5 Minutes With… Mr Gammon
Sure he’s worked on ads like the award-winning Guinness ‘Sapeurs’ and Cadbury’s ‘Electric Boogaloo’ but Mr Gammon, the costume designer and stylist, is a brand in his own right. There’s the name, the beard and the distinctive English gent dress. Recently his work was recognised at the British Arrows Craft Awards and, with his keen observational eye, imagination and personable commitment to courtesy, it’s no wonder he’s got such a fan base in the advertising and production community. LBB’s Laura Swinton met up with him to find out why he’s the go-to guy for creatively-styled commercials.
LBB> We’ll get to Guinness Sapeurs soon, but the first thing I have to ask you about is the Frontier Psychiatrist music video for The Avalanches, which you worked on back in 2000. It’s a personal favourite of mine and there are a few fans of it in LBB HQ. What are your memories of it?
MG> There are certain things you can dine out on in your career, like the Guinness spot, things that you’re so proud that you did. The wonderful thing about Frontier Psychiatrist, which was 2000, is that it sent out ripples and was a catalyst. At that time I was doing cheesy bands. Now I’m still good friends with the cinematographer, I went to the funeral of the first AD recently, I still know the production manager.
It’s just amazing when you think that I first worked with Tom Kuntz, [who directed the promo with Mike Maguire as part of the legendary duo Kuntz and Maguire] 12 years ago. In one way I’ve probably worked with Tom more consistently than with any other director. I’m kind of proud of that and I love that job anyway. It’s mad cap.
At the time it was tough to get it together. I wanted to make it look like The Gong Show, this cheesy 70s talent show. We had pewter blues and burgundies and a really washed-out colour palette and it works really well. It won an award for best production design and there was so much goodwill behind that spot.
LBB> In terms of the jobs you get or the jobs you’d like to get… Frontier Psychiatrist is pretty out there. Do you prefer things that are more fantastical or more style driven?
MG> Sometimes you can have a job that feels so real; it’s Mum, Dad, jeans, t-shirt. You’re providing a service. You will find, ironically, that there’s just as much creativity in that kind of job, a detergent commercial for example, because it’s about how you manage people. Agency, client and production. You’re in a world where people are far more likely to give you an opinion on how something looks.
Would I prefer to do something more fantastical or style-led, both? I always say give me a celebrity and a cast of thousands and I’m happy. When you’re working on a grand scale, agency and clients are more likely to say ‘it looks like the drawings, we’re good to go’, but when you’re dressing a family watching TV all of a sudden people start to fixate on stuff. You get people saying ‘well, I don’t know if I’d ever wear that’. It becomes a political thing.
I work with Pete Riski [Rattling Stick director] quite a bit and what’s lovely about his very real briefs is that it needs to feel like we’re straight out of a Mike Leigh film, that it doesn’t feel that I’ve just gone to the shops and bought brand new from Marks and Spencer. It’s considered but it doesn’t look like it’s been wardrobed at all. That’s the art of a great costume designer, looking like you were never there in the first place.
LBB> So it’s about knowing where the line is and when to stand out and when to step back?
MG> The first job I ever had was designing stage gear for the Rolling Stones when I was 24 and I was never going to just put them in in jeans and t-shirts. It was their Voodoo Lounge tour and I had just graduated. It was quite disconcerting being in my early twenties and working with people who are quite a lot older than you and have seen it all. And it’s even more disconcerting doing your first fitting and realising that they’re not that interested in meeting you. They’re interested in whether the look’s good.
I didn’t design the whole tour; they had a stylist who had a whole load of designers but to be included in that menagerie of designers was incredible. The one thing it taught me was etiquette and how to know your place. Not in a snooty, celebrity kind of way, but understanding that it’s not about the jacket you’ve designed.
When I work in commercials it’s still very much about being accommodating so if there is a legitimate concern from the client or agency you’re there to facilitate it. I always say to my assistants to cast a wide net. You would never turn up with one pair of jeans and one top and say ‘zis is my vision!’ You’re far more likely to go ‘we’ve got ten or twenty variations, let’s have a play around with it’.
LBB> What about jobs when you’ve got the time to spend on development and experimentation?
MG> I really love when you get a job and you have time to develop it. I often think that I’m an ambassador for that production company and that director, so you’re an extension of their vision. For example, I worked with The Daniels on a Weetabix commercial that featured giant dancing teddy bears (that I designed). The Daniels are so vibrant and good willed when you work with them. They wanted to make sure that the teddy bears didn’t look like men in suits, like crappy mascots from a football game. It was really great to work out how to do stuff that didn’t break the actors’ necks and that was original. For me as a costume designer it was great to work with puppeteers and be the one point of contact with all of these other makers. By the time the bears were finished they were seven feet tall. What’s lovely about doing a job like that is that you’re then in the world of drawings, fabric samples, still trying to talk in a logical way with people who don’t understand how stuff is made but including them in the party. There’s a way of being inclusive and understanding their concerns about stuff and facilitating quite legitimate notes.
