Costume designer Sandy Powell on her BAFTA Fellowship
The Soho House enthusiast and visionary behind the powerhouse cinematic wardrobes in ‘Gangs Of New York’, ‘The Favourite’ and ‘The Irishman’ shares how it feels to be recognised as the latest BAFTA fellow
Monday 20 March 2023 By Teo van den Broeke
A BAFTA Fellowship is a coveted thing. Awarded in recognition of ‘outstanding achievement in the art forms of the moving image’, previous winners include Ridley Scott, Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese, to name a hefty handful. Back in February, on a brisk Sunday evening, Sandy Powell became the first-ever costume designer to receive the award in its 52-year history.
Here, the flamed-haired south London resident speaks to Soho House about what it means to be recognised by such a prestigious body, and reflects on all the ways the Houses have intersected her decades-long career.
Tell us about the Fellowship, how did it come about?
‘The first I heard of this award was back in November. I received a letter from the head of BAFTA asking if I would accept a Fellowship, and I was really shocked – but I was also worried. In all the years I’ve been going to the awards, there’s been that bit at the end where the old person wins the Fellowship and you have to listen to them talk, despite being desperate to get to the bar. Sometimes it can be dull. So, if I’m honest, winning the Fellowship made me feel old, but then I have been around a long time.’
Were you surprised to be recognised?
‘The biggest surprise was the fact that the award has traditionally been given to directors and actors, and a handful of producers. No craftspeople. I looked back over the 52 years of the names who’ve won it. The first was Alfred Hitchcock, and then there were people like Martin Scorsese, Laurence Olivier, and both the Attenboroughs. All icons. Out of that 52 there were two cinematographers, two editors and only one composer. I’m the first designer. I was so flattered.’
Did it feel strange receiving a lifetime achievement award when you’re still so busy?
‘Well, Martin Scorsese got his Fellowship 10 years ago and he’s not stopping any time soon. And Ridley Scott received his a few years ago and he’s in his eighties. That being said, I did worry slightly that I was being put out to pasture!’
Tell us about the outfit you wore – naturally, it was quite striking.
‘The first thing anyone said to me when they found out that I was winning was, ‘congrats, what are you wearing?’ Extraordinarily, I got an email back in October from a woman in New York called Hannah Soukup. I’d chased her down the street when I was over there last, because I liked this knit she was wearing. I bought something from her and then never saw her again. Recently, she got in touch and told me that she was making some trousers she thought I’d like, and sent me a picture on Instagram. She made them for me, but I didn’t think I’d ever have an occasion to wear them, and then the Fellowship popped up. I worked with my tailor, Ian, to make the matching jacket. It was like an entire production.’
How does it feel in the aftermath of winning such a prestigious award? How long does the bubble last?
‘I stayed at The Savoy hotel for three days around the awards, so the bubble lasted for a while. The morning after I had a hangover from hell, so it was nice to have somewhere luxurious to order room service. For that time it was unreal. But when I got back home to Brixton I was just a normal person like everyone else, saying hi to my neighbours and going to the shops. Usually, I go straight back to work, but things are quiet at the moment. It’s brilliant while it lasts, but it’s quite a relief when things return to normal.’
What are the proudest moments of your career so far?
‘There are definitely beats that I can look back on now and feel proud. In the beginning, I was lucky to work with Lindsay Kemp in the theatre and Derek Jarman in film. At the time I didn’t know how lucky I was. I didn’t know then that they were the creme de la creme. Working with Tilda [Swinton] has been a highlight. Accordingly, the next beat was Orlando, which moved things up a notch – though, again, I didn’t appreciate it at the time. After that it was meeting Neil Jordan – I did a whole spate of films with him in Ireland in the early 1990s. After that it was meeting Todd Haynes in the late 1990s. I just loved what he was doing. I loved his work. I met a new bunch of friends on Velvet Goldmine. Then Martin Scorsese. My first job with Marty was in 2000.’
You have these fantastic working relationships with storied directors, are there any fledgling relationships you’re nurturing at the moment?
‘I very much enjoyed working with Oliver Hermanus on Living. He has a real future in him. Living was a tiny, intimate film, but I met Oliver and really liked him, so I’m hoping that I’ll get to do more with him. A lot of the directors I like and respect already have designers they work with. There are some films I’ve seen where I’ve thought, ‘I could do better costumes than that’, but I’d never say it out loud. I think Oliver will do loads of different things. He’s great at communicating, which sounds weird, but a lot of people in our industry really aren’t.’
How has Soho House factored into your career over the years and do you have any favourite memories?
‘I’ve been to many awards afterparties at Soho House. I was meant to go after the BAFTAs this year, because the Living party was there. I have lots of memories, which I can’t really talk about from back in the early days of Soho House [laughs]. I had a lovely time at Soho Farmhouse when I went at the end of last year. It made me want to go back.’
What’s next for Sandy Powell?
‘I wish I knew. Strangely, it’s been quite quiet on the film front. I finished Snow White in July. I also took time off to take care of my mother and do some family things. I was lucky that I could take six months. Now, I’m ready to go back to work, but there’s a deathly hush. People are waiting to see what happens with the writers’ strike. There is absolutely nothing happening. Next year I’m going to be working on a musical version of The Great Gatsby. I’ve not done theatre for ages. There was some naff newspaper article in which a journalist announced I was doing Cruella 2, which is ridiculous. I was cross because now everyone thinks I’m busy when I’m not. I am looking for work. Though, I’m picky, of course. It needs to be the right thing.’
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