John Foley, An Irish Costume Designer & Perfumer: “Fashion Is A Marriage Between Your Interior And Your Exterior!”

July 12, 2017

The first time when I met John was sometime last year, in winter, when I was visiting the Dover Street Market in London. Our meeting reminded a scene from the movie - me and him wanted to grab the same fashion magazine at the same time and that’s how we met. Our conversation went with the flow and he was already having his cup of tea, so I decided that a cup of green tea for myself after a long day wouldn’t hurt as well. That day, right after our meeting, I had to leave London, so we exchanged our contact details and we kept in touch. Whenever I am there, we always try to meet up and now it is almost a tradition - a cup of green tea with John at the same place - the third floor, Dover Street Market, a table by the window on the left.


John is a real multi-tasker, that’s what I call him. He is a costume designer, perfumer, artist and art therapist. One day he is in Los Angeles, creating costumes for a new Hollywood movie, another day he is in Switzerland working on a new opera production, the third day he is in New York for an exhibition and some time in between - he is back home in London, inventing new perfume lines in his laboratory, which is is located in his kitchen. Also, it is the only time when I get a chance to see him.

Whenever John speaks, you want to sit with a pen and a notebook in your hands - just like John Leland, a journalist from "The New York Times", that I met once for my interview in New York about the Lithuanian filmmaker Jonas Mekas. The reason is simple - everything that John says, you want to remember. Every sentence of his is like a quote. When I had to think about the title for this article, I had to spend a while to think what quote would be the best. On one hand it was easy, but on the other hand - it was quite hard, since you think that every single quote that he said during the interview would be good to use in the title, so when you have to pick the one - it’s quite tricky.


It is impossible to talk with John about only one subject and it should be easily understandable, because he is a real multi-tasker and when he does something, he makes it big, which obviously means that he has a deep knowledge in many subjects, not just one.

As a singer/songwriter myself, during this interview I wanted to talk with John about the show business, stage costumes and men’s fashion. Having mentioned that John has been a part of the show business for thirty years, it was interesting to hear his experience and, especially, the advice that he gives to all the young performers, pursuing career in the arts.


Here is my full interview with John Foley:


B: Since you are a costume designer, I would like to talk about the trends that we see now in the fashion industry. Some of the trends just come and leave, but some of them stay with us for a while. The trend of women wearing trousers stayed up until now, then there was an organic fashion. People’s obsession with organic food transformed into obsession for organic fabrics. The new trend that we see now - is the unisex fashion. Since you are a stylist and a fashion designer, I’m pretty sure that you never cared whether the specific garment is men’s or women’s. However, looking from the commercial point of view - do you believe in the survival of unisex fashion?


J: Fashion is changeable by nature. Nowadays, we see a wider acceptance of transgender people and I believe that it will finally impact fashion. It has been taking a couple years and even though they are a very small minority of the population, they still have a huge political presence - and that, I believe, will be reflected. You see - in perfumes, for example, I believe there is no such thing as ‘gender’ anymore. As a perfumer, when I find a new note - I don’t categorise it anymore, if it’s ‘male’ or ‘female’.

Historically, the trend has always been women wearing masculine clothes and that trend goes way back. The other journey has always been for men to dress softer. However, I really doubt it whether the genderless fashion will hit the commercial market.


B: My thoughts exactly… Since you are a costume designer, I know that it is essential for you to get familiar with the character of a particular play, before you are able to see some sort of vision, in terms of design. As my blog is more orientated towards menswear, I am interested to know what are the key male features that you think of, when you have to create a costume for a male performer?


J: Shoulders! Shoulders, shoulders, shoulders… It’s all about the shoulders!


B: Is it the same in a real life? Or is it just for the stage costumes?


J: Yes, shoulders are essential in any kind of costume, because the line of the back is vertical and if you hit the shoulders right, then you can make the rest work. If you can’t get the shoulders right - the costume won’t work. It is the part where the frame starts and you drop everything from the shoulder.


B: So shoulders are essential in terms of the physical appearance. What about the psychological and mental side of the character? Are there any points that you pay a lot of attention to?


J: Yes, any time before I create a costume, I have to meet the person, who is going to play the character. It is very important to me as a designer, because only then I can start building a vision of the costume design. I have to see even such things as how does that person walk like and just generally to feel that person’s aura - I want to know how does that person feel like. Besides that person, you also have to go deep into the character’s mind and find out what exactly that character is about. Let’s say, Mozart’s Don Giovanni - he has to look extremely masculine, attractive and sexy. In such way, it is all about how he walks, how uses his body and I always get the actors to use their body. I always say - walk with the body, not just the face. As well as when I work with fashion models - I say the same - use the body to express yourself, not just the face.


B: When we talk about the stage performances, sometimes performers are given the freedom to wear whatever they want. As a costume designer, do you see any mistakes that they do in their choices?


J: Yes, they make it look like who they are in the reality rather than their character that is represented on the stage. They don’t understand that. You have to dress the character, not yourself. Costume is about the character! There is some sort of vanity, actually, because people want to look good. That is the hardest thing you have to go against. Sometimes people do not like wearing clothes that are not flattering, but you have to understand that even if it is not flattering to you, it is right for the character.


