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Her talent is for putting costumes in a starring role

Times Staff Writer

Arianne Phillips is working the racks at Decades, the famed vintage emporium on Melrose, flipping through a wild mix of clothes from the 1920s to the 1980s, deciding in seconds if a piece is a yay or a nay.

“We’re going for a combination of Chelsea girl Marianne Faithfull-Nico and California girl Michelle Phillips-Rickie Lee Jones,” says Phillips, which might sound a little crazy, except that she is the wardrobe stylist and visual auteur for some of today’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll icons.

Madonna’s geisha guise? Phillips was behind it. Courtney Love’s cleaned-up moment in snow white Versace? Her again. Lenny Kravitz’s flared pants and shrunken T-shirts? All Phillips.

Besides being the fashion visionary behind hundreds of music videos and album covers, Phillips is also a distinctive film costumer. She dressed Bruce Lee as a black leather goth in “The Crow” and Lori Petty as a neo-feminist heroine in military fatigues and corsets in “Tank Girl.” Most recently, she outfitted Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash for “Walk the Line.”

But right now she’s shopping for a new client: the Dixie Chicks.

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Leaning over plastic storage containers at Resurrection, another vintage boutique on Melrose Avenue, she paws through slouchy boots, looking for sizes 10, 8 1/2 and 5 1/2 .

“I first agreed to meet them because they made that comment about George Bush,” she says of the Dixie Chicks. “The way they are in person, they dress well themselves. But in their visuals, it’s big hair. They have come to me to up the ante and try a new approach.”

Phillips is the rare talent able to thrive both as a costume designer and celebrity stylist, working in two worlds that have traditionally been at odds -- the artists who build costumes from the ground up versus the glorified personal shoppers. She sits at the intersection of fashion, rock ‘n’ roll and Hollywood at a time when celluloid costume dramas are increasingly being eclipsed by personal costume dramas, played out in paparazzo photographs.

Phillips’ approach is a blend of the two disciplines: She understands how to dress celebrity clients as characters in a real-life narrative, and film characters such as Cash as real-life stars.

For “Walk the Line,” she had a tiny budget and just eight weeks to research, gather and in some cases create the 1,000 or so costumes. And if it looks authentic, it should. To save money, she borrowed costumes from vintage clothing vendors all over the country. But for the Cash character, she spared no expense, having his black suits and tux shirts made from scratch.

“It was a very hard movie to make,” she says at her home in the mid-Wilshire area, where her garage is packed with vintage clothing she uses for reference and inspiration books compiled for every project she’s worked on.

When she started, she didn’t know much about Cash. She hit the Internet and the library, studied performance shots and Cash family photos, and created books for every time period represented in the film, the 1940s, the ‘50s and the ‘60s.

She also compiled a book for every major character with biographical research, corresponding photos and fabric swatches.

Cash didn’t start wearing all black until the 1960s, Phillips says. “You can read a lot into it. Black is a very humble color, and Cash was a workingman’s man. He was also an outsider who didn’t belong to the rock world or the country world. And there was something shocking at the time about wearing all black. It’s what you wore to funerals. So it worked for him on many levels.”

For Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter Cash costumes, Phillips referenced 1950s “Howdy Doody” culture and Minnie Pearl. She found her talisman for the character at the Santa Monica Vintage Expo -- a ruffled red organza dress with a sweetheart neckline and Swiss dot overlay that the singer wears when Cash first spots her onstage.

“It was reworked and redone; it was basically rotting,” Phillips says.

“That dress summed up for me the place that June Carter comes from as a child performer, as this comedic character at the Grand Ole Opry. I knew in the story we would see her transform into a woman, but the starting point was this cartoonish country girl.”

In another scene, Witherspoon wears a vintage orange-and-green floral dress that June Carter Cash actually owned in the 1950s. “There’s a photo of her in the dress,” Phillips says, “and one day we opened a box from a costume vendor and there was the same dress. It was serendipity.”

Writer-director James Mangold and a producer, Cathy Konrad, held up shooting “Walk the Line” to wait for Phillips to finish working on Madonna’s “Reinvention” tour. “She is a key collaborator who works with small budgets but doesn’t make us or the actors feel like she’s compromised on anything,” Konrad says.

Phillips is an unassuming character, easy to get along with and fun. As a teenager, she had colored hair and was into punk rock. Now, at 41, she doesn’t dress in head-to-toe designer or wear a lot of makeup, preferring instead simple black pants, usually with some sort of interesting lacy blouse or tassel belt.

She has a love of fashion history, calling the vintage stores that she visits three to four times a month her “libraries.” She also has affection for the people she works with, including Madonna, from whom she says she’s learned a lot of life lessons.

