Interview: Designer Gabriella Slade on those colourful costumes

Love Birds' set and costume designer Gabriella Slade with sewing machine close at hand. © Peter Jones
Love Birds' set and costume designer Gabriella Slade with sewing machine close at hand. © Peter Jones

Love Birds’ set and costume designer Gabriella Slade with sewing machine close at hand. © Peter Jones

In addition to the songs and performances, almost every reviewer has lauded the vibrantly colourful costumes. So we knew you’d want to hear from our brilliant Gabriella Slade. To read more about Gabriella’s previous credits, visit the Love Birds creative team page. Follow her on Twitter @GabriellaSlade


What did you think when you first heard the concept of the show?

Parrots, penguins and the Loch Ness monster in a vaudeville show – it’s obviously a very unusual concept! But for a designer, it’s a treat – colourful, vibrant and happy. I was excited by the prospect. Design jobs like this don’t come along very often, so when it does, you grab it.

Talk us through your design process with Love Birds.

When you first read a script as a designer, you immediately start to build a picture in your mind, but the real work starts when you have conversations with the writer and director. You want to make sure your thinking is in line with theirs, and then your job is to offer concepts and designs that maybe they hadn’t thought of, and to realise the vision.

Ruth+4penguins_Sadie-love birds_0241

Penguin colours match the parrots in Love Birds

After a first reading of the Love Birds script, I met with (writer) Robbie Sherman, (director-choreographer) Stewart Nicholls and (producer) Kat Portman to discuss the project. Then I reread the script, listened to the music demo tapes and met again with Stewart to talk through initial ideas. We decided not to stick with traditional 1923 attire but instead to go with exaggerated styles and colours.

At that point in a job, you go away and work solo to really get to grips with the script, the subtext and the characters. I made a series of mood or reference boards, featuring photographs of the era, the setting and fashions that were really influential. From these and in constant dialogue with Stewart, I made drawings of draft designs.

These drawings were just the starting point really. First you design on paper, then you design in reality. With the costumes in this show in particular, a lot of it is visual; you find fabrics and colours that inspire you and alter the outcome.

What’s the initial impression you want to make with the Love Birds design?


With macaw parrots in particular, you have to go colourful, building on what Robbie’s written and what parrots are like in real life. We wanted to use colours that you’d ordinarily see in parrots’ feathers, but lift them more. So you’ll see in the costumes, there’s a lot of neon, limey green, vibrant turquoise. The palette is quite zingy and citrusy but teamed with reds and other core colours.

Although penguins obviously are black and white, we decided to follow the same route with them so that they felt incorporated into the rest of the show’s design. You wouldn’t normally associate hot pink with a penguin, for instance, but it’s there in the detail of the penguin costumes in Love Birds – in their waistcoat trim, their stockings and so on.

Have you designed shows with animal characters before? What’s the key to getting it right?

Be sure to check the tin labels

Be sure to check the labels

Yes, I have. Recently, I did The Adventures of Pinocchio, which had a cat, fox and other animals, and last year, I did 101 Dalmations! Designing animals is great fun, but it is harder. You always have to strike the right balance. They need to be animal enough, but animal characters are just a way of telling human stories, so they have to be human too. We’re not doing full-on furs, or in Love Birds’ case, full-on feathers. It’s the suggestion of the animal’s features that you’re aiming for. Having the actors wearing penguin onesies was never a consideration!

Instead, with the penguins, we have the winged hats and the dinner jackets, the curve of which suggests the shape of a penguin. With the parrots, there are feathers in the trims of their dresses or armbands rather than all over. It’s about suggestion and detail. With all of the costumes, we also wanted them to be really beautiful, unique pieces of work in and of themselves. I think we’ve achieved that.

Do you take into account the specific actors when designing costumes?

Absolutely. I didn’t meet the actors until the first week of rehearsals, but I had their headshots, heights and so on, so I was able to see what they looked like. It’s really important to embrace the era, but I also design according to what’s going to suit the actors. With women, for instance, 1920s-style drop waists don’t suit everyone so I made some adjustments. Also, with the Macaw Sisters, Vera (played by Anna Stolli) is meant to be the oldest, tallest and most mature; Veronica (Joanna Sawyer) is the sexy one: and Valentine (Ruth Betteridge) is the youngest and cutest. So each of their costumes have slightly different details that heighten these traits.

Are props also your responsibility?

Yes. There aren’t many but what props we do have are simple and effective but consciously stylised.

Ain't she lookin' snappy?

Ain’t she lookin’ snappy?

On many of the props, I collaborated with the graphic designer Rebecca Pitt, who did the show artwork. Bex and I had massive email conversations about graphics for the props – like the placards on the easel announcing each number, the sheet music the characters refer to, and labels for the tins in Tinpanorama. All of these have a common language and consistency.

I also wanted to be able to incorporate the creative team somehow into the show’s design, and the labels provided the perfect vehicle for this. So, if you look at the tins closely, you’ll see the names of the creatives on the labels.

The other key prop in the show is the wooden, snapping crocodile head for Pearl in the number The Sharpest Smile, performed by Anna Stolli and John Guerrasio. That’s also bespoke. I hired a recent graduate who I’d worked with, puppet genius Charlie Canning-Jones, to make that.

You’ve left a bag in Edinburgh that Mary Poppins herself would be jealous of. What’s in it?

I wish it had the bottomless capacity of Mary Poppins’ bag. Suitcases are a designer’s lot in life: I spend my life lugging them around. The Love Birds design suitcase is full of spare fabric, tights, shoes, threads, feathers, gloves, bow ties, in-soles … anything that the company may run out of or need to mend.

The costumes have to be maintained – checked and washed daily throughout the run. On a bigger show in a big theatre, this would be the duty of the wardrobe mistress, who would have access to a supply of any materials she might need. But on most Fringe shows, there’s no such luxury. So this bag is the Love Birds’ production team’s emergency kit. It’s really important that the stage manager Roisin has easy access to this backup.