Patricia Field is seated primly in a corner at The South Beach Hotel, immersed in an ongoing conversation, ever-striking with her shocking deep, cherry red tresses and dressed in a vintage Burberry jacket. She isn't animated — but she doesn't have to be. The Emmy Award winning television and film costume designer exudes a gravitas that inexplicably draws you in.
Field has been up the entire night filming episode five of the reality TV show, Asia's Next Top Model (AsNTM) Season 4, and today, has been whisked off to a chain of back-to-back interviews. I'm expecting our coversation to be curt and clipped. However, leading with interest, not unlike the kind you shower a friend, Field impresses with a refreshing laid-back ease — revealing not only her knowledge and expertise, but utmost professionalism above all.
Renowned for dressing Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie in Sex and The City and Miranda Priestly of — any fashion enthusiast's visual tome — The Devil Wears Prada, our conversation naturally flows to the experiences and challenges of being a costume designer. And, having dished advice to the contestants on AsNTM just hours before — the full episode slated to air tonight at 9:00pm on Starworld — Field also shares her words of wisdom for budding models.
At the beginning of the Sex and the City TV series when we were doing the opening shot with the bus in the background, I showed the producer a tutu and he was like, "What?!"
Tell me about your role on AsNTM Season 4.
I was invited to be a judge and a mentor on the show, and I said sure, as I like to come to Asia whenever I have the opportunity. I feel comfortable in many countries here.
What is it about Asia that makes you feel comfortable?
The work ethic here is very much the same as mine. I work double the amount of hours than most people in the United States do. I like my work — it's rewarding and interesting and I interact with creative, energetic people. Always being impressed with that value here, I thought, "These are my kind of people". Conversely, sometimes in the United States, there are instances that makes me think: "You lazy people, what's up with you. You're not gonna get somewhere being like that".
On the topic of work ethic, what advice have you given the models on the show?
I had this little mentoring session with them and communicated that for any career — with modeling, in particular — brains, beauty and brand are the important aspects. In their case, to attain supermodel stardom, you're essentially creating your own brand, and, how do you achieve that? You have to appear before people as an individual — someone original with something that people will remember. Take Pat Cleveland for example. She owned the runways in the '70s when she walked for Yves Saint Laurent or whoever. You could see she loved every minute of it and you couldn't take your eyes off of her. Originality — which can be found inside of yourself — is my answer.
What's the craziest situation you've gotten into or had to deal with when dressing the cast of Sex and the City?
It was an interesting situation that gave me a lot of new experiences. When we were making the last movie, it was written to take place in Dubai. But then, we didn't get the approval to film the movie there, so we had to work around that. I ended up going to Dubai with my assistant to get the wardrobe — though in the end we shot in Morocco — but, it had to be done because the people in both places dress completely differently. I found a local stylist to take me to all the right places; to all the backstreets where locals would get their clothing. It was an exciting experience as I was exposed to the whole culture of the Emirates.
How about a memorable challenge you've faced on set as a costume designer?
At the beginning of the Sex and the City TV series when we were doing the opening shot with the bus in the background, I showed the producer a tutu and his reaction was, "What?!". I'm very close to (American TV series producer) Darren Star — and we're actually working together now on another show — but it is sometimes very difficult to get him to understand my creativity. I said to him, "Darren, this is going to be in the beginning of every show and hopefully five years from now, it will still be there, and not look dated." Sarah Jessica Parker loved it — I had worked with her before so I knew what she would go for. She was selling it to Darren on top of me selling it to him, so he gave in — even though he had asked for other options. As you know, the bus splashes water as it goes by and she'd get wet, so we had to have five pieces of everything. We actually shot three different dresses in order to get this tutu to happen. In the end, the tutu made it on the wall in a frame in the producer's room.
What kind of woman did you have in mind when dressing Meryl Streep for her role in The Devil Wears Prada?
I wanted to find an original embodiment of a fashion editor-in-chief. I did not want to copy anyone, be it Anna Wintour or Grace Coddington. I know it's supposed to be the Anna Wintour story, but I didn't want to go there. The reason being, I had Meryl Streep who could play any role you gave her; it was wide open for me. When she came and I met her for the first time for this movie, she said that they (her hairdresser, makeup artist and herself) wanted her character to have white hair. I thought it was fabulous as I can put anything against white. The producers on the other hand, said, "Pat, please convince her not to have her hair white". They were equating white hair to being old. I tried to convince them otherwise as I believed that going for something natural is not her style — and, she's supposed to represent fashion. In the end, Meryl Streep got the white hair because she said she's doing it and the producers gave in. I'm glad she won as it came out great.
What was one characteristic of Miranda Priestly that you felt you absolutely needed to convey through her clothes?
The number one priority for me was always to give her an original fashion editor-in-chief image. I also had to think what would look good and flatter her, without the audience going: Oh, that's Prada from a certain season. In thinking of those two important factors, I went to the Donna Karan archives. She's a designer that became famous because she made simple clothing that fit women. I went to their warehouse in New Jersey and pulled things from the '80s and the '90s. It wasn't recognisable, and flattered Meryl.
Can you tell when someone is trying too hard?
Yes, of course. When people try too hard, they look silly. I think more importantly in our time now, we've been through a very boring period and people aren't trying too hard at all. They've kind of given up and are just wearing all the boring, normcore stuff. Everybody looks the same — it's kind of scary. It's so boring and uneventful. How you look has to make sense and I think it requires a bit of thought and interest in yourself.
What are the pressures of a television and movie costume designer?
I don't really think of it as pressures. I came from my own shop — which I still have — and at the end of the day, it is a huge responsibility. You have to pay your staff, have your goods, pay your rent... When I first started doing costume designing about 20 years after I opened my shop, I thought: Hey, this is easy! They actually want to pay me to put clothes on people. It was almost like a reward, and I do still think of it that way. It's a great way to make a living, for sure. If there's any pressures at all, it'll have to be like what I spoke to you about earlier — the tutu situation. When you're trying to communicate to people above you in decision-making that do not have the specific knowledge of your work, trying to make them understand your decisions can be a little tricky. But, not actors in general. I love working with actors so that's never a pressure point.
Who are your style icons?
Definitely Cleopatra. There aren't many women we know that has an image of themselves that lasts beyond 2,000 years. That's an icon. If you want to get a little more up-to-date, I would say Coco Chanel as she totally changed the way women dressed. Before Chanel, women never dressed in trousers or showed their ankles. She modernised it and I've always respected her for that. She had an original idea, stuck to it, and never compromised. I've never met her as she's from a different generation but her reputation was that she was difficult. She had her ideas and she wasn't going to water them down.
Catch Asia's Next Top Model Season 4 every Wednesday at 9:00pm on Star World (StarHub TV Ch 501 and Singtel TV Ch 301), until 1 June, 2016.