On Easter Monday the sun shone bright over Sydney. As I have done so many times, I hailed a cab and declared in my proudest voice, that I was headed to Bondi!, with the outward exuberance of an ageing trannie. It was not the beach, but Elisa’s busy workshop that I was going to – a jam-packed cave of activity and props, wigs, jewels, capes and devices with which to change ones identity within moments. Elisa is not only a brilliant costumier (bias check, I have known her all my life, but I promise, it’s true), but also a beautifully warm and fascinating character, whose views on life have a profound effect on those around her. Her creations come from a vivid imagination and an actively creative soul, who has run her costume company, Agent Costume, for the past 6 years.
TGW: Do you remember the day when you decided that you were going to be a designer, and make it your career?
EH: Not really. It was an ongoing progression of creative pursuits. I wanted to be a painter, but then I felt too guilty about it. I felt at the time that it was a selfish and indulgent way to use my energy, so I went into sewing. I don’t feel that way any more.
TGW: What else do you do to earn a living?
EH: Nothing. I make costumes. Most clients are art directors on TV commercials, small theatre productions, performers and cos players.
“I get excited about the way costume can make people feel.”
TGW: Do you have any formal training?
EH: I studied at Swinburne
. A Diploma in Entertainment – Costume. The course ran for two years, but really, you learn everything on the job. I also worked at Opera Australia
, Sydney Theatre Company
and Melbourne Theatre Company
. That’s exciting because it’s very thorough, there’s no cutting corners with time, or materials. You use top quality materials, which can often be very expensive, and you are working with highly skilled costume makers, so you learn a lot. What I’ve done over the past few years is apply the things I learned in those areas, but honed them down to suit smaller budgets, with less fittings or time.
TGW: When are you at your most creative?
EH: It’s a funny question because with every single job that I do, it’s a new job, so I have to get creative in working out what the client wants, and then how to produce it at a cost that someone might be willing to pay. My most fun creative is making stuff for myself, things that I can wear, and feel good in. Things I can step into the world and say, “Hey!”. People respond to you – how you feel in what you wear, you can inspire people. It’s like a game, sometimes, that’s why I love costumes.
I have some really fun experiences dressing people. Someone can come in, we’ll have a styling session and I’ll just feel happy that we’ve created something together. When someone tells me how excited they are to wear my costumes, I feel excited too! I’m happy to have helped bring that joy. I have the resources and experience to help, and that makes me smile.
TGW: Some people believe that being happy can stifle creativity. What’s your experience?
EH: I think creativity is a form of problem solving, and so before we can enjoy ourselves – there might be issues we want to solve before we get there – maybe it’s motivational – because you do want to get to that happy place. Often if you’re in a good mood or happy, you might take that time to be out with friends, connecting with people. You might not associate that time with your creative process. Although some of my happiest moments are when I am creating – back in the 90s in my share house days, everyone would come to our place, have a drink and catch up, and I’d be in my room sewing – clothes for ravers. It was a happy time. I used to be so protective over my designs until I realised that they just keep coming. They keep changing, and shifting. Ideas are like gifts. If you want to find them – and have the luxury of time… if you can turn ideas into something productive, you’re really lucky. But, it’s not fun until you’re good at it. The idea is fun, then you make this thing which doesn’t match your vision, and you get disappointed. You keep doing it, and slowly you start getting better at it.
TGW: Have you ever made a mistake with your work, and discovered a better idea in the process?
EH: I can’t remember. I probably wouldn’t call it a mistake, so I wouldn’t remember it that way.
TGW: Who/what inspires you to create?
EH: My personal development and not just physically making interesting things that other people can wear, but on a spiritual level – making sense of energy and material things… and emotional things.
The biggest focus [for people] seems to be on money. They give less value to their purely creative endeavours, because they may not have a nice house to live in, or they can’t afford to look after their parents when they get old, whatever it is… so they forget to nurture that creative part of themselves. I believe that creativity feeds into other ways of creating, so rather than feeling stuck, or sad…with a creative mind, we can pull ourselves out of that head space.
TGW: Name your biggest style icons?
EH: I always liked Vivienne Westwood
. I’ve enjoyed her punk take. She seems driven in a way that doesn’t make sense for her to be any other way. Looking back, I suppose she’s following her own investigation, which is more important than, what are people going to like or relate to?
And people do like it because she’s expressing herself in ways that most people don’t have access to.
In a costume shop, most costume hire falls into retro or vintage categories. In this sense, fashion designers are highly important to the world of costume. Costume is any garment. We costume ourselves every day.
