The Head, Nicola Huggett

A few thoughts on... Wise words from an extraordinary woman

On Friday evening the Creative Arts departments of Drama, Art and Music hosted another very successful evening. The guest of honour at their dinner was an extraordinary woman called Jenny Beavan and having heard her speak, we were all inspired I know by the story of her life as a world famous film and TV costume designer.

Jenny told us the story of how she originally got in to the creative arts, through an arts degree at Central St Martin’s and she has just taken every single opportunity she has been presented with since then.

This year she won an Oscar for the costume design of ‘Mad Max, Fury Road’, a film which was five years in the planning and which took a year to film in the Namibian desert. Her previous Oscar came from the costuming of the classic E. M Forster novel ‘Room with a View’. When you google Jenny, she has not just worked on but designed the costumes for a huge number of films.

Wikipedia selects the top 26 and she won nominations for Academy awards for 8 other films including The King’s Speech, Remains of the Day, Sherlock Holmes, and Sense and Sensibility to just name but a few. But Jenny was far more impressive in person than even her illustrious credits suggest even, as she was genuinely self-effacing and so interested in the people around her too. She stayed generously for a long time talking to senior pupils about the merits of a career in the Arts. I certainly learned a huge amount and I think we all wished she had been able to talk even longer, but I took away three very important pieces of advice which I shall share with those of you who were not lucky enough to be at the celebration evening on Friday.

Firstly, Jenny showed us the depth of research that goes in to the amazing costumes that can go almost unnoticed when you are absorbed in the characters portrayed on the screen.

Jenny showed us hundreds of the thousand photographs of post-apocalyptic art that she sourced from hundreds of different parts of Africa, which went into making the eventual designs for Mad Max. Creativity often seems to be a gift, and something that a lot of us just believe we can’t access. But in fact, Jenny showed us that her costume designs are not just the result of a lucky creative gift, but they are the product of an enormous amount of background work, well thought out and logically built up, almost in layers, which then form a really structured approach. The designs she had were an academic process where all the research techniques she had learned through her schooling had brought her to be able to create something, in the case of Mad Max, from the future that we could really believe in despite it being outside all our imaginations. So the more thorough you are with your research and the more you commit to some real hard graft, the more creative you will be, whether that is in Art, or Science or Literature. Creativity is at the heart of every good idea in every area of life.

The second point she made was that, unlike fashion design, which is all about the clothes and much less about the models who wear them, who seem to be merely the vehicles for their launch, in costume design for drama, it is all about the characters and not the clothes.

I found that a very refreshing idea that we can see extending into our everyday life. It is not about the clothes we wear, or the phones we have or the kind of car we drive that ever really matters. It is the character of the person who is inside all those external factors. We should remember that we can be impressive and very successful, no matter what kind of accessories we have.

Her third very useful point was that to cope with any significant challenge, you just have to split it up into bite-size chunks. When she told us about reading the script for Mad Max, she had to imagine how she would design, plan and then make literally tens of thousands of costumes in the theme of an age we have not yet come across. Her wardrobe team for that movie alone was in the hundreds and they lived in trailers in Namibia for a year, and yet did not see the final finished film until three years later. When we see difficult challenges ahead, it can often be frightening and we can easily think it is just too much to cope with. We should also just think of things then in bite size chunks. Think what you can do today and tomorrow will probably take care of itself.

To finish there is a quote I remember from the earlier Mad Max film, ‘Beyond Thunderdome’. ‘Remember wherever you go, there you are’ – you are in charge of your future success, today and every day, but perhaps some of Jenny’s love of life, her work ethic and down to earth good sense can rub off on us today.