Ella-Louise Gaskell talks to us about her work as a Costumer Designer for film, editorials, stage performances and red carpet events, dressing such clients Sex Education star Connor Swindells, Daybreak's Sophie Simnett and Joey Batey from The Witcher.
Thanks for talking to us today. You are an experienced Costume Designer working in film, editorials commercials and red carpet events. What first drew you to this field?
I have always loved seeing from a young age and probably quite a nightmare child going shopping with my mom and would have an opinion on what everyone else in the shop was wearing and what they should be buying [laughs].
Putting outfits together has always been my dream really. It's always been just incredibly clear, almost common sense in my mind, what should be worn with what, and what would be appropriate for what situation. Only when I was growing up did I realise it's not so black and white for some people. Then on top of that, I didn't have a sister, which I would have loved, but I do have two younger brothers, so dressed them up instead!
I didn't realise it was a profession until I started training, then assisting and getting the qualifications, then finally being lucky enough to work in the field.
Once discovering where your passions lay, how did you go about pursuing a career?
It is an incredibly competitive career, as anything is these days. I studied at London College of Fashion. That's how I started but actually, I wouldn't say that is directly related to the career in any way. You just have to start assisting. It's a case of reaching out to the people whose work you admire and seeing if there's any assisting roles available. Find their contact details, whether it's through an agent or through their website, and drop them an email with your CV. Then just keep going until a spot comes up.
What were your first experiences as an assistant having pursued such opportunities for yourself?
Assisting is incredibly difficult, mentally, physically, morally, everything. It is very hard and laborious work. People often think of styling or costume design as super glamorous, but everyone has to start somewhere, and all those clothes have to be physically moved to each different place, and often it's the assistant the lugging all the suitcases. Actually, even when you get to be a costume designer or a stylist, you are still lugging suitcases very frequently [laughs].
But I actually loved it. I didn't mind the lugging of suitcases. I didn't mind any of that because you're able to be involved in such an amazing thing for me as a youngster. Being able to work at The Brits as part of the styling team for one of the main acts, for example. Yes, you spend all day lugging boxes of trainers up 10 flights of stairs, but you don't care because you're at The Brits! You are working as part of the team to make that production work. For me, I didn't care what I was doing as long as I was able to be relevant and helpful. I loved it.
Moving on to your film work, what is your preferred way of working with a director and the performers in developing the style of a character?
You start with a mood board. The way that I work is chat to the director and make sure you're both on the same page vision-wise for the character, because when the director or the writer has written it, they will have a mental image of what they think the character will look like. It's my job to bring my professionalism to it from an aesthetic perspective, but also respect their vision on what they have written and really bringing that character to light.
Do you prefer a lot of information from the director in how they see the style, or to be given a blank canvas?
I like a combination of both.
Sometimes it's amazing when someone comes to you with a very clear idea of what they want it to look like, but they don't know whether that is possible. So, you then being able to deliver on their vision is really fulfilling.
Also, just being given a script and told you can do what you want to do with all of the costumes is also amazing, because you have a lot of creative freedom in shaping those characters.
With both systems as well. As in any film, the styles of the characters are reflective of the character themselves, which is one of my favourite things about costume design.
In Treacle, how those characters dressed was representative of their personality traits. It was really important to work with April Kelley, who was the writer/producer and actress, to really make sure that she felt comfortable her character was dressed in the way she felt her character would dress.
Then similarly with Ouzo & Blackcurrant, the writer/director Nat Luurtsema, wanted to make sure that the costumes of both of those two leading girls, even though they're friends, were different enough to reflect their personalities.
What's that balancing act like for you on occasion if say, for example, an actor isn't keen on what the director would like the actor to wear, for example?
You have to just find a middle ground. I'm lucky that I've always worked with great people. There's been give and take both sides so I've never really had much of a clash on that front, but I think as long as you have everything written down and everyone is working towards the same creative goal, the differences tend to be minor and you can always figure out.
With tight budgets, short film productions sometimes sacrifice investment in departments beyond camera and sound. How does having a costume designer on board elevate a project?
