The range is impressive, and it’s owed to Phillips’ own willingness to open doors in the high walls between industries — or make those doors when they didn’t exist. “Nobody did both — fashion and film,” she told me, “I really worked hard to keep both parts of my career alive because I realized that I needed to keep a balance or else I would burn out.”
For someone so worried about balance and burnout, her work and life were strikingly fused, almost indistinguishable. “I guess you could say that I never really took time off. My work life became my personal life because I was so passionate about it,” she said. “My ambition was to fulfill myself creatively. I had a voracious appetite for new experiences, creatively, and I didn’t have any constraints. I wasn’t married, I didn’t have kids, I was young. That was my life.”
After dropping out of college and moving to New York to work as an assistant in fashion, Phillips got her lucky break in a way no one could plan: her good friend Lenny Kravitz came out with his first album and needed a stylist. As he took off, so did she, and in the process she learned that she wanted to go beyond fashion, to create characters, to think about narrative and history as it relates to clothes. Self-taught in the heyday of the music video, she ventured into the film world with The Crow and went on to do costume design on Tank Girl, The People Versus Larry Flynt, Walk The Line, and, after she met and started styling Madonna, her film W.E. On her desk sit two working scripts for films she will be designing costumes for. The one with red pages (watermarked and confidential) is for Tom Ford’s next film, which will appear in the fall.
Below the Ford script sits “The Hedwig Bible,” a thick binder which describes in meticulous detail every costume Phillips designed for the Broadway show Hedwig and the Angry Inch. “It has everything from reference to fitting to execution, all the notes from sketches, to where fabric swatches are for remaking the costumes in case,” Phillips explained. I t’s standard in theater to create such an elaborate document, but Phillips naturally applies the concept to her own office. On her wall hang inspirational images, ripped from magazines or given to her by friends, that show the same kind of archival thinking.
“I keep things that keep me grounded, make me smile and keep my spirit up,” she said. She calls herself a “pop culture adventurer,” and her taste can be summed up in her unique phone case, a Moschino Barbie mirror.
Phillips comes from a family of artists, and her grandmother is an important influence. She went to art school in the 1920s but abandoned her artistic career to get married and have a family, as so many women did in that time. Phillips keeps one of her paintings, a small, humble flower still life, on her wall and one of her high heels from the 1940s on display. “Shoes can be like art; they’re sculpture.”
She has always taken the experiences of other artists to heart. “I was lucky enough to work with artists at the beginning of my career who made decisions based on what inspired them. They said no as easily as they said yes,” she said, “I learned from them to always fulfill myself organically by doing what feels authentically like something I want.”