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Her talent is for putting costumes in a starring role

November 19, 2005|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

Arianne Phillips is working the racks at Decades, the famed vintage emporium on Melrose, flipping through a wild mix of clothes from the 1920s to the 1980s, deciding in seconds if a piece is a yay or a nay.

"We're going for a combination of Chelsea girl Marianne Faithfull-Nico and California girl Michelle Phillips-Rickie Lee Jones," says Phillips, which might sound a little crazy, except that she is the wardrobe stylist and visual auteur for some of today's greatest rock 'n' roll icons.

Madonna's geisha guise? Phillips was behind it. Courtney Love's cleaned-up moment in snow white Versace? Her again. Lenny Kravitz's flared pants and shrunken T-shirts? All Phillips.

Besides being the fashion visionary behind hundreds of music videos and album covers, Phillips is also a distinctive film costumer. She dressed Bruce Lee as a black leather goth in "The Crow" and Lori Petty as a neo-feminist heroine in military fatigues and corsets in "Tank Girl." Most recently, she outfitted Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash for "Walk the Line."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 22, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Fashion designer -- An article in Saturday's Calendar section about fashion designer Arianne Phillips stated that she dressed Bruce Lee for the 1994 film "The Crow." It was actually his son, Brandon Lee, who starred in that film.

But right now she's shopping for a new client: the Dixie Chicks.

Leaning over plastic storage containers at Resurrection, another vintage boutique on Melrose Avenue, she paws through slouchy boots, looking for sizes 10, 8 1/2 and 5 1/2 .

"I first agreed to meet them because they made that comment about George Bush," she says of the Dixie Chicks. "The way they are in person, they dress well themselves. But in their visuals, it's big hair. They have come to me to up the ante and try a new approach."

Phillips is the rare talent able to thrive both as a costume designer and celebrity stylist, working in two worlds that have traditionally been at odds -- the artists who build costumes from the ground up versus the glorified personal shoppers. She sits at the intersection of fashion, rock 'n' roll and Hollywood at a time when celluloid costume dramas are increasingly being eclipsed by personal costume dramas, played out in paparazzo photographs.

Phillips' approach is a blend of the two disciplines: She understands how to dress celebrity clients as characters in a real-life narrative, and film characters such as Cash as real-life stars.

For "Walk the Line," she had a tiny budget and just eight weeks to research, gather and in some cases create the 1,000 or so costumes. And if it looks authentic, it should. To save money, she borrowed costumes from vintage clothing vendors all over the country. But for the Cash character, she spared no expense, having his black suits and tux shirts made from scratch.

"It was a very hard movie to make," she says at her home in the mid-Wilshire area, where her garage is packed with vintage clothing she uses for reference and inspiration books compiled for every project she's worked on.

When she started, she didn't know much about Cash. She hit the Internet and the library, studied performance shots and Cash family photos, and created books for every time period represented in the film, the 1940s, the '50s and the '60s.

She also compiled a book for every major character with biographical research, corresponding photos and fabric swatches.

Cash didn't start wearing all black until the 1960s, Phillips says. "You can read a lot into it. Black is a very humble color, and Cash was a workingman's man. He was also an outsider who didn't belong to the rock world or the country world. And there was something shocking at the time about wearing all black. It's what you wore to funerals. So it worked for him on many levels."

For Reese Witherspoon's June Carter Cash costumes, Phillips referenced 1950s "Howdy Doody" culture and Minnie Pearl. She found her talisman for the character at the Santa Monica Vintage Expo -- a ruffled red organza dress with a sweetheart neckline and Swiss dot overlay that the singer wears when Cash first spots her onstage.

"It was reworked and redone; it was basically rotting," Phillips says.

"That dress summed up for me the place that June Carter comes from as a child performer, as this comedic character at the Grand Ole Opry. I knew in the story we would see her transform into a woman, but the starting point was this cartoonish country girl."

In another scene, Witherspoon wears a vintage orange-and-green floral dress that June Carter Cash actually owned in the 1950s. "There's a photo of her in the dress," Phillips says, "and one day we opened a box from a costume vendor and there was the same dress. It was serendipity."

Writer-director James Mangold and a producer, Cathy Konrad, held up shooting "Walk the Line" to wait for Phillips to finish working on Madonna's "Reinvention" tour. "She is a key collaborator who works with small budgets but doesn't make us or the actors feel like she's compromised on anything," Konrad says.

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