(From my memoir ‘To Paris for lunch’)
I will never forget the brilliant Adrian Gwillym at Academy Costumes. He started working for the National Theatre from a very young age and later on set up his own production company near Waterloo station. His knowledge on costumes is vast and he has dressed (and still does dress) many stars for film, theatre and television shows.
I met quite a few famous people at Academy Costumes, but was often unaware of their celebrity status, having hardly watched TV in England at that time. But there was one person who came into Adrian’s studio that I recognised immediately.
When Jean Paul Gaultier arrived at Academy Costumes, he brought an entourage of people with him and the space was instantly filled with positive energy. Adrian welcomed him, and Jean Paul immediately greeted us all. I was so excited.
Oh my god, I am in the same room as Jean Paul Gaultier! How did that happen?!
It was hard for me not to stare at him constantly. His smile lit up the room and his laughter was infectious. He had four people around him organising things, so that he could be creative and have fun. And that he was having! He was so alive and carefree, it transmitted to all of us.
There were many meetings, but at some point both of them came out of Adrian’s office and walked towards my table. I started shaking. Adrian introduced me to him and Jean Paul Gaultier took my hand and said;
‘Nicole, that is French, n’est pas?’
I felt I had to explain that I was actually German, but before I could answer he said; ‘So, Adrian and I want you to make the feather cloak for Helen Mirren.’
I was just standing there smiling…unable to move. Inside me was a little girl jumping up and down, screaming; Yessssss!! Trying to control myself, I answered as cool as a cucumber; ‘Ok, great, thank you.’ And my next thought was; ‘Who is Helen Mirren??’
From then on all I did was smile and nod, trying to focus on what he wanted me to do and not expose my ignorance by saying something stupid. He took a piece of paper and started designing, right next to me, on my table. While he was drawing, he explained;
‘It has to be all in black and we need to use long feathers, plume d’autruche, we will sew them on black organza, no better georgette, it has to move, it has to be soft, qui, you understand? Look, like this!’
He started sketching and writing comments next to it. ‘And then the collar. It has to be majestic, qui? Like the queen! Look, like this, I think we use plume de coq, cock feathers, Adrian do you have any, can I have a look?’ Within five minutes the design was done. ‘You understand all this?’ I nodded frantically. He smiled and went back to the office to discuss further designs with Adrian.
This was amazing! I was inspired, excited and ready to work. I felt honoured to be given this opportunity. But trying to sew through feathers with a needle and thread proved to be impossible, as the hollow shaft of the feather split easily. After many different attempts, I developed a way which was time consuming but effective. I heated the point of the needle over a candle, so that in fact I melted a hole through the shaft for the thread to go through and would not split it. Those feathers had to stay in place; I did not want them to fall off after the first fitting. I wanted to do my very best. So, I worked day and night, taking feathers home with me, preparing them, before they could be sewn on. The cock feather collar was not so difficult to make.
Helen Mirren really looked like a queen when she wore the collar in the scene, where she held a gun to Michael Gambon’s head, who played the gangster who had killed her lover.
When ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’ was finally shown in selected cinemas around Germany, my Mum could not wait to see it and invited her girlfriends as well. She was so proud that I made some of those costumes and that I had worked for Jean Paul Gaultier. But this film was not for the light hearted and maybe not quite what my Mum was expecting to see on a jolly night out with her friends.
She called me afterwards and as she was so shocked by the brutality of the film, she never mentioned the costumes. My cock feather collar was completely overshadowed by a cooked and naked Alan Howard, displayed on a table and garnished with food, and Helen Mirren holding a gun to Michael Gambon’s head asking him to try Alan’s penis.
‘Eat it!’ she demanded, ‘you know where it’s been!’