At The Velvet Onion we try to bring you a different, deeper view of the comedy you love. It was with this mission in mind that we hunted down the Stylist and Costume Designer responsible for the fantastical costumes in Luxury Comedy, to find out how the improbable from Noel Fielding‘s imagination is brought to life with a sewing machine. Mog reports.
One of the things that strikes you about the cast and crew of Luxury Comedy is their dedication to the cause. When you listen to them talk about their involvement in the two series, it’s clear that this was no mere job. The loyalty and commitment that Noel has inspired amongst the team has created a tightly-knit family of can-do’s, happy to go to the ends of the earth to make everything perfect. And Ameena Kara Callender is no exception.
I meet Ameena at her Hoxton studio, surrounded by the colourful chaos of what she does. She looks exactly as you’d hope a stylist would: an unselfconscious mish-mash of clashing colours and patterns, sparkly sandals and powder pink socks; an unexpected balance point between the fabulously exotic and the genuine girl next door.
She tells me that she has always enjoyed dressing up; when she was younger she used to make outfits for nights out with her Mum and Gran from the fabrics they kept in their sewing cupboard. However, she didn’t train as a stylist – the origins of her creative education were fine art, sculpture and painting.
One of her specialisms at college was 3D craft and design, which gave her a useful grounding in working with plastic-based materials. “It’s why I’m able to make these more bizarre sculptural costumes for Noel. All of the random things I’ve learned over the years came together in this one job, which harnessed all of it all at once.”
Originally connected via a mutual friend, Ameena has known Noel for years, but it was at his art exhibition at Maison Bertaux in 2010 that he asked her if she wanted to work on the show. Ameena was particularly drawn to an installation at the exhibition which turned out to be a precursor to the Jellyfox sketch from series 1.
“I really vibed off the animations that he’d done with Nige,” she says. “Noel asked ‘Do you want to make some Leigh Bowery type costumes for me?’ and I was like ‘Hell yeah – that’s right up my street!” she laughs.
Given that Noel has such clear ideas of his own about the look of the characters in the show, I ask her how the creative development process plays out between them. “Working with Noel is amazing. He’s a visual artist, and that goes across the spectrum of everything he does.”
“He draws constantly, and a big part of him coming up with a character is drawing it and figuring out what it looks like. Sometimes they pretty much have the outfit on that they’ll have on when the character comes into the real world, but sometimes he’ll leave it open for me,” she explains.
Taking on that level of responsibility can sometimes be a little daunting; trying to second-guess what Noel wants for a character or working out what would surprise him (in a good way!) can be a challenge, particularly when most of the characters are unlike anything that’s gone before. “You don’t know what really works until you go through the magical process; you can’t get out a reference from Dazed & Confused and say ‘I want him to be like that’, because it’s a whole weird, insane new concept.” she explains. “I’ve spent nights with matchsticks to keep my eyes open doing designs to show Nige and Noel the next day!”
Ameena mentions Nigel Coan (co-writer, director and all-round unsung hero) several times during our conversation, referring to him as “a magician”; it’s clear that his role in defining the visual world of Luxury Comedy can’t be underestimated. “I can’t see inside Nigel’s mind, but when we manage to be on the same page it’s really special.”
Ameena admits that the production process of series 1 was more of a challenge because no one of the team had never done anything quite like it before. “I wanted it to be so brilliant, I almost made everything myself in house with very little sleep. So I was exhausted by the time we started filming.” By contrast, the second series was more relaxed and fun, with everyone building on previous experience, and even her best friends, her Mum and her cat on the team, “altogether like a big family,” Ameena smiles.
I ask about one of the newest creations for Luxury Comedy, the already-popular Paul Panfer from the first episode of series 2. Did Noel take a lot of persuading to don that particular outfit? She erupts into a peal of laughter: “God no!” She recounts a particularly strange fitting session, the output of which was the character’s rather fetching bejeweled pants.
Ameena has become synonymous with a particular type of work; her out-there creations for artists like Noel and Natasha Khan (Bat for Lashes) are not for those hoping to fade into the background. “I tend to work with people who are really creative and have a strong sense of style, direction or design,” she explains. What might be considered as a more ‘normal’ styling job can feel comparatively straightforward, although it can provides a welcome contrast from time to time. “I’m normally sewing things up, running around, calling fifteen people…I think I generally get called in to do more unusual creative makes!” She laughs.
Given her strong sense of style, both on camera/stage and off, I ask Ameena who her influences and inspirations are from the world of fashion and design. She sites Nick Cave (the visual artist), who she’s had the pleasure of working with herself, Jean Paul Gaultier, for his costume design as well as his fashion (we had a very animated conversation about his involvement in Ameena’s favourite film, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover) , Gareth Pugh and Maison Martin Margiela. It’s worth looking them up if you don’t know their work – just click on the links.
Ameena will also be working with Noel and Nigel on the forthcoming live tour; in fact they’re due to meet to discuss the project the day after our interview. Her first proper job was at the English National Opera, so she already has plenty of theatre tricks up her sleeves to help adapt Luxury costumes for the stage. “In my mind there’s a really good way of maintaining the good parts of the costumes and not losing any of the detail: Sew on your accessories, and have special zips and bits of velcro,” is her advice.
It’s clear that Ameena has become an integral part of Noel’s circle of friends and colleagues – the people that he can call on when things need to be done. Indeed, recently he asked her to contribute to his Vlad the Impaler costume for his appearance with Kasabian at Glastonbury. From the roller coaster of finding her way with Luxury series 1 to winning the prestigious RTS Award for costume design in 2012, it’s clear that Ameena’s mission to bring colour and creativity to the world of entertainment is winning her fans and getting her noticed. “Noel took a chance on me,” she smiles, “And I’m so happy about it.”