“Oscar nominee” is a title you keep for life in Hollywood, and though it has served style visionary Arianne Phillips well, the honor, received for her work as costume designer of the Johnny Cash–June Carter biopic Walk the Line in 2005, was kind of like a tiara on top of furs, jewels, a couture evening gown and glitter platform shoes. In other words, Phillips’ career, which includes ongoing collaborations with Madonna and Courtney Love, was already pretty stellar.
“I plod my path pretty solidly,” says the stylist and designer, whose credits also include dressing Hedwig and Tank Girl. “A lot of people I work with are people I have long-term relationships with.”
But that hardly means things get static; Phillips mixes up her gigs from season to season. At the moment, she’s doing mostly editorial work here in L.A., after five months on the New Mexico set of 3:10 to Yuma, James Mangold’s follow-up to Walk the Line. To prepare for the “down and dirty” 1870 Western starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, she gave herself a crash course in Westerns, watching a lot of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone films. For the actual costume “building,” Phillips worked closely with Western Costume, the “granddaddy of costume houses” — which she describes as a public archive for the industry.
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Born in New York City and raised in Northern California by writer parents, Phillips is most gratified when she’s helping to tell a story — whether it’s through a narrative film, an album cover or a fashion spread. She doesn’t do red-carpet or event styling, and prefers to work with artists — like Madonna — who are forward-thinking and seeking transformation. “That, to me, offers an opportunity for clothes and costumes to help underscore change . . . I’m not attracted to films where the character starts out and ends up in the same place.”
Although she remembers seminal fashion moments like seeing Cabaret or staring at a Robert Plant poster when she was 12 or hearing the Slits for the first time, style icons, for Phillips, have been the people in her life. “My aunt was a superchic, rock & roll, thrift-store genius who used to drag me to the flea markets,” she recalls. Today she finds great inspiration just people watching on the streets of Manhattan, where she travels often for work (and, yes, she is bored with the New York–L.A. debate).
Style is simply a natural mode of expression for Phillips — be it discovering a new talent or designing, with Carlos Rosario, her own dress to wear to the Oscars, honoring the tradition of Hollywood costume designers rather than playing the game of fashion politics.
“I’ve always liked decoration, whether it’s been on my wall or on my body,” she says. “I’ve always been attracted to pretty things and glitter. I don’t think there’s a lot of evolution between the 5-year-old me and the 40-year-old me. Maybe I’m a little more sophisticated now than I was when I was 5, but sometimes I’m not at all.”