Thursday, 1 May 2014

Chatting Nikita, careers and more with Barbara Somerville.

I loved Nikita from the moment I read the blurb. Then I watched the show and developed a major girl-crush on Maggie Q, delighted in a strong, 3D, flawed but loving female lead and was awed by the wardrobe. It became one of those shows I watched in excitement for the plot while screencapping the outfits obsessively. It was just so on-point. There was a coolness, a refreshing clarity, plenty of clean lines, a richness and attention to detail and an ease to it all that made me fall more deeply in love with the show. I was understandably delighted when Barbara Somerville, the costume designer for the show, agreed to find time to chat to me. Below she outlines her fascinating career path, opinions on style and that she and Maggie Q sometimes bought Nikita's outfits for themselves!

Moi:  Could you give me a brief outline of your background and how you came to Nikita?

 I studied fashion design and the history of fashion after graduating from high school. At the same time, I worked part-time for one of the most important retailers in Toronto. She taught me more than I could have hoped for and when she turned her store over to me, to manage for two weeks while she vacationed in Spain, it was sink or swim. You can be sure that I was going to swim. I was 18 years old! Swim, I did. She invited me to join her on her local buying expeditions and respected my voice. I was blessed and knew it!

I didn't feel intellectually challenged in the fashion course I was enrolled in, so I finished the program and went off to university to study English and Sociology. I graduated with an honours and went on to earn a parallel degree in Education. This accomplishment landed me a teaching position at the high school level where I taught English and Theatre Arts for two years. I was extremely lucky to be hired as there was a surplus of graduates and few jobs. I adored the students and loved my job, but something bigger was calling out to me.

I opened one of the most important fashion boutiques in Ontario, featuring unique pieces that I collected from everywhere. The store represented international designers, but featured the best that Canadian designers had to offer. It was a store, a concept that some attempted to copy. Greatest form of flattery, I’m told.

I sold the store 10 years along and went to work for a magazine called FASHION. After my stint in the world of advertising, I was introduced, quite by chance, to the world of film and television. A call from an acquaintance to shop for a show that was shooting in Toronto came and so it began.

Never, when I began as a buyer in the film industry, did I imagine myself sitting in the chair of the Costume Designer. I was in awe of what these people did and, in my opinion, they worked magic. After working the many positions that exist in the costume department, I was offered the position of Costume Designer. I declined, but the Producer persisted, convincing me that I was ready. He couldn't believe that I was hesitant. With his encouragement, I agreed and haven’t looked back!

It seems that everything I've done, all of the jobs that I have held, the degrees I have earned, prepared me for this position!

I worked on the first incarnation of Nikita in the 90s as the set supervisor and helped with some of the buying when time allowed. It was really something when I heard that Nikita was being revived with a new cast and new writers and when they called me to ask about my availability, I was excited to explore the notion.

Which character is easiest to dress?

Maggie Q, who played Nikita, was a dream to dress! She knew how to work everything I put her in. Her enthusiasm for 98% of what I presented to her made her delightful to dress. Yes, we had to alter almost everything because she is so tiny, but she patiently endured the long fittings we sometimes were lucky to have. It was next to impossible to find time for fittings with her because of the intense schedule she had to juggle so when we could find a couple of hours, (rare), it was a gift. Her instincts, too, were spot on about her costumes and so we collaborated well together. You can imagine how much fun it was for me to find or create those sexy mission outfits she wore in every show. Maggie did the bulk of her own stunts and so all of these costumes had to allow her the opportunity to stretch, bend, jump, run. And I had to keep her warm at the same time as our winters can be extremely cold. From stealthy, sexy mission looks to glamour! Oh, the many dresses and gowns I was lucky to put her in. She was stunning every time.

Who is the most difficult?

None of the characters were difficult to dress! They were all fabulous. I would have to say, though, that it was a bit of a challenge figuring out the right look for “Alex.” Lyndsy, who played Alex has the cutest figure to start and matured into a very sexy woman by the end of the show. I had to ensure that she didn't compete with “Nikita” but still looked more that appealing. The answer was to not go as sophisticated and to connect with a different colour palette.

If you had to dress like one of the characters, who would it be? Do any have a similar sense of style to your own?

 I am, personally, a blend of all of the characters, in terms of my style. I do have a lot of similar silhouettes worn by Nikita and, in fact, Maggie and I would both sometimes, buy for ourselves,  a piece that her character wore on the show. I loved the dresses that “Amanda” wore on the show. She was simply divine to dress as she rocked every dress and fabulous pair of shoes that I offered to her.

What has been your favourite project you've ever worked on? 

 I did a series called Kevin Hill many years ago and it compares with Nikita in terms of how exciting every character was and how different each one looked. The challenge of creating characters through their respective costumes is a great one and takes time to solidify. It’s a process that sometimes continues to evolve. And to that point, as a character evolves, so can their look. The script dictates this and I, as a Costume Designer, must respond. It’s a tie between Kevin Hill and Nikita for the most fun I've had creating costumes. Well, now that I've said that, I’d like to throw “Happy Town” into the mix. A very different show/concept and such fun to create these completely unique people.

And which one are you most proud of?

I am probably most proud of Nikita and perhaps it isn't fair to say that as it was the longest running series for me to design. It was a bit of a survival course. Every episode was like doing a feature. Our seasons were long, 22-23 episodes per season with no hiatus. I was given scripts that called for things I’d never heard of or asked to produce a costume that morphed into something else. I spent sleepless nights attempting to come up with solutions. It happened more than once that I bolted upright in my bed in the middle of the night with the answer. These were some of the best designs I've produced and so it was very fulfilling!

 What trend needs to end?

Skinny jeans just shouldn't be worn by everyone! This seems to be working its way out slowly. That and exposing ones midriff! Oh my! I certainly did it when I was a teenager, but it’s a trend that invites the wrong people to share their abdomens when they clearly shouldn't! Less is more!!!

Do you have a style mantra you live by? Such as Chanel's iconic advice of taking one item off as you leave?

I admire seeing a woman or a man, who knows what works for them. There are some women, who can layer all kinds of jewels and patterns and make it work and I don’t mean in a bohemian way. It’s just natural for some to do it and do it well. There are those, and they comprise the majority of people, who need to simplify their look. Clean lines, texture and colours that flatter, attention to the details, tasteful and simple………..this is the best approach. I absolutely agree with Chanel’s philosophy and have employed it over and over. It’s important to make a statement, but make it clear. If it’s confusing, no one will understand what you are trying to say.

There you have it! Massive thanks to Barbara for her time and if you haven't seen her work in action....what are you waiting for?

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