‘Terrifying’ cuts are killing creativity in UK arts, warns multiple Oscar winner

<span>Photograph: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP</span>
Photograph: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

The multi-Oscar-winning English costume designer Sandy Powell, who will make film history this month when she accepts a prestigious Bafta fellowship, is “terrified” by the lack of experimental live performance being staged in Britain, she says.

Powell is one of film’s most garlanded talents, working regularly with Martin Scorsese, but she now fears that the connection between a thriving alternative theatre scene and the commercial world of mass entertainment has been cut.

“It’s a desperate situation and means we’ll get formulaic kinds of creativity. A lot of the fringe theatre work is not out there any more because old funding routes have gone, and that was always how you learned the value of taking artistic risks,” she told the Observer.

“When I was young, there were avant-garde shows on in the city every week. It terrifies me this has happened. I don’t know what we can do. What I would say to government is that working in the arts really is a proper job and that, especially when times are hard, entertainment is what people want,” she said.

Powell, 62, grew up in Brixton, south London, stitching outfits for her dolls and then studying at Saint Martin’s School of Art and Design. Early work with Derek Jarman led to collaborations with other groundbreaking directors, including Sally Potter, Neil Jordan, Todd Haynes and Yorgos Lanthimos, on acclaimed films such as Orlando, The Crying Game, Carol, and The Favourite, as well as with Scorsese on a string of critical hits since 2002’s Gangs of New York. She won the first of three Oscars for her designs for John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love. Her second and third statuettes came for The Aviator and The Young Victoria.

With an additional three Baftas to her name, Powell is the best known and most nominated costume designer since Edith Head, the woman whose glamorous vision dominated Hollywood’s golden era. Powell puts her own stellar career down to early experiences in fringe theatre. “Everything started with that. I was doing a lot of avant-garde and experimental design then, as there was some funding for these groups. I do mainstream work now, too, but I keep up with that side of things to maintain a balance. I like the risk-taking projects.”

She quotes a telling quip from Scorsese, who often says he makes “big budget, arthouse movies”: “There is a lot of theatricality in his work, and I certainly respond to that. He always knows what he wants, and he is quick to react to the options I present. I usually have a colour palette in mind.”

Costume was crucial to the scene in Scorsese’s epic drama The Irishman, where Stephen Graham’s character “disrespects” Al Pacino’s mobster by turning up to a meeting in a loud, short-sleeved shirt and shorts, Powell recalls: “The script just said he should wear shorts, so we looked at 50 kinds. You know when it’s right.”

Working with Haynes on Carol, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Powell said she used “soft, muted colours” to create “a sophisticated period atmosphere”.

She prides herself on variety, unlike Head, a Paramount studio designer who, Powell suspects, “largely did what she was told”. Instead, as a young David Bowie fan, Powell was inspired by Lindsay Kemp, the outlandish British dancer who had worked with the singer.

“The key thing is to adapt,” she said. “The misconception about film work is that it is glamorous, but I’m not hanging around with actor friends. I deal with their insecurities on set, and that’s normal. They need to feel right to act, and they get nervous, just as I do. There’s always anxiety before a new project but I have stuck to my guns.”

Powell was speaking to the Observer ahead of the announcement that she is the first costume designer to be honoured with a fellowship, a top Bafta accolade that has gone previously to Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean and Mike Leigh.

Bafta’s chief executive, Jane Millichip, salutes Powell’s storytelling gift as much as her design skills: “Her costumes are mesmerising in their beauty but they also interpret narrative brilliantly and provide the infrastructure for character. For more than three decades, Sandy has raised awareness for the craft of costume design in film and provided a spotlight for designers in the act of filmmaking.”

In the face of limited current opportunities in fringe theatre, Powell’s advice to all young, hopeful British costume designers is to say “yes” to everything: “Then you can find your feet and develop your own taste.”