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FASHION AND FILM
Rosalie Vardà-Demy in conversation with Majo Aguilar about what it takes to become a costume designer and her life surrounded by films

México City, August 15, 2022

The role of fashion in films is so transcending, so heavy, that it made a whole generation of men change their everyday fashion from heavy shirts to white cotton t-shirts after Marlon Brando starred in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), or in more recent years, every girl has been craving for that green dress Keira Knightley wore in Atonement (2009), to the point in which many have made their own homemade version. Fashion in film is the perfect example of a time capsule, an archive for the ages that will forever show what people wore at the time period or even what was worn before the invention of film. Characters have their unique sense of style, the most iconic ones have accidentally set a trend or passed the test of time- take Marilyn Monroe’s pink dress in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), or Jane Fonda’s silver attire in Barbarella (1968) as an example. Fashion in film has also contributed to the creation of stereotypes and tropes that have been replicated both on and off screen: there’s the femme fatale with her forever seductive black dress, the “dumb blonde” dressed in head-to-toe pink, the french girl with her effortlessly chic look, some of them more relaxed, some others more polished, but never out of the ultimate level of class, like the girls of Jaques Demy’s pictures.

To talk about the craft behind making clothes for films and her life surrounded by them, we are joined by Rosalie Vardà-Demy, costume designer and head of film production company Cine Tamaris.

Rosalie, thank you so much for joining us today! You are the daughter of two extraordinary filmmakers, can you give an introduction to our readers about your life surrounded by films?

Okay so, I was raised of course in the world of cinema because both my parents were filmmakers, Agnes Varda, my mother and Jaques Demy, my father. So, I was raised in a world where fantasy is in our life. My mother was tougher, she was interested in society and people and the complexity of the society. Her stories often take place in the spaces where she lived, she did a lot of films in Paris, in her neighborhood. After my mother was pregnant with my brother, Mathieu, who was born in 1972, she made a film around the corner of the street called Daguerreotypes (1975) and when she was pregnant with me in 1958 she made a short  film called L´opéra-mouffe (1958), and what is very interesting is that, since she was pregnant she was kind of wondering about all the people that were homeless, and that once they were little babies, and beautiful, and maybe they were loved by their mother and then became that body that is so different now. She was always concerned about reality. And my father had a totally different way of embodying things and being a filmmaker because he was creating a reality of his own, a reality that was not the one we see on the street. So I was raised by two artists that were very complémentaire. So, very easily I went on to do studies to become a costume designer, and then I began to work with both my parents on films, first with Jaques Demy who I made three films with, and then with Agnés who I made three films as well. With her I made Vagabond (1985) and The Hundred Nights (1995) and with my father I did A Room in Town (1982), and TV films including La Nassance du Jour (1979) and his last film which I really loved, Trois places pour le 26 (1988).

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I have also worked with other directors and it's very interesting to see how people always work very differently. It is very interesting when you are a costume designer because you work with a team, you work with the story, the film director, the artistic set designer, and then with the DP light department. It is not the same thing if it's a film taking place during the night, always outside, it is not the same if you dress the actors in black or dark green, because you might see them and maybe you won’t need to see them because of the story. I really enjoy the love that a hard working team creates. The costume should never be recognised as a costume, people should have the impression that it is normal, that it is a common t-shirt, a common dress, a common suit. So I really love my work and slowly seeing my mother getting older, I thought it was interesting to be next to her and to begin to work with her. I began to work with her in 2006, I had an exhibition, I began to work as an assistant and we conceived an exhibition together, and that’s how I started another life. I stopped costume design gradually and decided to work only for our family company called Ciné-Tamaris. 

Rosalie Vardà-Demy

"I was raised in a world where fantasy is in our life. My mother was tougher, she was interested in society and people and the complexity of the society. Her stories often take place in the spaces where she lived, she did a lot of films in Paris, in her neighborhood...She was always concerned about reality. And my father had a totally different way of embodying things and being a filmmaker because he was creating a reality of his own, a reality that was not the one we see on the street. So I was raised by two artists that were very complémentaire."

