Sunderland-born Designer on Creating Costumes for Stage and Screen
Fusing historical and contemporary styles, Sunderland-born designer Shoni Wilkinson creates costumes for stage and screen. She shares her career journey with Living North
Design has always been a part of Shoni’s life. Her mum taught her to sew and as she found her own style, she started designing and making her own outfits. For her final year at drama school, Shoni designed and made costumes and soon realised she wanted to take her talents backstage. ‘I made the move into costume design and have never looked back,’ she says. ‘That was 10 years ago and since then I’ve worked in various areas of the industry and I currently split my time between design and making.
‘It was really where I was meant to be. I found so much more joy and satisfaction in costume than I ever did on stage. I fought it for a long time – thinking I had to be in the spotlight to be successful, but once I let go of that it was the best and healthiest choice I ever made. Design is just where my passion is.’
Shoni’s first professional role was head of wardrobe for Sesame Street Live (where she was head of the Muppets). Later, she joined the Italia Conti Academy of Arts as head of costume and was in charge of designing and supervising a total of 15 shows across the academic year. Here, Shoni fell in love with the fusion of historical and contemporary costume (both the techniques used to make them and their silhouettes). Now, she specialises in period costume and enjoys the challenge of creating high-end, authentic period garments (taking inspiration from the Tudor and Elizabethan eras, and the 18th century).
‘It’s my biggest achievement to date, both in design and construction. Other than that, the first time I worked on a West End show, the first time I worked on TV and the day I met David Tennant – all were equally phenomenal’
Shoni worked on a production of The Libertine, directed by Martin Berry, where history met contemporary. The costumes featured 18th century looks inspired by Russell Brand, Amy Winehouse and Liberace. But, more recently she has created her first haute couture-inspired collection (which will be showing later this year). The Art of Queening explores women and women’s issues from across the centuries. ‘I needed so badly to explore this concept and see what I was really capable of as a designer,’ she explains. ‘It’s my biggest achievement to date, both in design and construction. Other than that, the first time I worked on a West End show, the first time I worked on TV and the day I met David Tennant – all were equally phenomenal.’
Like any designer, inspiration can come to Shoni anywhere, at any time. ‘My most recent design was inspired by a dog being walked outside my mum’s house,’ she says. ‘I ran inside and was like “I need paper now!” Then started sketching. I’m a very visual person so I like to flood my vision with images; it can be a technique, a fabric, a shape, or a person. It really varies and there are sometimes so many that distilling it down into a design is where the challenge lies.’
Shoni doesn’t always find inspiration from individuals. ‘It’s not always who, it’s more what,’ she says. Then adds: ‘I’m inspired by people’s work – what they do, how they do it and why they choose to do it. Anyone from an environmentalist to an artist to a surgeon. Anyone who is really passionate about what they do. And Anne Boleyn. That woman just fascinates me.’
Reflecting on her career so far, Shoni is proud of what she’s achieved. She recently found herself at York Fashion Week, where she held a Meet The Designer event and celebrated her work with other North East-based names in fashion including TV personality Charlotte Crosby (who showcased her Pepper Girls Club brand on the runway) and local menswear favourite Master Debonair. ’It still feels unreal sometimes that I get to do this for a living,’ she says. ‘Being creative is such a fundamental part of me, the fact that I get paid to do it still blows my mind.’
To see more of Shoni’s work, go to shoniwilkinson.weebly.com
How do you like to spend your downtime?
‘I have a dolls house! It’s a recent obsession and I’m hooked on it. I don’t really “relax” in a traditional way, I like to be doing something, so having a hobby that’s still creative (but doesn’t have any demands) is pretty ideal for me.”
What is your favourite thing about the North East?
‘My friends and family. I always knew I wouldn’t stay in the North East but the people I left there are such a fundamental part of who I am; it can be really difficult to be so far away. Fortunately, we all make a lot of effort to see each other as regularly as possible.’
Your favourite film/TV show?
‘My favourite film of all time is The Lord of The Rings. The work that went into building that world just blows me away. I tend to binge watch TV shows; my most recent favourite was Mindhunter on Netflix. It’s very dark – but I like that.’
Your favourite theatre show?
‘I love Les Misérables. It’s a classic and the opening notes still give me chills, but I saw Six the Musical not long ago and loved that; it’s hard not to given the subject!’
Your dream costume to make?
‘Something for the Met Gala – ideally for someone really bold and outlandish. Lady Gaga is the dream person to dress for me.’
What’s next for you?
‘My collection The Art of Queening will be showing at York Fashion Week in October. I have some exciting shoots coming up – and after that, I have no idea, maybe the Met. We’ll see.’