LBB> It’s interesting to see how many disciplines you tie together. Costume is, for the actors, part of getting into character. There’s a production design element and then the general art direction.
MG> I like an audience. When I’m on a shoot I like to look after my cast. It may not have anything to do with wardrobe, but it’s all about goodwill, sprinkling the icing sugar onto a big cake that’s been made by everyone else. I think there always needs to be a sense of goodwill and a sense of etiquette; knowing when you can push it and when to reign it in. I think it’s important to look after your actors, to make sure no one is freezing cold, that they’ve got hot water bottles and there’s that element to it as well. If the fittings were good fun and you’re doing fun and magical things that continues on set.
LBB> When you’re working on a commercial job, who is your closest collaborator? Is it the director or the agency art director or someone else?
MG> I tend to find there’s a pyramid with the client then agency at the top and then the production company. You’ve got to extend a courtesy to agency and client but I’m usually booked by the production company and so I normally collaborate most closely with the director. There are times when the dynamic will evolve over a job but my first port of call will always be with my director. There are times when things cross over but I’ll go ‘woah, chain of command, guys’. Otherwise it would become a bit of a free for all.
My first port of call will always be to my producer and director. Having said that, on the Guinness commercial, we developed mood boards and colour ideas to get a sense of what Nicolai wanted. He was researching in Africa and I was still in the UK so we had an approval process through our director… what we decided to do, with the support of the production company, was that I then presented to agency. It was great because it then meant we had them on side and they knew I was an ally of theirs.
LBB> You talk a lot about how you manage people, and it’s interesting because your blog is full of these wonderfully observant drawings of people going about daily life too.
MG> I think what’s nice about doing the drawings is that it’s a great icebreaker. When directors who don’t know me do a bit of research and find my blog, they’re far more interested in my drawings than the commercials I’ve worked on. They get that.
To be honest it’s my version of Sudoku. If I’m bored I’ll do a drawing. That’s why you’ll see there are fewer drawings on set – I’m frantically rushing around doing things and prepping. I’m fortunate to have an interest in doing something that isn’t purely about costume and that kind of thing. I think any good costume designer is someone who’s a good observer.
LBB> I wanted to ask you a bit about Sapeurs. It was an interesting job because you were working with people who had their own, very distinct culture around clothes and style – and, in fact, that culture is what the ad is about.
MG> I’ve always said that Sapeurs was a gift. At the same time, I know full well that most people won’t think I did anything because the default is ‘well, they look like that anyway’. But in the Smoke-and-Mirrors filmmaking process that everything is contrived, everything is pushed so it reads well on camera and fits with the director’s vision. The trick was to introduce them to something that they might not have come across before but being well-read on their world so you’re not messing with it. So again, it’s taking my ego down a notch and giving them a Mr Gammon experience.
We prepped about 28 suitcases for a flight to Johannesburg before getting a connecting flight to Durban. Suza Horvat, my producer, organised for me to have a meeting at our hotel so I could have time with the guys. The courtesy around my contribution to the job was amazing. MJZ gave me space.
What most people might not pick up on is that while the guys were all real Sapeurs, they weren’t necessarily playing the jobs they really did. We took time and did research to make sure that the cane cutter looked like a cane cutter, that the chuck cutter with a block of ice felt real.
The transition was also really important. When they became Sapeurs, they became like Beau Brummell, they were immaculate and laundered and crisp and they didn’t look like the guy who does manual work, cutting cane.
Mr Gammon on set with the Sapeurs
LBB> You were working with a huge cast – how did you make it work logistically?
MG> When we did our fitting process we had an army of assistants, we didn’t know who was going to get cast, we had rails of stuff in all different sizes… so I ran it like a shop. We introduced things to them that they hadn’t come across before, different kinds of hats, cravats, Edwardian spats.
I was very lucky, partly because of the way I look with my very English colonial-style beard – everyone thinks I look like George V or Edward VII or Kaiser Wilhem. For the Sapeurs, their mecca has always been Paris but they’ve always been inspired by people like Prince Charles and Sherlock Holmes too. The Sapeurs culture has deep roots. French colonialists in the Congo dressed their pageboys in pastel colours, like they were Little Lord Fauntleroys, and in the 1960s there were Congolese pop stars like Papa Wemba, who used to wear these amazing suits.
These guys had never been in a film before. I had to tread softly so that they felt like guests. They were such amazing people, the sense of goodwill towards me was incredible. I already knew the rules. Nobody wears more than three colours so everything matches. It’s not a menagerie of colour.
