, stitches, embroiderers, knitters, printers, leather workers, jewellers... I like to be very aware of what’s on the tables, the moods and the energies, and to be able to observe and listen. Everyone’s work is very focused and often insular, and so it is at the kitchen table that everyone mixes, talks and eats; different areas of work mingle, mix and the department becomes more coherent through knowing more people with different skills and processes. The table needs to be very big!”

/
 
Profile in Style: Alexandra Byrne

“The last country I visited was Mauritania, in Northwest Africa. I was working with Kevin Macdonald on his film “Prisoner 760.” It is taken from “Guantanamo Diary” by Mohamedou Ou lahi, a Mauritanian. Mauritania has no infrastructure for a film unit, and although we were a very reduced crew, every department had to reappraise methods and expectations. But this was counterbalanced by the scale and beauty of the desert at sunrise and the small understanding we gained about a very different way of life.”

/
 
Profile in Style: Alexandra Byrne

“I always carry my keys with me, several sets. I work between home, London and film locations. Schedules frequently change and at the end of a long day, it’s good to sleep in your own bed without having to ring doorbells and wake others.”

/
 
Profile in Style: Alexandra Byrne

“I bought this painting for my husband about 20 years ago, purely because I loved it. The sitter is serene, strong and slightly removed. I have found out a little more — she is called Helen and she used to model for classes at the Royal Academy; the artist, unknown. The frame is original, robust and heavy, and holds her in her space.”

/
 
Profile in Style: Alexandra Byrne

“I love breakfast on Granger & Co. on Westbourne Grove, London. When time and place of work allow, I will go at 7am when they open, alone or to meet friends, and I am among the first customers. There is a great sense of calm and purpose — business slowly builds while more staff arrive and organise themselves for a busy day, taking deliveries and familiarising with their team. The eggs are perfect, the toast is warm.”

/
 
Profile in Style: Alexandra Byrne

“When I’m working, I visit trade shows and vintage markets, and as a freelance designer, I never know what is coming next. Consequently, I have a habit of not always buying only for the project in hand — if something catches my eye, I justify my collecting habit by the thought that I might never find it again! I also collect books; I love browsing and finding the unexpected.”

/
 
Profile in Style: Alexandra Byrne

“I am currently re-reading “The Golden Notebook” by Doris Lessing. It is a novel of amazing honesty. I first read it when I was working in Los Angeles away from home and family — I would spend Saturdays at the ocean, sitting on the sand reading and being dive-bombed by seagulls. I’m now at home re-reading the novel under coronavirus lockdown. I love that Lessing is not very interested in being balanced or fair. Her avoidance of categories is liberating and her moral spectrum is full of surprises. This novel gives me hope for ongoing unsolved dilemmas.”

/
 
Profile in Style: Alexandra Byrne

“The last museum I visited was the Holburne Museum in Bath, showing “Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years.” The exhibition covers Perry’s early experimental work between 1982 to 1994. It shows his journey from college sketchbooks, early experimental films and ceramics towards a unique style — it is inspirational to see how ideas, power of expression and technical skills all matured towards Perry creating such dangerously beautiful, accomplished ceramics that invite us to walk around, examine and explore images that juxtapose experiences and dilemmas of our time.”

/
 
Profile in Style: Alexandra Byrne

“This photograph was taken on the island of Delos, the birthplace of Apollo. My daughter took me on a holiday to the Cyclades islands, arranged around visiting Antony Gormley’s exhibition, “Sight,” on Delos. We split off from the organised tour group so that we could see as much as possible before catching the last ferry off the uninhabited island. We climbed the rocky summit to explore the highest sculptures; as we were taking these photographs with a sense of beauty and achievement, we suddenly saw the rest of our party boarding the final ferry at a somewhat distant jetty... A downhill adrenaline sprint!”

/

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.