Legendary designer Peter O’Brien on getting creative with costumes ‘I wanted to bury costumes in the garden and soak them in tea and burn them’

As heard on arena

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The legendary lusciousness of Peter O’Brien’s designs has rendered him a major player on the international fashion scene.  From boyhood sketches based on old Hollywood glamour, he has risen through the ranks of Christian Dior, Givenchy, Chloé and beyond and has made a very natural transition to costume designer.  He told Sean Rocks on Arena about an early embellishment on a costume for a Gilbert and Sullivan play while at school – the addition of a few sequins made him “the only twinkling person on stage” – and from there he has gone on to bring his own special brand of magic to some of our best-loved theatrical works.

His first foray into the world of professional theatre came with Alan Stanford’s imagining of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ at The Gate and he says it’s a far cry from the precious and particular world of haute couture.

“It’s certainly not about a designer’s ego…  It’s all about the script and it’s all about empowering an actor so that they can play the part to the best of their abilities.  All you want to do is have a happy actor in front of you basically…  There are loads of practical things that happen in theatre that I didn’t know about – things that get bashed, they get bruised, people sweat and you know the first show I did I used to go in every night to see if my frocks were OK.  I finally have gotten over that and I kind of have let them go.  It’s the life of a costume, they just get bashed up, that’s what happens!”

Despite having to learn to let go, Peter is not afraid to let his imagination, or a blowtorch, run riot with his theatrical designs and would relish the opportunity to bring more grit to his costumes.

“Any time anyone wanted to do a show with posh frocks, they asked me and I was longing to be asked to do something else, you know.  I wanted to bury costumes in the garden and soak them in tea and burn them…  I wanted to do ‘Godot’ and people always gave me Wilde and Shaw… I’m not complaining, I enjoyed it a lot.”

Peter has also designed for the opulent and phenomenally successful Christmas run of ‘The Great Gatsby’ at The Gate and his advice for anyone going to see the play is to go easy on the chicken feather boas – they’ve been done to death – and wear comfortable shoes.  Nobody wants to do the Charleston in 7-inch stilettos.

Peter is due to give a talk in The National Library of Ireland on the art and craft of custom design on November 28th and you can click here for more details.

Click here to listen to Arena.

© The Listener 2018

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