An evil queen, a reawakened vampire, a time-conscious rabbit and an iconic geisha. What do these larger-than-life characters have in common? They were all outfitted by costume designer Colleen Atwood for the big screen. Colleen has crafted an Oscar-caliber career revolving around designing costumes that truly transport audiences into another world, sometimes even another dimension. From her award-winning glitzy pieces in Chicago to the sleek futuristic ensembles of Gattaca and even the 60s fashions from That Thing You Do!, this versatile designer has been a vital part of some of the biggest movies from the last few decades. She’s up for an Oscar this year for her work on Snow White and the Huntsman and was nominated for a Costume Designers Guild Award, so we thought we’d take the time to talk to her about her creative process, future projects and her prized set of Parisian pajamas.
The Fashion Spot: You started your career as a fashion consultant, but did you always want to be a costume designer? Was there a particular movie that inspired you to choose this career path?
Colleen Atwood: I did not know that I wanted to be a costume designer. I did not attend film school, other than a summer seminar class. The great Italian cinema of the 70s has been a continual inspiration, along with The Wizard of Oz.
tFS: What’s your process like? Do you picture the designs after reading the script or are ideas cultivated after meeting with the film’s director? How long does it take to outfit an entire film?
CA: Sometimes I get a feeling for a character from a script. Ideas evolve in many different ways when working. Once the movie is on my radar, I am continually thinking about it so there is not one specific thing that can be defined that way. The costumes for a movie the size of Snow White takes about nine months; this includes costumes for two armies, plus the costumes for all of the extras, shoes, hats, accessories and so on.
tFS: You’ve worked on several Tim Burton movies and designed pieces for the 70s-era family in Dark Shadows, a leather-clad Edward Scissorhands and his over-the-top suburbia counterparts as well as those outlandish Alice in Wonderland characters. After all this time, are you able to anticipate what he’s looking for with each film or are you still surprised by his visions for his characters? Will you be collaborating with him in the near future?
CA: Tim has such a unique and elegant take on characters that I never know what's ahead! I hope to be collaborating with him again soon.
tFS: You’re received your 10th Oscar nomination for your work on Snow White and the Huntsman. What were the challenges when it came to creating the costumes for the film?
CA: There were hundreds of costumes under construction before and during shooting; keeping all that going on was a huge amount of work. It was a great experience for me.
tFS: You crafted a collection for HSN inspired by the Snow White and the Huntsman costumes. Is that something you’d like to do with future films?
CA: I am getting ready to do another collaboration with Citizens of Humanity, for which I'm really looking forward.
tFS: What are the main differences between designing a collection for a fashion line and designing costumes?
CA: I think the challenges of film and fashion are quite different. In film, you service the script. You are part of a storytelling process. In fashion, you create product and visuals that people want through a different process.
tFS: Is there one film you wished you had the opportunity to work on?
CA: Nothing comes to mind at the moment. I've always wanted to do a Mexican-Western. Love the gear.
tFS: What’s your favorite movie of all time?
CA: Probably a toss up between The Godfather, The Leopard and The Wizard of Oz.
tFS: Although it’s probably like asking you to pick a favorite child, is there one costume you designed or one film you’ve contributed to that stands above the rest?
CA: No, they are all fond memories.
tFS: Is there a director you’re still longing to work with?
CA: I admire many directors and their work. At the moment, I’m a huge fan of Ang Lee.
tFS: Do you like working on period, fantasy, futuristic or more modern era costumes? Which category is harder to accurately translate onscreen?
CA: All of them! It's fun to jump around. The challenge is pretty equal.
tFS: You’ve styled magazine covers, designed stage outfits for big rock stars and created intricate ensembles for a whole host of feature films. What’s next for you? Is there a creative arena you’d still like to conquer?
CA: Too many favorites; it varies all the time.
tFS: Do you have a favorite designer? What will you be wearing to the Oscars?
CA: At the moment, I love my great Gucci pantsuit.
tFS: What’s the best style advice you've ever received?
CA: Keep it simple.
tFS: How would you describe your personal style?
CA: Simple, clean lines.
tFS: Finish this sentence. You'll never find me without my…
tFS: What’s your most cherished clothing or accessory item?
CA: A great pair of cotton PJs from Charvet in Paris. Really old and worn in.