20 July 2023

The Threads that Bind – Philippa O’Brien


Ngā Hononga. Common Threads.

The trappings of fashion are all around us – as ways to express style and personality in the everyday, or when adorning ourselves for special occasions. Behind the fabric and the clothing are the artists whose visions shape the wearable art we spend our lives in. Janine Whale, Philippa O’Brien and Shona Tawhiao have each dedicated themselves to the fashion world. Though at different points in their careers, they are all bound by love to the craft. Here’s Philippa’s story.

Woman sitting on her couch

Despite the close proximity to actors that might have the rest of us behaving like awkward teenagers, Philippa has developed a way of working with actors that is professional and not too personal. “It was terrifying early on,” she says. “But most actors are really appreciative if you’re just straight-up. You don’t do a lot of small talk and I don’t try and become anyone’s friend, because everyone’s working.”

Before the sun slides behind the peaks and the summery Kingston afternoon turns into a chilly night, Philippa O’Brien, 53, is sitting in the sun – in a singlet – snatching a moment to look at the snow on the mountains. Life is somewhat hectic right now: she’s scrambling to get things sorted before she flies out to Australia for work; there’s a guy turned up to get rid of some tree stumps; the carpet people have arrived to do some work after a year of waiting; and she’s trying to get the posters sorted for the exhibition of her photographic work she’s holding in July.

Philippa’s collection of mugs and glasses in her sun-drenched kitchen.
Philippa’s collection of mugs and glasses in her sun-drenched kitchen.

“The coordination of things is ridiculous,” Philippa laughs. But she doesn’t seem at all stressed. “It’s sort of what I’ve done a lot in the film industry,” she explains. Since her early twenties, Philippa has worked as a costumier in film and television – the standby of the wardrobe department, the designer’s eyes and hands on set. “I discovered the film industry in my last year of university, and that was it. I left. I joined the circus.”

That circus involves far more people than just the actors and directors whose names we might be familiar with. “It’s this massive dance of collaboration between all departments,” Philippa says. “And a lot of it is hard-core negotiation – people negotiating to achieve their best artistic approach to the job. All of the hard work comes together when all of the departments are creating a scene. Sometimes there’s a really beautiful moment between actors that has come together because the fabrics are amazing and the makeup is amazing and the acting is amazing and the lighting’s amazing... When you’re on a special job that can come together time and time again. You go away at the end of it and you recover, and then you forget about it. And then you see it on the screen and it blows your mind.”

Black and white image of cowgirl boots on a lawn.
“As a costumier, if you aren’t passionate about your job and you don’t document it, it won’t edit well and it won't keep an audience captivated,” says Philippa.

As a costumier, Philippa’s job is to take care of the actors’ wardrobes, but it involves a lot more than just making sure a shirt is buttoned right or a collar is sitting straight. “You’re responsible for how the costumes look before a take. You are responsible for continuity. You are responsible for the comfort and care of the actors. You are responsible for the stunts, aiding with rigging outfits and costumes over the top. You are responsible for keeping actors warm and cool. It’s a big role. It’s kind of like being the mum on set.”

And it takes an artist to do the job well, not just a dresser. “I worked on a show last year in South Australia called Firebite,” Philippa recalls. “It was an amazing job – very difficult, very shot-in-the-trenches. The storytelling for me was not so much in the costuming but in the application of dust and dirt and blood that had to be maintained on these actors as they progressed through a harrowing story of Aboriginal people fighting vampires by Australian director Warwick Thornton. You start with the costume, but it’s my job to make it look real.”

While Philippa has done the big jobs, working on a huge list of productions ranging from the likes of Mulan to Vertical Limit, she’s not doing them so much anymore. “It’s absolutely ridiculous the hours film people work. And it is vocational, for sure. It’s also highly addictive, which I think is why people are attracted to it and then stay there and then can’t find something to replace it with. I actually gave up being on set in that way for about seven years. And then I sort of got back into it two years ago.”

During that hiatus, Philippa pursued a course of study in photography. “I’d always turned to cameras for creativity,” she says, “and I knew that I did have an eye. So I pursued it. I found a course that I wanted to do at Massey in Wellington. I then stayed in Wellington, pulled together a body of work and put together a website. Then I ended up back in the film industry,” she adds with a laugh.

Black and white image of an old film camera
Philippa is getting ready for another showing of Skateface this winter at Silo Park in Auckland.

The body of work she created in Wellington includes Skateface – a five-year photographic journey documenting women who play roller derby in New Zealand. “Normally all the imagery you see of roller derby is the action. But I don’t use fast cameras. I use a medium format slow camera. So I can’t shoot the action. It’s a portrait camera. I realised that it was going be environmental portraits.”

Having travelled around the country photographing over fifty women, Philippa realised she was sitting on top of something incredible, and turned twenty-five of their stories into a book. “They talked openly about how roller derby changed their lives – things like body dysmorphia, postnatal depression, postpartum symptoms and how to overcome them. It was about being rejected by traditional sports like hockey and netball. These were athletes who didn’t fit, because their body type wasn’t right, or they just didn’t get it, so then they never played sport.”

Woman looking through film camera
Philippa is a costumier and photographer. She spent months documenting women in roller derby. “They were going through this interesting metamorphosis within the culture. Essentially, roller derby is a full-contact sport like rugby or boxing. You’re gonna get hit. At the time that I was photographing it, it was going from sort of theatrical entertainment roots to much more of a serious sporting competitive base,” Philippa says.

It’s an exciting life she leads, but working internationally has really brought it home for Philippa that Aotearoa is a very fine place to call home. “It has cemented my gratefulness at being a New Zealander. You’ve got to have tenacity to work in film, and farm people do. If I’m ever interviewing someone and I find out they’ve got a farm background...” She leaves the sentence unfinished, as if it goes without saying that they’d get the job.

“I come home to Kingston to recharge my batteries, to see my family and friends, and to nurture this piece of land. I have always done that my whole career. At the end of film jobs, I’ve always returned home, because this land gives me the energy and the reason to go back out there again.”

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