CREATING CHARACTERS VIA COSTUMES

Byline: Marcy Medina

LOS ANGELES — For most women as obsessed with fashion as Jacqueline West, designing contemporary clothing is little more than a pipe dream. It was a reality — until she got bitten by the movie bug.
When director Philip Kaufman hired her 10 years ago as design and art consultant on “Henry and June,” West knew she’d found another love.
She continued to collaborate with the director, on 1993’s “Rising Sun” and last year’s “Quills,” while running her signature company. But after “Quills” earned her an Oscar nomination last month for Best Costume Design, she decided to trade in wholesale fashion for films.
“The Arabs say you should change careers every 15 years,” she laughed, “so I decided it was time.”
But it was Kaufman’s personal approach to creating characters that drew West to costume design.
“Phil is a character-sculpting director and he wants anyone who works with him to reveal their inner riches through their wardrobe,” she said.
For West, who reads a script over and over until she inhabits a character’s mind, the choices came naturally in “Quills.”
“Nobody else I can think of would look that great in a corset,” she said of its star, Kate Winslet. To showcase her handiwork, West put what is normally an undergarment on the outside, “the idea being that it was probably a hand-me-down through the church from a beheaded aristocrat and she would have found it so beautiful that she would put it on the outside of her working frock.”
West’s other piece de resistance was the suit Geoffrey Rush wore as the Marquis de Sade. For the pivotal scene, when a desperate Marquis uses his own blood as ink and his suit as paper, West and her team spent six weeks constructing and disassembling, hand-painting and silk-screening the jacket and pants.
“Usually, you know you hit it when the actor becomes the character the minute they put on their clothes. Michael Caine said that he didn’t even have to act, he just put on his costumes,” she recalled.
For Joaquin Phoenix’s character, the Abbe Coulmier, West conjured Montgomery Clift in “I Confess.”
“I wanted him to be very sexy and avant-garde. When he put on this free-flowing cassock and I handed him the rosary beads — which Phoenix says he still keeps in his pocket — you could see his walk change from this hip, young guy to a priest.”
West, a San Francisco native who majored in art history at the University of California at Berkeley, said that painting informs her sense of style. In “Quills,” she referenced Ingres, David and Chardin.
“I love getting to crawl back in time. Where else, except on a period film, can you hear the coach wheels rolling up on the set with the clank of hardware and horses hooves?”
She noted that contemporary films, like her current project, “The Banger Sisters,” starring Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon, are often harder to costume.
“I am trying to create a look that women will want to emulate. Look what ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Out of Africa’ did for fashion. The goal is to put something up there people have never seen before.”
For inspiration, she relies on street fashion, from London’s Camden and High Streets to Los Angeles’s after-hours clubs.
As she put it, “Anything to keep me young.”