Not only is Catherine Martin an Academy Award winning costume designer, wife, and mother, she’s an incredibly kind person. Her work transcends her as she is leaving her imprint on the film industry. Martin is in Cannes for the much buzzed about biopic Elvis that premiered tonight, and that her husband Baz Luhrmann directed.
As she walks into the interview, the medium height designer is dressed in head to toe black, even the rim of her glasses are flamboyant and black, drawing out her stylish short blonde hair. Her big smile shifts the atmosphere in the room, as she nestled on the sofa to talk about what everyone in Cannes is talking about: Elvis.
Opening up she talked about how she met Luhrmann and how the two have a shared passion for film, and how what they have done over the years is organic yet planned.
“When we met I was going for a job interview to work for the bicentennial year for Australia. He had been given a couple of companies as a bicentennial initiative and I was going to interview for those jobs. And when I met him we just started to talk, and talk, and talk about everything from Madonna, to space travel, to philosophy. I had been a bit dissatisfied with the intellectual rigor of drama school. I thought that he had such a big mind. We kept talking and began working together. I remember going into a rehearsal room and he was rehearsing an opera that I had done the costumes for. My collogue did the set and I remember seeing Baz’s staging, and I remember thinking, ‘wow, this person really has an incredible mind.’ It was about designing opera and being in the theater, but he decided to make a film from the play. By this time, we had been working together for a long time. It was a natural progression, it wasn’t planed, although weirdly, Baz plans everything, but it was also organic. He’ll think of something and it will go into his subconscious and it will end up happening. And he will then convince everyone else that they need to go in the same direction as him,” she muses and laughs as she thinks of her husband.
If you remember the 1996 rendition of Romeo + Juliet, Martin did the costumes and won an Academy Award. Moulin Rouge!, a 2001 film won two Oscars, and Martin’s work in Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby won her a 2013 Oscar for Best Costume Design.
Catherine’s love of fashion
She’s always loved fashion. “As there are men who love cars, I love the world of fashion, I love clothes, and I like looking at people and what they’re wearing.” But for her, her contentment is in costume design, not the kinesthetic nature of runway collections. “I sometimes daydream and think, ‘I’d love to do that,’ and then I think how hard it is with eight collections a year and it becomes tiring. It all just becomes a blur.”
“Cannes is like a parade of beautiful and freakish fashion and I like looking at everything,” she notes. But then she turned the conversation to talk about her love of costume design. “I realized that I enjoyed the intellectual kind of challenge that fashion brings, the rigor of it all, the storytelling aspect, and the collaborative aspect. I realized early on that I enjoyed working with actors and Baz.”
“Because I love clothes and how they’re made, and fabrics, all these things allow me to delve into a world that many don’t usually go to. And yes, everything is about money, budgets, and whatever. But at least I’m not running around like poor fashion designers trying to balance art and money.”
Capturing how clothes make a person in ‘Elvis’
“Elvis was an incredible stylist because he created his own looks, he didn’t have a stylist.” There’s a scene in the beginning of the film where Elvis, played by Austin Butler was going around Memphis to spread his music, performing in bars, and he’s wearing a sharp pink suit on stage one night. And a little bit later in the film you see Elvis looking at the suit in a storefront window, a flashback. His eyes gaze at the pink suit with a feeling of: I gotta have this. Many performers, especially early in their career like to wear flashy clothes to gain the attention of the public. Vogue photographer Mario Testino would walk around with pink hair to get attention on his work.
“Elvis’ self-created looks were all about his stage persona. It was all about creating the Elvis myth, and who he was. He really projected himself through clothes, which is really fascinating, and most performers do. But, he had such strong periods in his life and he created iconic looks like his jumpsuits.”
We can see how fearless of a life Elvis lived from making songs and delivering them on stage that was too provocative for that time. He associated with blacks and this was frowned upon at the time. And he pushed the boundaries with his songs. “Quite frankly Elvis wasn’t scared of being a dandy and I think that came from his admiration for so many black performers and having been on Beale Street throughout his youth, and also going to shop at Lansky Brothers, where that kind of sartorial dandiness and strength, that ability to actually create yourself through your clothes and not being fearful as a man who was a type of peacock left Elvis to feel things. B.B. King was like this. He loved to wear shorts. All these things and not being scared to project himself through clothes is fascinating.”
“Sure, you had people like Little Richard who did his own make up and wore fascinating things. There wasn’t that sort of level with strength-in-choice. Elvis wore lace shirts and took the Napoleon collar from Bill Belew who was NBC’s costume director, and parlayed that into his own style. In the Vegas years he found the jumpsuit and never let it go, which kind of totally defined him. I read somewhere that Belew designed jumpsuits for either The Osmonds or Jackson 5, prior to Elvis getting his jumpsuits, and The Colonel [Tom Parker] tried to get the copyright on the jumpsuits, and Belew noted he couldn’t get a copyright on jumpsuits.”
Italian houses Prada and Miu Miu also made costumes for the film, like many of Priscilla Presley’s looks.
Luhrmann is known for being a stickler on research when making a film. “There will be certain things that you need to read and immerse yourself in,” says Martin. “He often sets projects that help with the script so there are visual investigations. So, he’ll say: ‘I want every picture you can find of Beale Street, or of Elvis in 1952, what do you think is the most interesting thing he wore in 1956? Pull together a dossier that will help me, because this is what I want to write about and I want those visual cues.’ He’s an incredibly visual person so he’ll often start making collages or make sketches, and it’s up to us to take that, run with it, and come back with other things.”
“I start really early on while the script is being written, and often we make look boards, and books that speak to various characters. So, we made a colonel book. There are books we use to express to the studio ideas so there are images, quotes, song lines- like a coffee table book and we make it for ourselves. We made one for Elvis, we made one for the colonel. In this way we’re able to express, not only to the studio, but to the actors and to ourselves the journey we’re going to go on. We’ve done this for every project we’ve done. Quite often within these books we do concept art very early on to try and include the actors that are cast in the movie. This is how everything starts and we just keep building on it and eventually we’ll have a design presentation where we take everyone through these documents that we’ve made so that everyone is on the same page and knows where we’re going.”
All costumes for Elvis were made in Australia. Martin relies on a group of women that she has worked with for thirty years. She calls it a “bastion” of female strength and energy due to it being a female endeavor of sewing and making hats. But on the flip side Martin notes that men are welcomed. “We’re trying to encourage young men to become a part of this world because it’s an area inhabited by women, especially women of a certain age like myself.”
The film is long but worth the watch. Under the guise of Warner Bros Studios, it’s done in true Baz Luhrmann cinematic style. Tom Hanks also plays in the film as Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ real-life manager. The film focuses heavily on Elvis and The Colonel’s challenging and complicated relationship that spanned twenty years, showing the renowned singer’s rise to fame. Olivia DeJonge plays Priscilla Presley, where the film touches on the fall of their marriage. The film will be released in the US on June 24, 2022 and internationally on June 22, 2022.