'La Sylphide' WA Ballet - Dress Rehearsal HMT - 16th May 2013

Lexi De Silva — Dress Sense

Posted on January 25, 2015

Lexi De Silva on fashioning the details of costume design.

Whenever I am asked “What do you do?” I excitedly tell people “I’m a costume designer”. I’m excited because I love talking about it, and on the whole, people love hearing about it. The response I usually get in return goes something like “Really? For what?” or “Wow, that’s different?!” And it is different. It’s nothing I ever dreamed about as a little girl, nor did I even know such a career existed. But when I look back at my childhood and the activities I loved, it’s no wonder I ended up here.

So, how did I get here?

Halcyon
The Australian Ballet
Choregrapher: Tim Harbour
Costume Design: Lexi De Silva
Stage and Lighting design: Bluebottle
Photographer: Jeff Busby

As a young girl I always loved playing dress ups. My mum had a big black chest with piles of her old clothes and odd bits and pieces she had collected over the years. I would rummage through it, tirelessly putting together different outfits for my siblings and me. For many years I took dancing and acting lessons, which also came with their fair share of sequined leotards and cat costumes. I performed in local pantomimes where — you guessed it — the costumes were always my favorite part. Performance and costume was a big part of my life during childhood, and although I didn’t know it then, it would heavily influence my future.

When it came to choosing a career path, I had some eclectic ideas! In primary school I wanted to work in an ice cream shop, and also be a singer. In high school I dabbled with the thought of writing and journalism. Then, when I found myself at a dead end of ideas, I ended up working at the Hard Rock Café for my Year 10 work experience week. When Year 12 came around, I knew I had to get serious. With my inherited creative genes (my mother was an art teacher) I was sure I wanted to have a career in the creative field. Initially I considered fashion design, but I soon realized the cut-throat and competitive nature of the fashion industry wasn’t for me. After some deeper deliberation about where my strengths and interests really lay, it all fell into place; fashion + theatre = costumes. And there I was! I knew without a doubt that costume design was the path for me.

4 Phase
Victorian College of the Arts
Choreographer: Anna Smith
Costume Design: Lexi De Silva

After a “Year 13” focusing on developing a folio, I was accepted into the Production course at the Victorian College of the Arts here in Melbourne. I spent three intense but fantastic years learning the role of a costume designer, and all the work that is involved before the curtain goes up on opening night.

It wasn’t easy entering the “real world”. Just getting work was hard. It’s not like you can open up the classifieds section in the local paper and reply to an ad seeking a costume designer for next season’s La Boheme. It doesn’t quite work that way. You can’t really go seeking jobs: they come seeking you. It’s about who you know, and who knows you. The more contacts you make and the more people you work with, the more opportunities come your way. The pressure of “you are only as good as your last job” is real and frightening, and is a great incentive to always do your best work.

I realised now that costume design wasn’t so different to the cut-throat mentality of the fashion industry I’d aimed to avoid. I nevertheless persisted and thanks to the contacts I had made at the VCA, the jobs started to roll in. My name was out there. The hardest part was over.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone
Melbourne Theatre Company
Director: Peter Evans
Costume Design: Lexi De Silva
Set Deign: Claude Marcos
Lighting Designer: Paul Jackson
Photographer: Jeff Busby

In the ten years that have followed I’ve worked with many different companies and on many different performance styles. My work has taken me interstate, and given me opportunities I would never have dreamed of back at the Hard Rock Café. I now have a folio full of work I am proud of, and a bunch of fond memories of the people I have collaborated with.

If there were two words I would use to describe my work I would say “collaborative creativity”. Although the process is fabulously varied, the core of a costume designer’s responsibility is to work in a team to create a new vision. While I am in charge of what the costumes look like, I am by no means working alone, and I can never think of my costumes existing on their own either. After all, my costumes wouldn’t exist without a body to put them on. They wouldn’t make sense without direction to bring them to life. They would seem isolated without a set to stand on. And they wouldn’t be seen without lights to light them. It’s only when all these elements come together that magic is made. The thrill of witnessing this magic with an audience on opening night, and knowing I am part of its creation, is a feeling I will never tire of.

Song of a Bleeding Throat
Eleventh Hour Theatre Company
Director: Brian Lipson
Set Design: Lexi De Silva and Brian Lipson
Costume Design: Lexi De Silva
Lighting Design: Nik Pajanti
Photographer: Ponch Hawkes

So how do I get there…to opening night?

The first step is to get to know the show. I read the script, or listen to the music, and analyse the storyline, scenes, location and characters. I need to establish specifics like the season, the culture, and the motivations of the characters. I need to know all this because the concept always stems from what already exists. I also need to determine any practicalities and logistics that may cause restrictions, like quick changes.

Now that the bones of the show are in my head, it’s time to have a chat to the director/choreographer. We will have several meetings to discuss the design concept: including the period and place the show exists in, the colour palette, design style and any other specific elements. Often the set and lighting designer will be present to create a cohesive vision. Between each meeting, I develop my designs and aesthetic further through sketches, and I research images so that each time we meet I have something new to offer.

When a solid concept is formed, and I have a rough design outline for each character, its time to conduct the preliminary design presentation to the artistic team of the production company involved. This is the opportunity for them to provide feedback before everything is finalised, do initial costings, and to gain an insight into the style of the show for marketing purposes.

