The Interview: Ian Fulcher, Costume Designer and ex-fashion designer

Ian Fulcher

Ian Fulcher brings to every production an extensive history working in the costume industry – from co-designing his own fashion label in the early 2000’s, to working at the historic London costumiers Angels.

Now working on shows including Netflix’s Giri Haji, Man In An Orange Shirt, and the upcoming Channel 4 drama It’s A Sin – Ian speaks to TheIndustry.fashion about his experience in the fashion industry, costume design and production, fashion considerations and his work on It’s a Sin, written by Russell T Davies.

Tell us about your experience in the fashion industry, you studied fashion design at university, right?

I did! I studied Fashion Design & Marketing, Manufacturing and Promotions at Huddersfield University and graduated in 1998. I’ve always believed actually that marketing is one of the most important parts of a designers job – you’re marketing yourself, the product, the concepts.

Once I left university I set up my own fashion label with a friend, called “Graham & Lucy”. We were selling on trendy Birmingham markets for two years and whilst we were doing that we’d be asked to create special pieces like wedding dresses and even costumes for a big Birmingham Council culture event – which at the time was my first experience of costume, I didn’t realise at the time how important it would be to me.

Inevitably there’s a jump from the fashion label to purely costuming…

After a while I knew I wanted to move to London and progress my career beyond a small fashion label and I saw an advert in a stage magazine for a costume company called Angels. I didn’t have a clue at the time how big Angels were! I didn’t get the job.

Two months later however, the head of period menswear rang me up and said “We’re having an open day and I just pulled out your CV from our files; do you want to come down see us?”. It felt like my first lucky break.

Angels announced last year it was closing its Soho store due to rising rents, it’s sad how such a historic company has closed its main doors…

I actually walked past it actually during the first lockdown last year and saw its closure sign, detailing how it had been open since the 1840’s and had closed due to rent prices. I expect there’ll be a block of flats there soon – it’s sad really.

I did eventually get the job at Angels over in the period womenswear department in 2000 and was there for about three years before I decided I wanted to go freelance. I’d assisted on various projects at Angels and decided the time was right for me to move on and do something independently – the relationships I built up and the first-hand experience was incomparable.

Going freelance – how do you decide which projects you want to get involved in?

For me it always goes down to the script – every time. Initially my agent gets sent information on a production: bullet points such as the story concept, the production company, the writer, director, and I express an interest then a script will be sent to me. A script should come alive when you read it and you should be able to paint images of these characters.

If I think about “It’s a Sin”, I think I read three scripts in an hour back-to-back and the characters jumped out to me. I was instantly excited at the idea of designing for these fun, interesting and complex characters.

It's a Sin © Channel 4 / RED Productions
It’s a Sin © Channel 4 / RED Productions

There’s definitely a difference between designing clothing to be seen by human eyes and seen by cameras – prints and patterns to avoid. How do you navigate that?

I think it’s intuition. The one thing you’ll always hear a costume designer say is: “Will it buzz? Does that buzz?” – which is a distracting fuzziness on camera. There is nothing worse, it’s so distracting. For me, costumes should enhance and work within the screen and frames not distract from. The actors are telling a story – the costume sits within a frame, a set, a group of people.

In most cases, what’s the process of designing costumes for characters?

In the majority of cases the main characters are briefly described to a costume designer. It’s my job to find out who these characters are through reading the script and historical research.

I always ask myself about what a characters would consider internally, “would they wear that with this?”, “would they be bold enough for this?”. You want to create real people and not put clothes on someones back – music, finances, family, there’s so many considerations that a costume designer makes when dressing each character. Everything a character wears should have a reason.

It’s a Sin is set across a 10 year historic period for both fashion and LGBTQ+ history (1981-1991), was there anything in particular you were excited to showcase?

I think because everyone is so aware of the 80’s in a preconceived way, I wanted to showcase how potentially what we consider to be 1980’s in fashion has influences from other decades – for example 1981-1983 is still quite 1970’s, with men wearing spearpoint collar shirts. In my very first interview for It’s a Sin I stressed how important it was to be accurate and not cliche – it should be a real life representation of how people dressed at the time.

It’s about knowing how far to go, and stepping a little back.

It's a Sin © Channel 4 / RED Productions
It’s a Sin © Channel 4 / RED Productions

Exploring LGBTQ+ fashion in the 1980’s, there’s certainly some differences to what is considered standard 1980’s clothing…

Yeah, I guess so. When we researched gay culture in the 1980’s, we noticed there was actually a lot of segregation between these tribes – they didn’t mix. You’d see in clips that these groups such as the leather tribe or the Club Kids rarely mixed together.

There are definitely LGBTQ+ trends throughout the 1980’s that we touch upon but what was surprising from watching real footage was how clothed everyone was. Groups of people who went places together dressed the same but weren’t couples, or they’d know that they could recognise someone from their tribe based on their dress code.

To me, background characters and background stories are told through their costumes or clothing. They should make a scene feel natural and real, flowing visually.

Looking to the future – how does someone like yourself continue in the COVID-19 world?

It’s amazing how much filming is still going on right now, especially compared to the first lockdown. Productions take a lot longer and everyone behind the scenes on set has full PPE with on-site testing but… it’s great, it’s so good to see people back in business.

Finally, looking at the costume designers of the future – what advice do you have? For someone working in fashion who wants to move to costume, or someone even considering University options.

I think I’ve been lucky in my career – but I definitely think you create some of that luck yourself. To be honest, there’s so many ways into costume. One route into it isn’t any more important than another. I think what’s important is training – working your way up and growing knowledge and skills in areas like team management, design, budgeting – everything is important.

In summary: work on communication, take things steadily and adapt to the changing industry of fashion, costume and productions.

Channel 4 airs It’s a Sin tonight at 9pm, with all episodes available online immediately afterwards.