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Renaissance Woman : Design: Creating magnificently baroque clothing for a new film has elevated Sandy Powell into the realm of big-name British costumers.

July 02, 1993|BETTY GOODWIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — Sandy Powell, a 33-year-old costume designer who has spent most of her careerin fringe theater and art-house films, has suddenly become one of the most important designers in mainstream movies.

While her work dressing Irish terrorists and a male cross-dresser in last year's hit film, "The Crying Game," was hardly what anyone would call a showcase for her talents, her new movie, "Orlando," a costume drama spanning 400 years about a man who becomes a woman, has changed all that.

Chanel designer (and 18th-Century fanatic) Karl Lagerfeld has heaped the London-born designer with praise. And the film's magnificently baroque costumes (that make the real McCoys housed at the Victoria & Albert Museum look plain Jane in comparison) are getting equal time with Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani in American fashion magazines.

"It's rather strange because both movies are about cross-dressing," says Powell, a drop-out from London's Central School of Art.

Until now, her costumes could only be seen in obscure, low-budget movies, including four for mentor Derek Jarman, Britain's chief experimental filmmaker, whose credits include "Edward II," a cult picture shown in Los Angeles last year.

Her first big-budget American film, "Being Human" starring Robin Williams (and moving from 4,000 BC to the present), opens later this year. In two weeks, she arrives in Los Angeles to start research on "Crying Game" director Neil Jordan's film version of Anne Rice's book "Interview With the Vampire."

The whippet-thin Powell, whose long hair is coiled into a tight bun, could pass for a stand-in for female Orlando, circa 1990. Powell wears skin-tight jodhpurs and boots--an androgynous, anti-fashion statement that is a mainstay of her wardrobe.

It's underwear, she says, that explains the success of her latest movie costumes. "The key is getting the underwear right. That's the key with all costumes--you get the undergarment right and you get the right shape on top."

In "The Crying Game," Powell says she "really did have to work to make Jaye Davidson look believable as a woman. If I didn't succeed, the movie wouldn't have worked." All Davidson's clothes were figure hugging, and beneath them he wore padded underpants and bras.

In Orlando's Elizabethan phase, actress Tilda Swinton's slim shape is tucked into a "peascod belly"--true-to-the-era padding that accentuated men's waists under doublet jackets. In addition, she wore a codpiece over her breeches as men at the time did "to accentuate their masculinity."

All the principals' costumes, including 14 changes for the title character, were custom-made at a cost of about $2,250 to $3,000 each, with about one-quarter of the budget spent on silks, brocades, gold mesh and other extraordinary fabrics.

Powell's new slate of films, including Jarman's "Wittgenstein," a surrealist look at the early 20th-Century philosopher, has propelled her into the small, but powerful ranks of big-name British costume designers--artisans who regularly walk off with Academy Awards. ("Wittgenstein opens Thursday at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Los Angeles.)

Powell shrugs off the notion that the British are best in the realm of costume epics, even though she's hard pressed to name an American designer whose work impresses her other than "whoever did 'Goodfellas.' " (It was Richard Bruno.)

"I think it's fashionable to like English costume dramas in America," she says. "It's great for us. Americans think, 'Ooh, it's English. It must be good.' "

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