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Q&A costume designer: Sonya Lennon

You’re responsible for the lush costume design in ‘BitterSweet’.  Tell us how you got involved in the project?

It was the first time I’d worked with Declan and Di but I had just finished working with Element Pictures on ‘Prosperity’ – which was the complete polar opposite to this in terms of costume design.  And I had done several projects with them including ‘Garage’ so I guess, to a certain extent, I was in their stable and somebody with whom they were comfortable.

The overall look of the costume is very striking – how did you go about planning that?

The beginning as always is the script.  I broke down the script to try to get as full as possible a grasp on the make up of each character.  I think that if you get a good psychological and social profile of somebody you have a much more solid base from which to work. 

For each character I created a look book with tear sheets and linked that with a string of buzz words that related to the character.  After I read the script I discovered that it was going to be set in Malahide and around that area of Dublin, which was funny because that’s where I grew up, so I’m very familiar with that world.  The first time Declan (Eames) and I met we had a great chat about it because it’s a world he’s familiar with as he has relations in Howth.  That was the starting point – your knowledge of the world – and then you take it somewhere else. 

The way I would always work with characters is to develop an individual wardrobe for them.  I suppose that sounds quite obvious, but by that I mean to create a completely coherent wardrobe where every single thing in it sits comfortably beside everything else and they’re all totally in keeping with the character and her personality and lifestyle.  Costume is an important element of creating the world of the character so it all has to gel. 

We had decided to colour code the characters to give them definition.  I wanted to make it very celebratory. We were trying to make it as lush and rich as possible.  It had to be a celebration of the girls.  I wanted to have them as colourful as possible and I worked very closely with Owen McPolin, the Director of Photography, and Production Designer, Derek Wallis, on developing a palette for each of the girls.  For Gerry her palette was reds, pinks and purples, while for Carmel she’s in earthy browns, yellows, oranges and Marie is in blues.

The colour palette worked very well in defining the characters and their world. Deirdre O’Kane said she’d never worn blue before so it was a revelation to her how good she looked in it.  With Catherine Walker she said she was so used to being dressed head-to-toe in institutional grey that she nearly died when she saw the riot of colour that she had!  I think it just suited the Gerry’s nature. Una Kavanagh bravely chopped off her long locks to create the sleek silhouette of Carmel, and therefore wins the costume medal of honour.  I think the only black we’ve used was for Eva.  To me black can be a lazy route to looking good, she puts on a black dress for a date. Our heroines have more style and spunk than to go for the easy option.

I know all those women in my life – the characters are very familiar to me as they all contain elements of people I know.  I wanted to take them as characters and heighten them visually.  It’s a wonderful medium because it allows you to take it just a little bit further than your average person would be comfortable with.  Like with Gerry, who was in vertiginous heels every time we see her – I don’t she has one pair of flats. 

Each of the looks was done with the actors in mind?

I had done a lot of work on it before casting was confirmed, so I had my fingers crossed the whole time that the women cast would be fabulous – and thankfully they were!  They’re a great lot – it actually felt to me a lot of the time like playing Barbie because you’d find elements of outfits that matched the scheme and you’d be so excited that you had found the finishing touch to bring it all together. Because I started to prep the costume design before we had casting confirmed I knew there was a possibility that everything would have to change when I saw the actors.  But in fact it worked out perfectly.

As costume was so important where did you source all the fantastic clothes?

To be really honest we went everywhere.  My assistant and I went everywhere from Drogheda to Naas.  I didn’t want it be as obvious as high street (although there are a couple of bits of high street in there) and I didn’t want it to be as exclusive as completely designer.  It needed to be slightly more individualistic, so we went boutique shopping.  I come from a background in retail and I worked in boutiques and even though the word sounds so old fashioned they are actually the new shopping hubs – I have no doubt about it.  There are so many amazing shops now that are little microcosms of fashion retail in Drogheda and Malahide and Naas.  It’s destination shopping – women travel from all over the country to go to these places.  And they’re all over the country.  We had time restrictions so we couldn’t go nationwide, but had we had the time we would have found amazing boutiques all over the country.  Cork, for example, has some brilliant boutiques.  We shopped and recce’d with colour in mind, then when we got confirmation of the casting we knew what we wanted and where to get it.

In the programme there’s a huge party scene towards the end and we knew we needed some great stuff for that, so we were lucky that ‘Billion Dollar Babes’ was in town when we were buying for that.  It’s an international travelling designer roadshow that started in LA and has gone worldwide.   It’s basically like a designer outlet that comes to you.  So we were very lucky that it was in town when we were doing our prep and we managed to get amazing dresses for that party.

As an expert do you have any tips on shopping?

When they’re shopping a lot of people get daunted by a shop floor.  The trick is to home in on what you’re looking for.  I’ve been doing this for 20 years so I have a bit of a radar and I can zone in on what I want and go straight for it.  But that’s my job - to find the needle in the haystack.  And the one thing I would always say to people is to try on the clothes.  It doesn’t cost you anything to try something on and the more you try on, the more you know what suits you, your bodyshape and about how clothes on the hanger transform when they’re on your body.