It goes back to what I was talking about earlier in what the characters are wearing. There's so much more than it just being clothes. People's personalities and everything about us is reflected in what we choose to wear in day-to-day life. When you're making a film, what your characters choose to wear is fundamental in shaping the audience's perspective of those characters. That ties in very closely with the script, so overlooking it is a great opportunity missed.
What assumptions are sometimes made by filmmakers, particularly new filmmakers about the role of the costume designer? Basically, what is and isn't your job?
[laughs] Well, the most common one is confusing costume and makeup, when I know nothing about makeup, and makeup know nothing about costume! People will often just group us together and say, "You're a costume designer. Can you go and fix her hair?" I'm like, "No, I can't fix her hair any more than you can actually." That's the most common one.
I don't tend to mind at all because I think you're all coming together to make a short film so it's got to be give and take, but I'm probably equally as qualified to do hair as the grip is [laughs]!
Are you able to watch film and TV shows now without analysing if what people are wearing 'fit' or not?
Yes, it does definitely taint the experience, but then again, you learn from everything. That's the same with walking around in the street. You're constantly looking. What is a 25-year-old guy shopping in Tesco's wearing? When you're doing a film, you have to put yourself in the position of any character that comes in any way, shape, or form. But when I'm watching film and TV, I think, "Why did they choose that? Is everything right? Have they had any continuity slip-ups?" All of those things.
Growing up I loved what Eric Daman did on Gossip Girl, not going to lie. That was absolutely fantastic. I used to watch a lot of interviews with him. He used lots of local, New York designers that people wouldn't have heard of, in addition to all of the big players, and gave a lot of publicity and support for those small designers, which I really liked.
Beyond fictitious characters in film, you've dress some very real people at very real events, including for BAFTA and Netflix. Can you tell us about that work and how it differs?
The process is remarkably similar. When you're doing a film, you're coming up with a character, what that character would wear, and working with the director and cast on that. Then, when you're dressing a person for an event, you work with them on their vision.
Like I would for a character, I'll make a mood board for a person attending the BAFTAs. We pull together all the looks that they've liked previously and what they like currently. Is there a film reference? Is it Keira Knightley in Atonement in that green dress? We pull together all of their references and then we come up with what they would like on the red carpet inspired by those. Every time I do a red carpet, it's so exciting. The amount of work and little intricacies that go into making that final look is huge.
My big thing is pushing the boundaries. It's putting a male actor in a red fashion suit, straight off the runway and on the red carpet, rather than just a plain black tux. It's getting a beautiful actress wearing a killer suit, plain but the in traditional realms, smashing it on the red carpet.
When you're able to attend events yourself, do you take as much care and attention into your own outfit?
No [laughs]. I have to look presentable but I'm there to support the client. Mine tends to just be a pair of black trousers, a black shirt and a pair of sensible heels because you're on your feet a lot. Whereas my client is front and centre, and I take far more pride in what they look like.
The majority of my work is with red carpets and actors and musicians. People don't realise it, but they do still get really nervous because the red carpet is an incredibly nerve-wracking thing. Actors are used to playing characters and pretending to be someone else, so then having to stand on the red carpet as themselves is quite daunting.
Where I come in is working with them to help create that public persona and put them in an amazing outfit so they stand there and they feel ready to tackle the walls of paparazzi from every angle. Getting the messages afterwards, "Oh my God, everyone loved what I was wearing. I got so many compliments" is always amazing.
What advice would you give anyone looking to pursue a career in Costume Design?
The main advice would be to not give up. It's incredibly difficult to get your foot in the door, but if you just keep trying, then you will get there. As long as you're hardworking, say yes to every opportunity and have a keen eye for detail, and don't give up then, then you'll get there.
Are there any particular projects you are looking forward to in 2021?
I am actually really excited with what 2021 will bring. I have a couple of upcoming costume design jobs and some of my styling clients have exciting appearances coming up, so fingers crossed it could be a good year! In lockdown I also started a new Online Styling platform, P.S. Online Styling, bringing the benefits of expert styling to all for affordable pricing. This has really taken off so I am looking forward to the journey with this too!
You can follow Ella-Louise on Instagram: @ellagaskellstylist
To see more of her work, visit her website.