By Rose Apodaca
Madonna relies on her. Fashion needs her. Hollywood directors and celebrated photographers can’t get enough of her. Nor can a legion of Instagramers. But the twice Oscar-nominated costume designer, critically acclaimed pop superstar wardrobe director and A-list editorial stylist isn’t content resting on her laurels. With a 21st film in production, more collaborations underway, and a renewed sense of life, Arianne Phillips’ tomorrow looks more breathtaking than today.
“Thank God for social media, so I can stay connected!” Arianne Phillips bellows out in between spurts of a diabolically loud blender she’s operating in her kitchen, set back inside a 1919 house on a Magnolia-lined street near Los Angeles’ grand Griffith Park.
Her channels of choice are Instagram and Twitter, and, at writing, some 22,000 followers check in on her exploits. “I’m visual, and I use my phone like a notepad. So everything for me now starts with Instagram.” Her reasons are not to promote a reality show or personal blog. There are no signature wares to hawk on a cable-shopping network. Nor does she have a stylebook in the works advising everyday women how to dress like a red carpet regular.
It’s not that Phillips sniffs at peers with such very public enterprises. To her, social media enables connections, however ephemeral, with family and friends. “Everybody’s time is so precious. It’s important to nurture relationships. That is the sustenance that allows me to have this frenetic lifestyle.” Phillips’ social posts seem less like brand-building strategy than an enthusiastic pal-next-door sharing her days and nights on the town—albeit days spent at a garden party with L’Wrenn Scott and Naomi Campbell, or nights celebrating Madonna’s birthday.
Besides, giving her famously devoted commitment to the likes of Tom Ford, Steven Meisel or James Mangold (who directed five of the 20 feature films to her credit, including “Walk the Line,” which garnered Phillips her first Academy Award nod) can push the boundaries of time. An ongoing oeuvre with Madonna dating back to 1997 knows no limits: several album covers, 20-plus music videos, magazine editorials, and costumes for movies and the last five world tours.
Whether Phillips likes to admit it or not (and she doesn’t), in spite of the many contemporary profession-building distractions like reality shows and style bibles, she has still managed to shift pop cultural notions, careers and the zeitgeist.
Among the greatest hits oft-cited in her bio: perfecting the mostly vintage style with Lenny Kravitz that ended up as sought-after as his 1989 debut album; giving goth a contemporary cinematic outlet with the 1994 cult film “The Crow;” transforming Courtney Love—with whom she became friends with as costume designer on 1996’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt”—from riot girl to glamour goddess.
One career-changer was the black satin gown for Madonna’s appearance at the 1998 Academy Awards. Like so many fledgling designers before and after him, Olivier Theyskens discovered what a little recognition from Phillips can mean: “That was a catalyst in my career, as Arianne was one of the first professionals who chose to use my clothes and have faith in me. Arianne has an incredible sense of intuition and her vision has always a subtle, yet strong point of view.”
Phillips is inclined to underscore each feat as collaboration. She prefers to liken her role as one of “illusionist, fantasy spinner,” the proverbial conjuror behind the curtains. Yet, in the name of friendship and championing bona fide talent, Phillips will make an exception, as she did this last summer before 400 members and friends of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Costume Council, chatting with Theyskens about his trek from Oscar stage to artistic director of Theory. “All the integrity that infuses her work is impactful and obviously influential,” he observes. “But Arianne never likes to put herself in the spotlight. She is as humble as she’s talented.”
So while Philips has spent recent years learning every aspect of bringing a celebrity fashion line to market—co-designing with Gwen Stefani the Harajuku Mini line for Target; ditto with Madonna on her Truth or Dare license for Macy’s—there are no plans to date for a signature brand to call her own.
On this clement Friday at home, the only thing Phillips is pushing is a crisp elixir of lemon juice and basil leaves she pulverized in her Vitamix blender. “I’m obsessed with this machine,” she professes, as she shifts to placing brightly gold and purple slices of kabocha squash and Japanese sweet potatoes on a baking sheet. “If I were not costume designing, I probably would’ve been a nutritionist. I’m obsessed with food as medicine. I try to bolster myself a week in advance of any travels with really good food.”
