Moulin Rouge clothes maestro Catherine Martin has pulled off another stylish masterpiece, says Ed Power
As a wide-eyed young set designer in Australia, Catherine Martin imagined she was destined for a life of modest accomplishment. She would work on sensible, low-key local productions of Shakespeare and Ibsen and she would be happy. The thought of operating on a grander canvas never occurred to her.
But that was before she entered a creative partnership with director Baz Luhrmann that has seen her preside over some of the most dazzling tableaux in contemporary cinema (ever the perfectionist, she also married Luhrmann for good measure). It was Martin who orchestrated the stunning costumery in 2001’s Moulin Rouge (and, really, what was Moulin Rouge other than dazzling costumery?) and put the bling into Luhrmannn’s 2013 Great Gatsby adaptation (though the movie divided opinion, everyone agreed that it was gorgeous to behold).
Martin’s success has propelled her to an exclusive position in Hollywood — that rare costume designer with name recognition beyond the fashion industry. She is highly regarded within the business too, having won an unprecedented four Oscars for production and costume design, for Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge.
“I’ve often thought I should wear a t-shirt saying ‘saving the world one sequin at time’,” she laughs as she holds court in a hotel suite in London. “When I left design school I thought I would end up working in very tasteful Ibsen plays. My style was very modernist and severe. And the first thing I did out of school was a musical with sparkles.”
She is a key creative voice in Luhrmann’s The Get Down, a New York-set 70s drama about the origins of rap music arriving this week on Netflix. Martin is in her element as she talks about getting the period details — the chunky running shoes, the hoodies and afros hairstyles — just right. She isn’t a prisoner to authenticity — in Gatsby she decided against using stumpy 20s-style heels because they looked wrong — yet perfectionism is one of her guiding principles. She hates watching one of her own movies and spotting what she considers to be a flaw or evidence of lazy thinking. To be ordinary is the worst crime a fashion designer could commit.
“You want to make a successful piece of work that people connect to,” says says. “Everyone has their own style to a certain degree. I would hope I am being versatile. But I have a liking for certain things. I love hats — any excuse, I will have a hat. I always have a millinery department in my movies, which a lot of studios and producers have a difficulty with.
“I remember when we were working on [Luhrmann’s 19th century epic] Australia and they were asking, why do you need a millenary hat for a bunch of cowboys? A hat is a very specific thing.”
Martin was born in Sydney in 1965 and grew up in upper middle-class suburbia. Her parents were both high-flying academics (they started dating at the Sorbonne). As a child she fell in love with Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz, which continue to influence her.
She met Luhrmann while studying visual arts at Sydney College of the Arts. The first time she clapped eyes on him he was wearing a towel having just returned from a swim (“I kind of went, ‘Oh I get it, a theatrical type.’ ”) The unconventional entrance didn’t dissuade her and they had soon forged a formidable creative alliance, their first project a one-act stage precursor to what would be Luhrmann’s debut film, Strictly Ballroom.
That movie made Luhrmann internationally famous and established Martin as one of the hot new talents in costume and set design, securing her BAFTA nominations for best costume design and best set design.
After her screen success, moving into television was somewhat of an upheaval she says. But both she and her husband felt that story of hip hop’s birth needed a larger canvas in order to do it justice. It certainly attracted a substantial budget, with the $120m making The Get Down one of the most expensive series ever made.
“It needed to be developed over time. There were so many aspects that were interesting and merited exploration.”
From a fashion perspective, the early hip hop period was incredibly important she says. She draws parallels with Coco Chanel who turned previously casual pieces such as polo shirts into high fashion. Early hip hop street style did exactly the same — it was the ultimate collision between art and fashion.
“Coco Chanel made sports wear high fashion for woman. In hip hop they take the tracksuit and it becomes a crazy blinded-out Gucci extravaganza. You are taking very ordinary objects and elevating them to a high place.”
Has she ever been tempted to swap the costuming department for the director’s chair? She laughs dryly. “Oh my gosh — I’m lucky in that I’ve seen from the outside how horrible that part of the process is.”
She also feels the toll on her personal life would be too high. She has two sons and wants to be there for them. Were she to go into directing, that would not be possible. She cannot countenance paying so high a price. “It’s just hideous. Your responsibility is to make up the story – everybody always wants to know what you’re doing. The pressure of becoming this great white hope is difficult.
Our son is with us on this trip and just the other day Baz says, ‘where is William, I haven’t seen him once since we got here’ So I’d be very trepidatious — as I get older I’d like to be more productive in a shorter amount of time.
“My kids are 12 and 11. They’re at an age when they need a lot of input from their parents. When they were babies as long as they were loved and looked after and relatively stimulated. Now they are people who talk to me and traumatise me. I’ve got people to be answerable to. “
She is of course anxious as to how The Get Down will be received. Yet Martin is also faintly unnerved at the prospect of it doing well. Should Netflix order a second season, she and Luhrmann would be pitched into the deep end all over again. The thought makes her shudder slightly.
“You want to make a successful piece of work that people connect to,” she says.”But I don’t think I’ll survive a second season. Then again, this is the first time we’ve ever taken on something like this. You would hope there would be some improvement in terms of our efficiency. Let’s wait and see.”
The Get Down starts on Netflix on Friday.
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