With the preliminary design approved, the next job is to finalise the details and prepare all the documentation that’s handed over to the wardrobe department for the costumes to be made. A lot of time is spent in creating the final, coloured costume renderings, particularly if it’s a large show with many designs. I will also prepare “working drawings”, which are clear, black and white outlined drawings of the costumes, front and back, with accompanying annotations explaining exactly what the details are. Alongside both the renderings and working drawings, I also collate a selection of research images that will suggest examples of what I would like the costume to look like. It could be the style of shoe, or the detail of a period men’s shirt collar, or the fullness of a skirt. Any information I can give to make my design clearer, I will. The hair and makeup are also details I need to consider and decide upon, as well as any other “personal props”, such as handbags, hats and jewelry.

La Fille Mal Gardee
West Australian Ballet Company
Choreography: Marc Ribaud
Costume Design: Lexi De Silva
Set Design: Richard Roberts
Lighting Design: Jon Buswell
Photographer: Sergey Pevnev

All of this documentation is then presented in a formal setting, alongside the set design, to the artistic team and wardrobe department of the theatre company. I call this “the handover”! I always love this part of the process because it’s when my almost-solo process suddenly involves a whole lot of other people. The costumes aren’t just mine anymore, and soon they will become more than just a 2D sketch on a piece of paper. They will come to life!

Once the documentation has been presented and approved, the next part of my job is working with the costume department to choose the fabric. I’ve always believed the design is only 40% of the costume. Another 30% is the fabric choice. The importance of getting it right is crucial to its success. The fabric must be the right weight, it must move correctly, and evoke the appropriate feeling. I spend a lot of time hunting through fabric stores to find the perfect piece. Occasionally I can’t find what I’m looking for, so I turn to digital or screen printing to create the pattern I desire. Along with fabric I must choose trims, buttons, ribbons, and buckles; every tiny detail is a decision I make with intent and reason.

Fragile Oasis
Victorian College of the Arts
Choreographer: Anna Smith
Costume Design: Lexi De Silva
Lighting Designer: Jason Crick
Photographer: Jeff Busby

The final 30% in the success of a costume is the costumier; the person who will interpret my drawing and cut and sew it. A good costumier understands proportion, has a great attention to detail, and has an innate sense of the contours of the body. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many fantastic costumiers in the past, and I will never underestimate their importance in the success of the costume. They begin by analysing the documents I give them, and start to prepare the patterns. They make a toile first, which is a sample of the costume made in calico fabric. It’s my job to assess these toiles in a fitting and guide the costumier into exactly how I want it to look.
After the toiles are approved the real fabric is cut and sewn together. There can be up to six fittings during the process of sewing the costumes, and I need to be at all of them to ensure I get what I want. During this time I am also available to the workroom for any questions they have along the way. As the costumes near completion, I am able to decide on some final details; those that you just can’t predict in the early sketching days. As much as I aim to stay true to my original designs, it’s also equally important to keep an open mind and have the ability to make changes along the way. If a design line isn’t flattering on the particular performer, or if time just doesn’t permit a detail to be made, I will work to accommodate it.

Kiss Me Kate
Ballarat Academy of Performing Arts
Director: Kim Durban
Costume Design: Lexi De Silva
Set Designer: Daryll Cordell
Photographer: Ponch Hawkes

Outside the costume workroom I am present in some of the rehearsals, and regularly check back with the director/choreographer to make sure what I have designed is still synonymous with their direction and the developing performance. Details often change or become apparent at this time, such as needing pockets for particular items, or requiring a certain shoe to do a certain maneuver.

We are getting very close to opening night now. The final step is production week. This is the week before opening night when we bump in to the theatre. All of the elements come together and the show is rehearsed in its entirety several times, perfecting all performance and technical issues. It’s a long and busy week of frantically finishing costumes, problem solving, tweaking, repairing, analyzing and getting every last detail right, ready for the eagerly awaiting audience.

La Sylphide
West Australian Ballet Company
Costume Design: Lexi De Silva
Set Design: Richard Roberts
Lighting Design: Jon Buswell
Photographer: Sergey Pevnev

The last decision I must make is what frock I am going to wear on opening night!

I really love what I do. I have never considered it to be a job. It’s always been a passion that I am very fortunate to do every day, and I enjoy the way the process uses a wealth of different skills and tasks. It’s a passion that naturally and unknowingly began in my childhood. My years of dancing lessons had a great impact, as I have now gravitated toward designing for dance and ballet. To create a costume for a moving body is a challenge I find particularly exciting. The costume needs to be strong yet light, practical yet evocative, and all the while flattering and sympathetic to the form of the body. The sense of fulfillment and pride on opening night is a feeling I get nowhere else. But mostly I just love that I get to escape the real world for a while, and create new, unique worlds that exist only on the stage and in each performance. It’s not filmed for the screen, or made to last forever; it’s just there, each night for that one audience to enjoy. When the season is finished, it will never exist again, except in the memories of those who saw it.

Lexi De Silva studied at the Victorian College of the Arts.


Buy a limited edition print of Overcoat Seasonal Collection: Autumn here.


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