They loved the fact we did a photo shoot with each of them and the boys were so sweet, they kept saying ‘you are an honorary sapeur’. They couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak French so I would mew at them – I mew at people. Mew. Because it’s a nice ice-breaker – otherwise people think I’m going to be some posh fashion bitch. I take my work very seriously and I get a bit neurotic about it but it should still be fun. I took what they did seriously and it wasn’t some flibbertijibbet and from their perspective they’re ambassadors of their country and it was important for them to bring that across.
An honorary Sapeur
LBB> Tell me about the ‘Masters of Style' Gillette campaign you worked on with Olivier Gondry. Lots of stars and lots of costumes!
MG> That was another great spot. The producer said that it was important to have a costume designer and a fashion stylist. Sometimes they’re seen as two different jobs. A fashion stylist is seen as someone who can get you designer labels, who does a lot of editorial and celebrity and can deal with the etiquette of really famous people. At the same time they needed a costume designer who could make Adrien Brody look like a Salvador Dali character or to make Gael Garcia Bernal look like a sheriff or Andre 3000 look like Andre 3000 in the year 3000. When you work with celebrities, they’re often a brand themselves so they’ll say ‘oh I’m not going to wear anything that makes me look stupid’.
LBB> You mention celebrities being a brand but you’re kind of a brand yourself. How did the ‘Mr Gammon’ persona come about?
MG> When I was 18 and on my art foundation course, I got adopted by fashion students. To me, they were 25 and I thought, ‘oo-er it’s the big girls’ and they took me under their wing and helped me put my portfolio together. At one point they went to work on a Jane Austen film and when they came back they started calling me ‘Mr Gammon’ because I was their Mr Darcy. They said ‘when you go to Middlesex [University to study a Fashion B.A.], I bet you won’t have the balls to introduce yourself as Mr Gammon on the very first day’. And I did. And no one spoke to me for two or three weeks!
Now at my grand old age I think I’ve earned it. I love the fact that on my British Arrows Craft Award it says ‘Mr Gammon’ on it. It’s pretentiously endearing. In the UK people are like ‘what’s his name, what’s his name?’. The culture in the States is that they like this otherworldly, slightly pretentious, slightly silly, English thing. The only people who get to know my first name are people who book me flights.
LBB> You studied fashion, but how did you get into that and when did you decide that you’d rather work in the world of film and TV?
MG> I made a bit of a joke at school when we were choosing our GCSEs and we were asked what courses we wanted to do. I said ‘needlework’ and that got a huge laugh and I liked the attention. So I got into fashion just from a joke.
I ended up going to the Royal College of Art, and if you look at the work I did at the Royal everything I did was based on TV shows. I did a very glam rock collection when I graduated, which is what got me the work with the Rolling Stones. I did boot cut jeans made out of sequins and ruffled shirts made out of gold lurex. It was very rock ‘n’ roll but it was based on things like Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who, Jason King, 70s TV shows, the Prisoner. We did a P-Funk version of the Doctor Who theme tune. It sounds awful now! But if you’re doing a catwalk show it’s got to be entertaining. And as much as we’d love to think that when you graduate from fashion college that people from the industry are going to be there, it’s full of mums and dads. We made it as entertaining and theatrical as we could.
After I left college Adam Ant had a comeback and I designed a Biker jacket for him. Instead of having Marlboro logos on it and things like that, we put the Royal coat of arms on it, the Lion and the Unicorn. It felt very English and Westwood-y.
I realised quite early on that I didn’t want to be a fashion designer quite enough to be one. There’s no money and it’s hard to get the work. So I designed a collection and got in touch with a load of record companies, which is how I first got the Stones and Adam Ant. This was late 90s, so I made things for the Spice Girls, Shed 7, bands like that. I wasn’t their stylist but their stylist would come to me and say ‘can you design this’. I didn’t make the famous Union Jack dress but I made the white mini skirt that Victoria Adam wore to that same 1997 Brit Awards. I had never been paid so much for so little. I fell into styling and doing bands, for things like Jamelia and I ended up doing Busted and Hear’say. Cheesy bands, but don’t knock it, it bought a flat, thank you very much.
At the time there was so much snobbery behind it. Even now people say ‘oh you’re just styling commercials, it’s just a piece of shit’, and back then they would say it about boy bands. But it’s all about having the opportunity to do something creative but still working within parameters. If you’re working with a boy band, you try to make them look as good as you can at the time. Coming up with something that kids can copy.
LBB> What’s your personal ambition? Is there something you’d like to work on that you haven’t had the chance to yet?
MG> There are a lot of agencies and production companies that I’ve not worked with, partly because it’s just about opportunity. If you asked me to do a Western I’d say ‘fuck yeah’, if you asked me to do Dickensian drama, of course I’d love it. For me the ideal is a big cast, working internationally. At the moment the ambition is to work with different people and to keep working on that international stage. I’ve been offered film and TV and if the project’s right, then I’ll do it. But I don’t want to do some low budget British movie that no one’s going to see when I can do something that will be beautifully crafted and seen by millions. My ambitions are to keep drawing and dress thousands.