She might consider a second helping at dinner. There are scarcely 72 hours until a London-bound plane takes off with Phillips and several cases crammed with personal items and research materials for an eight-month relocation there. It will mean leaving her boyfriend, two rambunctious dogs and a cat, plus a close community of equally industrious friends, to oversee every sartorial detail in and associated with the Matthew Vaughn-directed spy thriller “The Secret Service.” The two met through Guy Richie. Vaughn has been a co-producer on Richie’s films, including “Swept Away,” on which Phillips served as costume designer. Vaughn has since gone on to direct, among his credits “Kickass” and “X-Men: First Class.”
What distinguishes “The Secret Service” is how it will be driven by her other livelihood—that of editorial stylist—in a way that even her more fashion-driven movies haven’t been. Among them are those with Madonna, both as actress and director, including 2011’s “W.E.,” for which Phillips received her second Oscar nod as costume designer. She took home a maquette from the Bristish Academy of Film and Television for Tom Ford’s directorial debut, 2009’s hyper-stylish “A Single Man.”
This latest project, slated for a late 2014 release, expands on the notion that clothes make the man: in this case, clothes make the movie. “It’s about a secret society of spies whose base is in the back of a Savile Row tailor shop. It’s very elite, very bespoke and very British.” Every detail—down to the branding of the suits and shirts—are under her aesthetic consideration. True to any Savile Row house, there are signature plaids and pinstripes for suits that will be exactingly cut and stitched for the characters.
“Any film is a big time commitment,” she offers. “But because I like to continue my editorial work, my projects with Madonna and other artists, I look for a challenge to take me to a new place creatively. I don’t want to repeat myself.” She does concede there is something gained by having another chance to work with select directors, actors, crew. Besides Vaughn, this film reunites her with Colin Firth, fellow Academy nominee for “A Single Man.” This time, Phillips is channeling the many dangerous dandy leads of Michael Caine during his 1960s films. “I love working with Colin, and he was among the reasons I wanted to work on this film.”
Being also able to bring together off-camera talent from other projects, in other countries, facilitated her temporary move to London. “I don’t do my job by myself. I have a team of people. I might be the one who’s out front. But I can’t do it without a great team. These are highly skilled professionals who help me realize my vision.”
This refreshing sense of “we” over “me” is rooted in her upbringing. She and a sister, five years her junior, were raised in 1970s Northern California among nonconformists, minus the drug culture. Her parents, who celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last fall, continue to be a welcome presence at Phillip’s intimate barbecues, regaling her friends with perceptive, quick-witted conversation on art and politics. Add to that support system the gentle, unflappable man who has stood quietly next to Phillips these last eight years.
“I’m living my life in a proactive way because I’m finally taking better care of myself. It had nothing to do with losing the weight—but what I learned about myself, about the quality of life I wanted, the health and the energy,” she says. “What makes my life happy is the foundation of love and support. From [my boyfriend] and Madonna and others I’ve learned it’s not about being nostalgic, but moving forward and challenging yourself. It’s also not attaching yourself to the outcome or what people think.”
A revitalized Philips is taking on the future, she says, not so much motivated by financial or fame gains. In addition to everything else, she’s been researching the viability of a luxury fashion brand for the estate of the venerable illustrator, set and fashion designer, Erte. A long-term book project, what she calls “a labor of love above all else,” is underworks with Thierry-Maxime Loriot, the curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts who originated the Jean-Paul Gautier retrospective, and creative director Giovanni Bianco.
Not every project has resulted in accolades. But tomorrow is another day with another experience to collaborate on—and share with the world. “If I do eventually create anything with my own name on it, my own label, it’s going to have to have a philosophy and be about lifestyle, fashion and entertainment. And it’s got to be digitally accessible!”