It’s 11 o’clock in the morning at The Peninsula Hong Kong, and it feels like the Arctic. Luckily, Lindy Hemming is far from icy. “I’m sorry it’s cold in here,” the Oscar-winning costumer apologises. “We were up rather late last night, and it’s the best way to keep awake,” she giggles, raising a brow and clutching her cup of coffee. The late-night revelry occurred following Hemming’s talk to an enthused crowd gathered for a Swarovski and BAFTA event at which she delivered several anecdotal high notes about her road to Hollywood.
Those glamorous hills are a long way from Hemming’s isolated upbringing in the mountains of Wales. In those remote fastnesses humans were in short supply, but even then, she says, she had a fascination for people. “I was so nosy,” she recalls. Once in a while her family travelled to market, and Hemming, overdosing on crowds, found herself entranced. “I distinctly remember hiding under the tables and just watching all these legs with the different shoes coming at me.”
Although she was artistic and wanted to go to art school, her father scoffed, said she should do something useful and packed her off to nursing college. It was as a nurse, while putting on shows for the patients, that a friend about to enter Britain’s prestigious Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts suggested Hemming join too, and she was accepted for the school’s stage management course, having no real idea what stage design was.
After graduating she concentrated on costume, and over the years several young directors she worked with in the theatre became big in London’s West End and then in British film. As their careers blossomed, so did hers. But it wasn’t a life of showbiz glitz. Far from it. “We all lived together in a community house in Islington,” she says, where rent could be divided among many. Even when shows that she had costumed were running in London’s most prominent theatres, money was tight and she still worked odd jobs at night to make the rent. “It was a long, long slog,” she admits.
Then a call came to take her out of that life into another, far different, world. A call for Bond. James Bond. Hemming nearly blew it. “I thought it was a hoax,” she said of the call asking if she’d be free for a meeting. Thinking it was a friend playing prankster, she assumed airs and graces, mocking the voice on the line. Somehow, the invite still stood, and she showed up the following week at the appointed time, shaking. Leaving her car, the shirt she had pressed so perfectly got stuck in the seatbelt buckle and she arrived for the role of costume director with a giant rip. The drama, she says, probably got her the job. “I was made better by my torn shirt in a way because I stopped thinking about whether I could do the job. I was just thinking how can I turn up looking like this? I suppose that dynamic worked.”
Hemming went on to costume five Bond films over 10 years: GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day and Casino Royale. For the first time, the world’s most luxurious brands were open to her. She attended catwalk shows and pored over designer lookbooks. She visited the factories of Hermès and La Perla. Items were tailor-made or customised for the film. “People would make us anything,” she says.
Halle Berry’s fuchsia dress in Die Another Day was a special request to Versace after Hemming saw the original, in yellow, on the catwalk. It was adorned in cascades of hand-stitched Swarovski crystals that were as heavy as the dress was mesmerising. Many of the looks she created became iconic – Berry’s belted orange bikini, for instance.
She also created two vastly different James Bonds. Pierce Brosnan appeared all suave European elegance while Daniel Craig’s backstory rippled with military muscle. How did she begin this task? “Well. I always say, imagine them both with no clothes on – they couldn’t look more different!”
From Bond she went to Batman, where she gave Heath Ledger’s anarchic Joker in The Dark Knight his dishevelled purple suit, and outfitted Tom Hardy’s Bane in The Dark Knight Rises with a glorious military-inspired shearling coat. She put Harry Potter in his invisibility cloak in The Chamber of Secrets and has more recently been attending to Wonder Woman’s striking red, white and blue ensemble, for the film of the same name slated for release next year.
But despite the grandness of these designs, her pieces are rooted in reality. Just as people interested her as a nosy five-year-old on market days in Wales, still it is people that drive her today, be they real or fictional. The staggering attention to detail with which she infuses character wardrobes comes after she first furnishes them with a complete psychological profile. The outfits she creates consider their characters’ mental states as much as they do style preferences.
Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne – Batman’s alter ego – she saw as trying to fit the persona of a stylish playboy, so she selected for him a wardrobe of Armani suits. The modern look she gave Sally Hawkins’ Mary Brown in 2014’s Paddington (Hemming is now at work on the sequel) combines British eccentricity with a handful of designer names and a touch of artsy vintage, and was inspired by women walking past Hemming’s studio in East London. “She was like Notting-Hill-stroke-Hackney. I could show you those people. She was real!”
And what of the other real? The actors playing these parts. Are they a pain? Hemming doesn’t hold back. On day one of Bond, she says, Pierce Brosnan was shaking with nerves. “He was terrified, like me. We were like two babies,” she says. She had a little falling out with Jack Nicholson, when he didn’t want to come in ahead of filming for fittings. By contrast, Christian Bale, deemed by many to have an ego the size of a walk-in wardrobe, was a pleasure on the Batman trilogy.
In a world of make-believe, Hemming is a truth teller precisely because she remains so fabulously down to earth. She’s dazzled by diamonds, made giddy by glamorous fabrics and good style, and has access to the world’s biggest brands, yet she’s most often, like today, dressed in black, probably in a Cos shirt paired with flats. “I’ve always dressed exactly the same,” she admits.
She’s still chirpy as the interview ends, even as she admits the glacial temperature is getting to her. “My legs are frozen!” she says.
As she goes, I have to ask. Has she ever lifted any of her best pieces off set? “No! I’d get arrested!” she says, bustling with outrage. But she has been given pieces, she says. Like the leather belt from Berry’s bikini – and the pants to match. “I might wear it to the pool later,” she jokes, and breezes out the door.