B: When you talk about the models, actors and characters - I would like to know your opinion - what is more important when you want to get into that ‘kitchen’? The talent or ambition? Because from what we see now on TV, Internet or Social Media - we can see that it is more about the ambition rather than just a pure talent? What do you think?


J: It’s all very well about having an ambition, because it will drive you forward. However, you must have a talent when you get through the ‘door’. In the end of the day, it is, what we call, fifty/fifty.


B: Both are important?


J: I would say so, because I have been doing this for thirty years and throughout my career, I have seen so many people burnt out.


B: But who’s fault is it? Because when they enter the ‘door’ - as you described it earlier - do they loose the ambition? Or don’t they have any talents that are needed to survive in that business?


J: Well, you see… You still have to stay hungry! Hungry to do more projects, hungry to do more jobs - sometimes to make it right, sometimes wrong. Even though you’re in a show business, it still is a business and as in any business, it means that you need both - ambition and skills to make it work.


B: So as you say - they loose the hunger, which means they loose the ambition? Do they loose the motivation, because when you enter that world - it doesn’t seem as exciting as it used to seem before?


J: That is not the major thing… The major mistake that I notice people doing is that some of them do everything to be likeable. It is not good, because in such way they are afraid to fail and, therefore, they do what the public tells them to do, not what their hearts tell them to do. For example, my job is filled with negotiations. I have to negotiate with the directors, lighting designers, choreographers… When we do a big opera, we have to negotiate with each other and every one involved wants their idea to get through. That’s why sometimes you have to forget about what people will think if you want to succeed. Some people don’t like it? Well… I DO! When I think of the word ‘design’ - I think of the word ‘decision’. That’s exactly what a designer does - designer makes decisions and then you have to live with the consequences. That is why you better make sure that you like it, even if nobody else does. At least you will be able to sleep at night.


B: That is such a good point. Now, let’s go back to men’s fashion. What do you think is it influenced by?


J: Outdoors. Always! If you look back to when men used to ride horses, that’s where the short jackets come from. Another example - sportswear. Denim. Lycra clothes. It’s all about coming in from the outside. If you look what people wear in sports now, that will appear in fashion in about two or three years. Whatever happens outdoors - will come indoors. That’s the key about the trends in men’s fashion.


B: I have never thought about it, but since you mentioned it - yes, I do agree! I have interviewed some people, who work in bespoke tailoring and make suits. Even though I appreciate a classic suit, I know that there are people, who say that a suit is for boring people, who have no fantasy. What are your thoughts about that?


J: I can tell you one thing - it is easy to put a suit on, but it is hard to make a suit look good! That is the key! However, I think what is interesting that while a formal dress code is less and less required by some companies, those people prefer wearing the suits on the weekends. I think it is really interesting and I would like to do some research within that subject.

Anyway, suit is a uniform, which is also a costume and a costume has two functions. First - it tells PEOPLE who you are, but it also tells YOURSELF who you are. In such way, suits serve a purpose, because if you wear a suit - you don’t just represent to others who you are, but you also tell yourself “My role in the company is …”


B: What about men’s accessories then? Is there any accessory, in your opinion, that is vital for men?


J: For men? Scent! Because that projects beyond your body. That is the part of what you create AROUND you. I love the week after Christmas, when you’re on public transport, because you can smell all the perfumes that have been given as presents.


B: Really? I’ve never thought about that…


J: Yeah! You can always see the trends of the year! As the time goes by, I notice that men get much more adventurous with perfume. They like something else… They like darker stuff right now: the woody ones, the leather… So I think perfume is the best accessory for any man.


B: I am not very aware of the perfume production, but, as a perfumer, is it how you get the inspiration for your new lines?


J: I have to admit that my best perfumes are made in the kitchen, that is where my laboratory is.


B: Since we started talking about the importance of the dress code, don’t you have those days sometimes, when you would think to yourself “God… It’s just clothes”?


J: Oh yes! In 2009, I stopped designing. I kept making clothes for other people and then I went abroad to study classics.


B: What made you do this?


J: I felt like I had nothing left to say… About a skirt, for example!


B: Because of what?


J: I’ve been doing it solid for so long. Since 1987 till 2009, without having a break from doing it.


B: So perhaps the approach to fashion depends on your mood?


J: Well, I have to admit that a statement that “fashion is just clothes” is too false. Of course, it is just clothes - but fashion is functional. It is triable. It tells people who you are! They make you feel and look attractive. It sets an image of you. Therefore, I think of clothes very seriously.


B: Does that mean that you never get tired of the fashion world?


J: NEVER EVER! You remember the first time we met and we went to take a look at those extraordinary “Comme des Garçon” clothes? You see… For about four years now, Rei Kawakubo has been trying not to make clothes, she wants to make something else! You have to keep pushing yourself. Fashion is a marriage between your interior and your exterior. It allows you to play with your identity today. That’s what I like about this world and that’s why I find it hard to get tired of it, to be honest. 


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