I dropped out of art school in 1980 to go work with Lindsay Kemp, who I had heard of because he had worked with David Bowie through the Ziggy Stardust phase. I met him, approached him and said I wanted to work with him.
I had worked in theater for a couple of years doing sets and costumes when I decided to look into working in film.
I’d seen Derek Jarman’s movies, “Sebastiane,” “Jubilee” and “The Tempest.” I thought they were amazing and they resonated with me. I just did that thing that young people dare to do: I found his phone number through a friend of mine who frequented Heaven, which was the big gay mecca in Charing Cross. I called Derek and said, “I’m a huge fan of your work and I’ve got a show on at the ICA. Would you like to come and see it?”
He came. It was a mad, stylized art piece called “Rococo,” a punk version of the 18th century. It was inspired by “Jubilee” and his work. After Derek came to see it, he invited me to tea.
He said, “If you want to work in film, you have to start at the bottom and learn.” He suggested I do pop videos for a year. We went to a little office in Soho where he introduced me to Sarah Radcliffe and Tim Bevan who were film producers. They took me on board and I did pop videos for a year. The first one was directed by Derek and he used all the costumes from my show that he had come to see.
On that day, it was my first time on a film set of any description. He took me around each department and explained what everybody did. I was 23 years old, very young.
We became friends because that’s what he was like, he befriended people.
“Caravaggio” came up, and I didn’t know, but he’d been working on developing that for 11 years. I was just one of the crew of people where the average age was 25.
It was very much about learning as you go along. The budget of that was around $400,000, and I don’t remember being paid. I don’t even know how I managed to budget because I had no experience of that.
I just went down to Brick Lane Market and found second-hand things and we made everything ourselves. We shot the whole film in an old warehouse in Limehouse that was unheated and not soundproofed.
I was never expecting to get nominated for “The Irishman.” I had spent the last few months telling my co-designer Christopher Peterson to not even think about it. It wasn’t the kind of film that gets nominated. So, I ended up having to swallow my words.
Then, it became about finding outfits for the BAFTAs and the Oscars. The BAFTAs did a sustainability drive and they had suggested that people wear vintage. I thought it was a good idea, but I don’t know what made me think of the signed suit.
I got in touch with Ian Wallace, a tailor who had made my suits for the Academy Awards. He had made the toile, the pattern that you make before cutting into the fabric. (All fashion starts its life as a toile in either calico or muslin, first and fitted). I asked if he still had it, and he did. I went to try it on and it fit well. I decided to wear the toile as is. I could take sharpies and fill it with signatures. Then, I could sell the suit for the Jarman campaign.
The Jarman campaign coincided perfectly with awards season and gave me a fantastic project. And I didn’t have to worry about what to wear.
I was originally going to wear it for just the BAFTAs. I debuted it at the London Critics Circle awards where I knew was I was going to receive The Dilys Powell Award. I had a speech prepared and announced my intentions there.
By the time I hit the red carpet at the BAFTAs, people had something to talk about as there were already a few signatures. At the Oscars, I was sat halfway back in the stalls with my co-designer Christopher and our supervisor David Davenport where we could see everyone and plot our targets for the commercial breaks, which were about five minutes long. Armed with a camera, I would grab one of them and hurtle down the aisles. I was able to get Marty Scorsese, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in one fell swoop!
I had to explain to people quickly what I was doing and who Derek was. I also had cards printed out with info about his work and the campaign. Not one person said “no” to signing it. By the end, I managed to get over 200 signatures.
The signed suit is up for auction and we’re hoping to raise $3.5 million. The Art Fund is spearheading the campaign to purchase Prospect Cottage and its contents. Anything of value will go to the Tate Museum for archiving and display. The bulk is of the money is going towards conserving and maintaining it as a permanent artist residency and to be accessible to the public for certain days of the year.
The whole point is for young artists to go and use it as a place of inspiration. We are protecting Derek’s legacy. He encouraged the likes of myself and many other fledgling artists in all fields. We all learned. We were all mentored. We want to give back and to continue that legacy and the work he was doing with us.
What we need is for as many people as possible to donate whatever they can manage, every small donation counts to raise the remains $800,000 needed to achieve our goal.
In an ideal world, I would love for someone to buy the suit and donate it to somewhere, like the new Academy of Motion Pictures Museum opening later this year in Los Angeles, where it could be seen by more people and also bring awareness of Derek Jarman’s work to a new generation of young filmmakers.
The greatest piece of advice Derek gave me was about enjoying what you’re doing. You have to approach your work and go to work with that same excitement, ideal and anticipation as if you’re going to a party. If you didn’t get that same feeling from work, it wasn’t worth it. It’s amazing to love your work and to get out of it as much as you possibly can.
It’s advice I’ve taken because the minute I stop enjoying my work, I’m going to have to find something else to do. I don’t think you can produce good work if you’re not enjoying it. I know there’s the tortured artist side of it, but on the whole, it’s much better to have fun.
Learn more about the Art Fund here.
Sandy Powell is an Oscar-winning costume designer who has worked on over 50 films including: “Carol,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Favourite.”