“OH, WAIT! I’VE GOT TO SHOW YOU SOMETHING.” ARIANNE PHILLIPS RUNS OUT of the living room and returns a minute later, carrying three framed letter-size drawings. “I did this one when I was 8,” she says, holding up childhood masterpiece in ballpoint and colored pencil. It’s a sketch of several groovy ‘70s ensembles that are eerily similar to the outfits in which she would, 18 years later, dress rock star Lenny Kravitz.
A stylist and costume designer, Phillips makes a splash in the rock-musical film “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Hired nine months before production began--a luxury unheard of in the filmmaking world--Phillips flew “Hedwig” hair and makeup creator Mike Potter out to L.A., where they spent 10 days thrift-store shopping, sketching and otherwise pulling together the transsexual main character’s glitzy look: trashy fur coats, high-tops, sparkling halters and a vast collection of dreadful blond wigs. “I wasn’t getting paid to do this,” she says. “I was doing this on my own dime because I loved the project.”
Phillips, 38, seems most often inspired by the dark and erotic complexities of the human spirit. Her film work includes “Girl, Interrupted,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “The Replacement Killers” and “The Crow.” She’s styled music videos for Jennifer Lopez, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage and Sonic Youth. On top of that, she has worked for Courtney Love, and for the past four years has been Madonna’s exclusive fashion stylist.
“When I first got the call, I was a mess,” she says, laughing. Phillips flipped into total panic mode, worried that she’d never be able to meet the expectations of The Icon. But everything turned out fine. “If anything can be learned from Madonna, it’s how to trust your creative process.”
Phillips has worked on 12 Madonna music videos, spanning the “Ray of Light” and “Music” periods. For the performer’s current Drowned World tour, Phillips oversaw the costumes, designing some and collaborating on others with Jean Paul Gaultier. “People say Madonna reinvents herself, but she would never say that,” Phillips explains. “She’s as relevant today as she was 10 years ago because she constantly surrounds herself with new ideas and new people.”
Born in Greenwich Village and raised by bohemian parents, which included a period of communal living in Canada, Phillips admits her interest in fashion always felt like a guilty pleasure. “It seemed like a good way to rebel, but it didn’t seem like a real career path for me.” Rock n’ roll, however, bridged the gap. Her highly developed obsession with the British punk movement eventually led to small record company styling gigs and other odd jobs (ironing Peter Gabriel’s suit, for example). But it wasn’t until she became friends with Lenny Kravitz and helped cultivate his 1989 “Let Love Rule” look that things really took off. “There weren’t a lot of people involved in that process, so I was able to do something pure,” she says. “People could say, ‘Arianne Phillips did that.’ ”
“As a stylist I’m an interpreter,” Phillips continues, describing her process of creating a unique aesthetic for a client by juxtaposing, say, a Versace piece with something from the 99 Cents Only store. “It’s about the mystery of discovering what’s going to help you convey the song you’re singing or the character you’re playing in a way that’s most true to your art.”