Spotlight on: Alice Babidge, costume designer

As dedicated theatre nerds we have admired Sydney-based costume designer Alice Babidge's work from afar for a long time. As talented as she is prolific, Babidge has become a tour de force in the stage world, dressing everyone from Colin Friels to Cate Blanchett, in shows from Shakespeare to Wagner, and even 'Snowtown'. And having recently been named as one of InStyle Magazine's Women of Style 2013, we're thrilled this amazing woman is receiving the accolades she deserves. We spoke to the NIDA alum in the lead up to the annual NIDA Foundation Trust Gala.  

Flaunter: Can you tell us how you got into costume and set design? Is it something you always wanted to do?

AB: For as long as I can remember I have sat around drawing people in clothes. Now I think about it, I know I wasn’t drawing ‘clothes’ I was dressing characters.

Design just felt like a natural path for me. I was fortunate in that I never sat around thinking about what I wanted to do. It’s like I always knew and just did it. There wasn’t really a question for me. I’m pretty lucky, I get to spend every day of my life doing something that I am so deeply satisfied and excited by.

F: You graduated with a degree in Design at NIDA - a notoriously gruelling course. What was that like? 

AB: NIDA was like a baptism by fire. It was three years of extraordinarily hard work and an obscene amount of fun. As a designer, you are basically locked in a room with 7 (or in my year’s case, 6) other people for 3 years and you don’t stop working.

The way you live during this time is strange. It’s like a cloistered existence, in the most wonderfully indulgent way.  You have been given the opportunity to have real focus and have access to great minds and resources so you would be mad not to take full advantage of this.

I was fortunate enough to take a design exhibition to a forum in Prague when I was in second year. At the time, it felt like a genius excuse to escape and be in Europe for a month but what I experienced was invaluable in terms of a greater language in design and storytelling.

F: We LOVE your work with the STC, in particular for ‘The War of the Roses’ and ‘The Maids’. It will come as no surprise that Cate Blanchett is one of our all time style icons. Who are some of yours?

AB: Cate is and always has been one of my style icons. She couldn’t be more beautiful and her taste is so wonderfully bold and irreverent. She makes amazing choices that feel classic and refined whilst maintaining such a sense of the new.

I have always looked to Lauren Santo Domingo (contributing editor at Vogue and co-founder of Moda Operandi) as well. She manages to looks clean but still slightly undone and has such a great sense of humour in the way she dresses. She also somehow makes even the most intense clothes look real – she wears them and owns them as opposed to being a carrier for them.

At the moment, I am all about the French ladies. Emmanuelle Alt in particular. I think this is because she always looks immaculately put together but her clothes are practical and like a self imposed uniform.

But always, it’s Meryl Streep in Kramer vs Kramer. That trench. Those shirts. That hair. Aspiration kind of dressing.

F: Are there any plays you dream of set-designing? Any stars you dream of dressing?

AB: For me, it’s about a combination of elements on any given production– rarely is it the play on its own that attracts me. It’s about the team and the potential for collaboration that draws me in. The director, my fellow creative’s, the casting – the company I work within in general is the most important part of any project.

F: Do you prefer working on modern productions or are you more of a period fan?

AB: I don’t really have a preference, both are of equal enjoyment to me – I think this is because of the way I work. In saying that, I like my design to feel contemporary. Whether this is in period or not. I think there is a way to present a period world with a modern eye and that is what I always try to do. I have a particular interest in combining periods, drawing on ideas from the past but using them in a contemporary way and vice versa. There can be something timeless about a world created in this way that I find ultimately satisfying.

F: How does the costume design process happen? Do you have a set process or is it more of an organic, show-by-show process?

AB: It changes a little with the varying demands of shows but a huge part of my process revolves around observation of the actors I am working with and the world we are trying to create in the rehearsal room alongside the director and the text. I am also someone who stockpiles images, from books, the internet, periodicals, photos – I don’t always know what I’m looking for or why I am drawn to something but this kind of visual diary is an integral part of my building a landscape for the production.

F: What are your favourite shops/labels/places to source clothes for your work? And for yourself?

AB: I generally have a lot of pieces made for my productions but still manage to do a lot of sourcing in the shops. Fortunately, the places I look for my actors are often the same places I like to shop for myself so it can be a case of two birds, one stone. For womenswear I love Belinda, Bloodorange, Robby Ingham and Scanlan and Theodore. For menswear, it has to be Acne, Meanwhile and Harrolds. I can also rarely walk past a charity shop without going in. Some of my favourite costumes have been found in the back of a Salvos.

F: What are your favourite sites/blogs/tumblrs for fashion/lifestyle/creative inspiration?

AB: I think James who runs Yimmy's Yayo has a beautiful eye and puts together a great edit.

The Selby has also always been a firm favourite of mine. – both for news and as an archive resource.

New York Magazine – for when I am pretending I am a local.

Maryam Nassir Zadeh’s beautiful blog from her awesome NYC store.

Purple Diary – often borderline porn but kind of unreal.

You Are Not Ilona from Australian stylist Ilona Hamer

Self Service Magazine – site and blog

Doctor Lisa Cooper – extraordinary artist, florist, genius and friend.

Astro Barry – for when all the rest of it seems too hard.

F: We’re trying to bring the publicity photos of all Australia’s fashion labels together in the one place each season. As a stylist and designer, how useful would this be for you?

AB: It would be invaluable in terms of time management and convenience. To be able to hit it all in one place… Pretty exciting!

F: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

AB: My mother inadvertently gave me the greatest piece of advice I’ve ever received. For as long as I can remember she has said ‘don’t guild the lily’ – it basically equates to not over complicating something that is already beautiful. I think about it daily. Both in my professional and personal life.

F: The annual NIDA Foundation Trust Gala is coming up…Can you suggest the perfect outfit for the red carpet?  

AB: The one thing I have learnt is to always feel comfortable in what you’re wearing – not necessarily physically comfortable – it’s about mental comfort. As a kind of short lady, you find a way to get used to the major discomfort of even the highest, meanest heel.

For me, I am considering all black (I rarely wear anything else) – sharp, tailored lines, a super high heel, some Ryan Storer sparkle and a sad, slightly patchy old fur that I love to keep me warm.

Flaunter - cate blanchett

Cate Blanchett stars in War of the Roses @ Sydney Theatre Company, 2009