It took her a while to settle on a career, but costume designer Charlotte Willems is now firmly established on the Flemish production scene.
It runs in the family. Charlotte Willems’ mother is a textile artist, her father an architect. Willems herself is one of Flanders’ top costume designers, as likely to be dressing Helena Bonham Carter and Hilary Swank in 55 Steps as she is Udo Kier, who plays Adolf Hitler in Iron Sky: The Coming Race. There were, however, a few false starts along the way to her career.
The first was working as a graphic artist, a job in which she found she missed the human contact. “It was just me and my pencils and my paper!” she exclaims. The second was fashion design, but that was very short-lived.
Before signing up to the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, she was looking through all the other courses you could take and spotted ‘Costume Design’. What appealed to her is that costume design is the art of the possible: dressing real people, rather than hanging frocks on the idealized shapes of haute couture.
Dressing Ms Bonham Carter
It’s a challenge she still relishes, as when dressing Bonham Carter for the upcoming Bille August movie 55 Steps, co-produced for Flanders by Potemkino. “It’s a very difficult character. We had to create fake breasts, create a belly, put some fat on the hips so it was really shaping the body, trying and retrying, then driving to Cologne [where the film was shooting] to try again. “Fortunately,” she adds, “I have a wonderful team who will work through the night if it is needed. I’m always looking for something. Something special - something that stands out – but at the same time something that wouldn’t attract too much attention from the viewer. Details matter, and subconsciously they all add to the quality of the final result.”
On TV series The Team - a coproduction between Flanders, Denmark and Germany – Willems scoured clothing stores for exactly the right kind of clothes modern cops might wear. For the Danish detective (Lars Mikkelsen), she shopped her way round Copenhagen before settling on a version of an ugly 1970s bomber jacket made over by local designer Mads Nørgaard into something hip and modern by adding a zipper here and a zipper there. “People who know something about fashion would understand that this is not a jacket I just bought in Antwerp: it really is by a Danish designer,” she says.
People who know something about fashion would understand that this is not a jacket I just bought in Antwerp: it really is by a Danish designer.
Glasses and Rabbit Ears
The same obsession with detail characterised her work on I Kill Giants, an Ireland/UK/Belgium co-production based on a graphic novel about a young girl from Louisiana (played by Madison Wolfe) who escapes into a world of fantasy. “The character wears rabbit ears and spectacles so I said to the production, ‘If you want to fly her in three days before shooting, we might have a problem with the stunt doubles and the picture doubles. I need to go to New Orleans to do some tests.’” Off she set with two suitcases full of pairs of glasses and a selection of rabbit ears. “I went to her house and we tested for about five hours,” says the designer matter-of-factly. “I took pictures and then I flew back to Belgium and met the director.” Willems spends more time working abroad than she might personally prefer, but enjoys the different rhythms. “It’s nice to work on a Belgian production because it reminds me of where my roots are and where I learned things,” she says, “but what I like about international co-productions is that they have new ways of thinking. That inspires me and keeps me alert. It gives me something that I can also use in the Belgian productions.”