You can sense a well made garment. When you look at the collection at Sydney Theatre, or the Opera as a maker, the level of craftsmanship is mind-blowing, it surpasses that which we are regularly exposed to, and getting used to. I literally fall into a state of meditation when I can hold something so beautifully crafted, in my own two hands. It’s like a religious experience. The general population is focused on money, saving money, the quality of product is getting lower…we don’t even know what we are missing out on.
“Life is quite literally an expression..and we choose, everyday, who we are”.
TGW: What is the one party or event you want to attend some day?
EH: I don’t know if it exists. I have dreams about different parties quite often. I’d love to go to the masquerade ball in Venice. Also Brazil’s Carnivale
I’ve been to Burning Man
, but it’s a different level of… it’s so broad. It’s a unique environment. There’s a different attention to costume and expression. At Burning Man, anything really goes, but it’s more about releasing from within, and less about what you’re wearing.
TGW: When is the moment you feel at home? And where?
EH: I always feel at home with my Mum and Dad, and there are various friends that you connect with – you’re at home with them, wherever you are. I feel at home in nature, in the ocean or the forest. Anywhere where people are recognising each other – they feel safe and look out for each other. Sometimes you can enter a room and people are so scared that they block each other, and you don’t feel recognised or acknowledged. The polar opposite of feeling at home.
TGW: You made your own wedding dress in 2012. Most people couldn’t even entertain that idea. Tell me about that process.
EH: A wedding dress is supposed to represent you in some way. You feel you’re supposed to be the highest form of yourself, meeting your partner who is also showing the highest form of themselves. I thought to myself, how do I want to present myself to my partner? Is there an image that he can draw to of me in the future, and what do I want him to remember? How do you want to be remembered in those photos on the mantle? And I thought, I want to dance. I don’t want to be stepping on a skirt! And, my favourite colour is green. My favourite environment is the jungle by the sea – so rich with life. It turned out that the groom was the surf and the sand, in baby blue and cream, and I was the jungle (in luscious green patterned silk).
TGW: Have you ever been to Paris?
EH: Yeah, for a few days. It wasn’t long enough. Paris is magical. I dreamt about it – that we were going there, and when we did, I went up the Eiffel tower, and recognised the bird’s eye view of the city from my dreams. And when I to the Louvre, there was a room inside with birds and blue sky on the walls, I knew that I had dreamt of that place before. It was exactly the same scale! On our way out of Paris, there was a man on the train to the airport, playing his piano accordion. I started crying. I wasn’t ready to leave!
TGW: What is your proudest achievement?
EH: I’m pretty proud of myself in my little workshop here in Bondi, things I can make in my own space, the connections I have in larger workshops, the tools I have access to. I’m proud that I’ve earned a living from my costume business for the past six years, and the growing relationships I have with my art director clients – we understand each other and I’m able to organise resources to make what they need, and know what they want. It’s not just costume making, I’m like an art department, creating costumes as well as stage scenes (note from TGW: I had to drag names out of her) for Lisa Mitchell, Architecture In Helsinki, and sets for TV ads.
TGW: What’s the biggest, most involved costume or production you’ve worked on?
EH: Social Diary
(Tiffany Farrington, pictured above) has been one of my favourite clients because she has a great imagination and enjoys pushing the boundaries, even if it means tolerating some discomfort for a night, like heat, or weight. For a “Wedding of the Year” themed event, we made her into a cake. First we had to work out how to make it – the ideas were half bride/half groom or jumping out of a cake, so then we put them together, and she was the marzipan doll on top of the cake. We extended it so that she had a head on each shoulder – so it was both ideas, plus the idea of same-sex marriage. Phew!
Often, art directors outsource to me. I might make props, 20 bags, or 100 cushions, or a bunch of curtains. Anything from umbrellas, rickshaw covers, to dolls clothes or flags.
I’ve previously been contracted to work on movie productions, and it’s something I’d love to do more of, especially now.
TGW: Who is someone you dream of working with?
TGW: What song lyrics have stuck with you?
EH: Groove is in the heart.
TGW: Elvis or The Beatles?
EH: I was going to say Elvis, but I like the Beatles’ music better. Elvis had great costumes. I style his wig quite often.
TGW: What’s next for you?
EH: I don’t know. I think… it’s um… all story telling. Painting. I keep focussing on painting. I’m going to get some brushes and pay more attention to my music as well. Playing guitar. If we stop practising, it disappears, doesn’t it? Now that I’m starting to make a more comfortable living from costuming, for the first time in ages, I can nurture those other things I love to do.
Also, I’d love to design a collection of clothes for celebration.
Meet Elisa when she first started Agent Costume in 2008
Contact Elisa at Agent Costume here
Follow Agent Costume on insta and twitter: @agentcostume