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Rosalie Varda on her parents, Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy
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How did you decide to create this film company and how does it work?

My mother created the film company in 1954 to produce her first movie La pointe Courte (1954) because she didn’t know how to do it, she had never made a film, and she said let’s do it in a cheap way. Slowly in the 60s, she made the company bigger, and then she co-produced or produced her own movies, which she did most of the times because you know, firstly, producers didn't want to produce her, and second, it gave her total liberty of course, being your own producer you decide yourself, and it’s a liberty that has a cost, and the cost of her liberty was that she could take the time she wanted to shoot the film. Like The Gleaners and I (2000), she made it in one year, she would shoot once every month or every certain week, and then she went to the editing room and then back to filming. I don’t think a producer would be very happy about a project like that.

"When someone goes to see the film and they see the actor they don’t think “oh, they put them a costume, that looks awful," but instead I would like them to look at the film and never think or notice that the thing on the screen is a costume but that it’s real..." 
-Rosalie Vardas on Costume Design

What is your personal mark on every design that you have made? 

Reality is very difficult to invent. When you are a costume designer and you are doing contemporary films, it is very hard. You always have to find a good way to recreate reality. I have always said that it’s easier to make an evening gown than to make a homeless person costume. To make the costumes of Vagabond, you spend much more time into thinking, finding the clothes, using them, making them look old, you know, we had three copies of the same costumes because the film was made in two months, and the costume had to be more and more old and in bad shape with time, so it took me much more work and reflection than if you asked me to make three evening gowns for a fashion party. They are easier because you find them, you even buy them and then you modify them, but to dress a homeless character, you have to get the energy and you have to get into the reality and recreate it because it’s fake, but it has to look real.

 

So this is the part of the job that I really enjoy, trying to think, and then when someone goes to see the film and they see the actor they don’t think “oh, they put them a costume, that looks awful," but instead I would like them to look at the film and never think or notice that the thing on the screen is a costume but that it’s real, it’s all a work. When it's a period movie it's all easier because you need to work into a costume that it’s obvious, you can be wearing an 18th century dress and a wig, but when you are doing contemporary films it’s tougher. People always think it’s nothing, they say it’s no work, but for me it’s very interesting and very difficult.

What are the differences between designing for film rather than designing for theater or opera? Because I’ve read that you have also designed costumes for the stage. 

It’s a very easy difference. If you do a costume for a film and it’s shot and then you see it on the screen, it will be big and flat, everything is bigger. If you work for the stage, you have a distance, and the distance makes a relation to the actor, to the parting, to the set, which is totally different. You have to work out maybe more the shape, or the color, maybe more the shadows and volumes, because you see everything from a long distance, and opera is even worse… it’s even bigger. Besides, in opera they need to sing, they are not able to get into uncomfortable clothes, they need flat shoes so their feet are placed on the ground to have the energy and the strength to get their voice out. So for me it is totally a different way of thinking about the costume.

What do you enjoy designing the most?

I don’t think I enjoy designing something more than another thing. Everything is a different experience. It’s like asking do you prefer chocolate cake or strawberry cake, and if you like both then you like both. It’s a different way of thinking and working, because for Opera I work very far in advance, people won’t see details, nowadays they might because sometimes in opera houses they put cameras onstage that film the representation and project that on screens, even in theater, but that’s very recent. When it comes to makeup for stage opera you have to open your eyes more because you see the singer from a long distance, you just can not do that in cinema.

You have appeared in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a film by your father, in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, a film by your mother, but as you were discussing before, you also worked behind the scenes with them. How was your experience producing films for your mom? 