“I have learned to be true to my ‘artistic’ self, not to compromise, and the ability to say no,” she says. “And not to worry what people think.”

Her passion for style began at age 8. To prove it, she pulls out a leather-bound sketchbook with her childhood drawings of wigs, barrettes and flared pants. “Those look kind of like the ones I did for Lenny,” she says.

Phillips grew up in Northern California in the 1970s, where her parents led a bohemian lifestyle, even moving to Canada for a while to try out communal living.

After high school and a brief stint in beauty school, Phillips moved to New York. A friend had suggested she become a stylist, so she dressed friends in thrift store clothes and photographed them, assembling a homespun portfolio.

Her big break came when she met Lenny Kravitz -- because she needed a new roommate.

They never did live together, but Kravitz became a neighbor and a friend, and when he was making his first record in 1989, he asked Phillips to help create his look.

“I was going for a shrunken shape on top, buying size 14 boys’ T-shirts and girls’ pants to make into flares,” Phillips recalls. “The first time he made a public appearance at the American Music Awards, his record company was upset because they thought he was dressed like a woman.”

The fashion world saw things differently, and soon a slew of look-alikes came calling for the same look.

The first music video Phillips styled was “Hot, Hot, Hot” with Buster Poindexter. There were many more, with Jennifer Lopez, Aerosmith, Iggy Pop and Madonna. “I realized I responded really well to narrative story lines, more than performance-driven videos. The costumes required more depth than if you are just making someone look hot and sexy.”

Phillips has achieved the most attention by collaborating with Madonna on three tours, 15 music videos and the film “Swept Away.” And surprisingly, it was Courtney Love who recommended the two work together, after meeting Phillips when she did the costumes for “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”

Phillips and Madonna have been partners in style for eight years, creating new characters for albums and music videos, and elaborate costumes for tours, including a kimono with 30-foot sleeves that spanned the length of the stage during the 2001 “Drowned World” tour.

To style the music video for “Hung Up,” a single on Madonna’s new “Confessions on a Dance Floor” album, Phillips looked at John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever.”

“I was inspired by the fact that she sampled ABBA and by dance movements from the 1970s. The look was a little bit ‘Fame’ with the bravado of Travolta. The clothes had to have a street cool. I used a leather jacket, Prada jeans and a great pair of boots.”

The inspiration for the 2003 “American Life” album cover was very different. “It was right when the war broke out, there was a shift in our country in terms of conservatism and patriotism, post-9/11, and the album was about revolution,” Phillips says. “I looked at the Black Panthers, Patty Hearst and Che Guevara. I don’t necessarily believe in their rhetoric, but they dressed the part. I ended up using military-inspired clothing by Dries van Noten and other designers.”

Phillips also acts as the star’s personal fashion editor, bringing new designers to her attention. Madonna wore a plunging black Olivier Theyskens’ dress to the 1997 Oscars, way before he was recognized by the fashion press and hired to head French fashion house Rochas.

L.A. designer Louis Verdad, known for his 1940s-look suits, was also a Phillips discovery, brought to the public by Madonna at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2003.

There is no formula for styling, Phillips says. “The thing I consider when putting together a look is that it has to germinate from a real place. It has to be appropriate to the person. Inspiration comes from a lot of places, but my main concern is to be authentic and for the look to feel real. It’s about helping to tell a story.”

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Arianne’s shopping list

Printed 1970s dresses from Ossie Clark and Holly Harp; jackets from North Beach Leather and slouchy boots for the Dixie Chicks.

Short, quilted 1970s Yves Saint Laurent jackets for Reese Witherspoon. “She’s obsessed with them,” Phillips says.

Vintage high-waist dark denim jeans from Yves Saint Laurent for Madonna. “I hope people will start wearing the high waist -- I’m so sick of everything hanging out,” Phillips says.

A Biba T-shirt. The 1960s and 1970s London label and shop is hotter than hot.

Norma Kamali black suede, lace-up wedge heels from the 1980s. “I got these for Shakira,” Phillips says. “And I owned them back in the day. I saved up for them.”

Silk cocktail dresses that tie at the waist by Katy Rodriguez, co-owner of the vintage store Resurrection (where they sell for $750). Naomi Campbell picked up one last week.

Anything by Costello Tagliapietra. The new label from Brooklyn-based design duo Jeffrey Costello and Robert Tagliapietra, known for their sophisticated jersey dresses, is Phillips’ newest discovery (Ron Herman at Fred Segal carries the label). Madonna loves them.

-- Booth Moore


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