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‘Single Man’ costume designer had ‘a natural’ directing

If you’re a costume designer, could there possibly be anything more intimidating than working for the man who saved Gucci? Just to make things a little more frightening, let’s also assume he’s taking his first cut at directing a feature film. What do you do? If you’re Arianne Phillips, whose credits include designing Madonna’s concert costumes and such period films as the Johnny Cash biopic, “Walk the Line,” you enjoy an utterly satisfying collaboration with fashion icon-turned-rookie director Tom Ford on his adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel “A Single Man.” And then, after you’ve enjoyed that, you settle back and enjoy the pre-Oscar buzz that’s already begun to surround the project and its star, Colin Firth. The first question, though, is obvious:

-- Tina Daunt So what was it like working with Tom Ford, the guy who brought the Gucci brand back from the dead?

It was completely inspiring and lots of fun. It was great to work on such a high level artistically. He’s a natural. He wanted to be involved in the process, but he really allowed me to do my job. It was so great to get up and go to work every day.

Had you met before this project?

I met him though Madonna, who I’ve worked with for 13 years. Tom has a home in L.A., and I would see him here occasionally. We would exchange e-mails. I was a huge admirer of his. I was gobsmacked and completely thrilled that he would invite me to be on his debut project. He sent me the script and it floored me. It had so much depth and emotion. It moved me to tears.

How involved was he in designing the costumes?

It was not dissimilar to the process I use with any other director. But what was different working with Tom Ford is that he has the vocabulary to talk about the different fabrics and costume details. He could talk about colors and silhouettes.

Tom has this big, glamorous veneer. Just scratch the surface, there’s all this incredible depth and humor. We had a meeting and we talked about the story line and the characters. I went to work on my character books, which are a mixture of collage with all kinds of visuals.

I did geographic and period research of Santa Monica in the 1960s. Because of the quick shooting schedule and the unfortunate lack of proximity to our actors, we had to get started on making suits for Colin right away.

Ford essentially financed the film himself. How did that affect you?

One of the drawbacks is there is never a lot of money to make clothes. Usually, it’s about finding them and thrifting them. But in this case, Tom has a factory in Italy that makes men’s clothing. I . . . found all these ‘60s vintage suit types for Colin Firth’s character, George. We looked at the different shapes and different details -- a collar from one and buttons from another -- and we fashioned together what we thought would be appropriate silhouettes, which were then taken to the factory in Italy. It took some loving prodding of the Italian tailors to get the suits done on time.

What about Julianne Moore’s costumes?

Julianne was in New York, so we had to cast someone with the same size and coloring to work as a fit model for us. I pulled a lot of vintage pieces to start with -- from costume houses and thrift stores. Tom made a point to be there for all the fittings. We had in mind a certain dress for the one big scene when George comes over to her house. At that point in her life, Julianne’s character is having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. George is coming over to say goodbye, but she thinks that maybe that night something will bloom between them.

We looked at a lot of dresses. We had to decide what color it would be, to make sure it matched the set. She had to look like she belonged in there. We found this vintage black-and-white watteau back dress -- a watteau is a train that starts at the shoulders.

We looked at other dresses -- some new, some from vintage couture dealers -- but we kept coming back to this one dress that I found hanging on a rack at a costume house. It was like we had found our talisman, our lucky charm.

calendar@latimes.com


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