It all came slowly because first I was working in her exhibition project, and the producer thing came slowly and even naturally, because she had been producing herself for the past almost twenty years, so as she got older I thought it would be good helping her and it turned out nicely and it was a nice relationship overall. She used to say we were very good partners in crime, it was very joyful because, you know,  it’s my mother. I know exactly who she is and how she is, what are her ideas, how she thinks, and she has a big trust in me. She knew that we had such a trust together that she was sure I was there to help her on the project and I wanted her to make the project with no concession. I think for me, the importance of being next to her, being honest with you, was to experiment working with my mother. Not only speaking about family and films and our holidays and stupidity, and cakes and having dinner… I thought it was interesting for me to discover who she was in the working field, be next to her trying to help her, and this experiment has been a great subject.

On the flip side, was it ever difficult working with your mother as her daughter?

No, it was not difficult at all. She was tough but she was never mean. She was very direct because she knew exactly what she wanted for her projects and I think this is normal, an artist has to know what they want for their projects. I never suffered from her being hard at work. The film director is the person who is giving the energy and rhythm on the set, so she was very generous with people, so it was quite joyful.
 

"She used to say we were very good partners in crime, it was very joyful because, you know,  it’s my mother. I know exactly who she is and how she is, what are her ideas, how she thinks, and she has a big trust in me. She knew that we had such a trust together that she was sure I was there to help her on the project and I wanted her to make the project with no concession...I thought it was interesting for me to discover who she was in the working field, be next to her trying to help her..."

-Rosalie Varda on working with her mother, Agnès Varda 

Who are you most like, Jaques Demy or Agnes Varda? In the sense of professional development or even your personality. 

I think I am like both but I’m very pragmatic and I’m a good worker, I’m able to work a lot and this is something I got from my mother, being organized and doing different things at the same time, but my mother lacked of fantasy in her life, and my father who is more like a poet and more into fairytales and into colors and musicals helped me to have that kind of ability of loving all of that, so Iwould say I’m a good mixture of them two. 

What advice would you give to young people who want to become costume designers? What are the most important things they have to have in mind? 

It’s difficult for me to give advice, I don’t really like that but overall I think things are very different today because we have a lot of costume designers who come from fashion, there are a lot of brands who make costumes for film and theater and opera. I think it’s good to have a good base of art, fashion, cinema, literature and culture history, a little bit of everything. And then it’s about having luck in you life, for example you meet the right person in the right moment, you make an internship and then you meet the right people… it’s very difficult, and I think it’s very difficult nowadays because there are a lot of people who want to be costume designers, but anyways, it has always been like that. You have to work a lot and have the desire to do it, if you don’t have a desire for anything in life then you won’t get it. And you also have to be a good assistant, it is a role. In my generation there were a lot of people who were costume designer assistants all their lives, and they were very happy doing it because being an assistant is very very important. Sometimes young people tell me “I want to do this and then be a costume designer” but it’s a question of opportunity and luck, but working and having a good desire for your job and being joyous about everything is key.

For many years you designed meeting spaces for the Cannes Film Festival, how does space design work?

I designed places for them to receive their guests, I did that for nineteen years, and I would design and decorate and pick cinema books and decide the flowers that would be used for the dinner, etc. It was a very nice experience, it was like being in a fairytale and making this for the movie industry was very enjoyable because I got to make it for my family too, so it was a very nice experience. It was made once a year, so I worked on that once a year for nineteen years. I always decided the things myself- once I designed a huge library where there were five hundred books about cinema, and it was a kind of a small house with light, it was very simple, it felt like a warm living room to receive all the artists who were coming, and after that happened the big dinners and the opening and closing events, it was a great experiment, but I wouldn’t do it now after making it for so many years, I think it’s enough. 

What experience on set has left a mark on you?

It might be the movie Vagabond. Creating the costume of a homeless person and suddenly cutting the costume off and then realizing that what you have done is reality, and if you meet it on the street you would think it hurts, and the satisfaction of this is very interesting. Sometimes when I design a costume and see it on set I might not be satisfied about it, I always think of what I might have changed, but when I was working I was satisfied and happy with this project.

Thank you so much Rosalie, it was pleasure to have you with us

Thanks to you! 

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To stay in touch with Rosalie Varda-Demy:

Follow @rosalievarda on Instagram

Cine Tamaris Official Website 

 
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