Costume drama - couturier Peter O'Brien on his work for Eileen Gray movie
Couturier and costume designer Peter O'Brien talks to our Fashion Editor about creating minimalistic and timeless clothing that echoed the style of Eileen Gray for a new film about the famous Irish furniture maker's life
Couturier Peter O'Brien says he implicitly understood the brief when he was asked to create costumes for The Price of Desire, a film based on the life of celebrated Irish furniture designer and architect Eileen Gray.
"I like in clothes what Eileen Gray liked in furniture and architecture," he explains. "Simple and minimalistic."
Sequins, rhinestones and seed beads don't dazzle the couturier. Like Eileen, the devout minimalist - who cut his teeth (and cloth) at Christian Dior, Givenchy and Chloé before he was appointed creative director at Rochas - believes that less is definitely more.
"The initial idea for the clothes was kind of a distillation of 1920s clothes and not academic reproductions of period clothes," he explains. "I just knew that Eileen would wear very plain clothes."
Peter's exploratory sketches for the Mary McGuckian-directed biopic soon developed into a "period-less capsule wardrobe in ivory crepe". "We had interchangeable pieces based on slightly masculine, slightly Asian, minimal shapes," he adds.
"There are very few photos of Eileen," he continues. "There's the famous one of her in a black jacket and an earlier one where she's wearing a kimono-style Poiret coat. Knowing who she hung out with, you kind of knew her clothes would have been beautiful. Because she loved beautiful things, she would have worn beautiful clothes."
Peter designed eight to 10 pieces in a heavy matte silk crepe as the basis of Eileen's capsule wardrobe while the colour palette revolved around grey, black, white, taupe and ivory. "Any picture I have seen of Eileen, she had a white shirt on," he explains.
Actress Orla Brady, who plays Eileen in the new movie, wore it well. "I think Orla has a magnificent face and when her hair is in the bob style, she is so glorious-looking. I really didn't want you to notice her clothes. I wanted the clothes to be unimportant and almost unnoticeable."
Caitriona Balfe, the Dublin model-turned-actress who plays composer Gabrielle Bloch in the film, was also very easy to style.
"She looks like a fashion drawing of the period," says Peter, "and she looks wonderful in hats."
There are many similarities between Peter and Eileen, one being that they both left Ireland for Paris (via London) early on in their careers. "She was incredibly adventurous," he explains. "She went off to live in Paris and knew all these people like the artist Romaine Brooks and Damia, the singer. She knew everybody."
Even Eileen's holiday getaways became social hubs. She moved to the French Riviera in 1927 and much of the film centres on E1027, her villa in Roquebrune, and her relationship with her lover Jean Badovici, for whom she built the modernist house.
Peter lived in a hotel in Roquebrune during filming and, at night, he would have a swim with other members of the crew in the sea. The conditions are somewhat different from his previous work as costume designer for theatre productions - he is a long-time collaborator with The Gate in Dublin.
"I had never done a film before so fools rush in," he laughs. "I had no idea what was involved in doing a film because I had only done theatre and it really is a different animal. Number one, we had extras but they weren't just anonymous people in a crowd scene, apart from people coming back from the war.
"They were all famous people like Picasso or Aristotle Onassis or Diaghilev and everybody has an idea of how they looked."
Singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette plays Damia, the singer, in the film and even camera-shy Peter made a cameo as designer Paul Poiret.
"I was trying a beautiful fur cape on Eileen in the scene and I did not speak. Happily it ended up on the cutting room floor because I couldn't bear it," he admits.
The extras were dressed largely from specialists Euro Costume in Paris.
"You couldn't build all those costumes," says Peter. "You would have needed a budget of $2million."
He also sourced costumes from the renowned period costume hire company Cosprop in London. "There are all these rails marked 'Mr Selfridge' and 'Downton' and there was one rail - I hope John Bright [the Oscar-winning designer and owner of Cosprop] never sees this - but there was a rail with very splendid coats and I needed a couple…
"I said to the guys working there, 'Has anyone taken these? They said the Downton people had put them on hold but they hadn't actually chosen them. There were about three rails and I thought 'They aren't going to miss one coat…'
"It was a stock coat. I obviously wouldn't do it if it was one that someone had made… It was a drop-shoulder bat-wing style with a big velvet shawl collar. Eileen wears it in a scene but it barely exists in the final cut of the film."
Peter also called in a few favours from his little black book, including one from milliner Stephen Jones.
"Stephen so kindly sent a wonderful box of treasures," he says. "Some he made specially; some he had in stock."
Peter's experience on The Price of Desire taught him that costume designing for film is one part wheeling and dealing and one part sketching, cutting and sewing. Would he do it all over again? "Of course."
'The Price of Desire' opens in select cinemas on May 27