To contain costume designer Flo Barrett’s personality and energy into words is an injustice.
Her buoyant nature, her passion for fabric, her charmed vernacular and expressive hand movements are part of the package that has sent the 26-year-old U.K. transplant’s name skyrocketing in the design industry.
Barrett has elevated herself from a five-year-old child making outfits for her dolls from scraps of her own clothes she couldn’t bear to throw away, to a 16-year-old teenager in Doc Martens jangling the keys to the Arts Station where she once did the lighting for concerts, to a fully-fledged working costume and production designer for theatre and film with more projects than she can handle.
Her latest project was her first foray into film — a venture that awarded her with two Leo award nominations and one ultimate win at the Leo’s ceremony on Saturday, June 6.
Her win for feature film Eadweard and nomination for short film Bedbugs: A Musical Love Story are particularly impactful as she was the only costume designer nominated in two categories.
“It’s kind of crazy because I’m a complete rookie,” said Barrett, “and there are only three Leo categories for costume design and to be nominated in two is insane.”
The Leos are a ceremony put on by the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Foundation of British Columbia to honour the best in film.
Of working on Eadweard, Barrett said, “It was the hardest I have ever worked in my life. We had 450 period costumes that we pulled together in seven weeks. We were still sewing while production was going on.”
The transition to working in film from her previous background in theatre was a welcome change for Barrett.
“Theatre is about being in a live space and seeing the whole production work together as it’s happening live in front of you,” she explained. “Whereas film you film it, but then it goes away and it gets edited, colour-corrected and changed before you see the final product.”
She added, “Every medium demands something different from you as a designer but the more languages you can learn in the arts the easier it is to collaborate.”
She describes dressing actors on set in period clothing — a specialty of hers — for Eadweard only to contrast the pair of jeans they had on.
“In film you can get away with that because you’re only being shot from the waist-up, whereas in theatre it’s the whole image. In theatre you also need costumes that can be changed out of in like 10 seconds. In film, you have to make real clothing because the camera gets so up close and detailed. And I love that. Because I’m so detail-oriented.”
Having moved to Vancouver in order to obtain her Bachelor of Fine Arts at Simon Fraser University and worked in the city for years, Barrett still credits Fernie and its people with much of her success.
Amongst her inspirations Barrett includes her high school drama teacher, Lori Sinclair, with “giving [her] the courage to go for the career [she] wanted.”
Others like Mike Tomney of the Arts Station handed her the keys to the place and gave her a working knowledge of technical theatre.
Even Chantel Vincent, owner of Freyja, was the person who gave Barrett her introduction to fashion.
“At 15, people saw something in me and were so supportive. They knew that I wasn’t going to work a regular 9-5 job, they knew I wanted to be in the arts. Fernie in and of itself gave me so many opportunities. I was producing my own shows and bringing it around the Elk Valley and into schools at 18. People just trust people here. It’s that Fernie mentality that if you love something, you just give it,” said Barrett.
Her parents, local blacksmiths at Fernie Forge Sandra and David, were always the biggest fans of her work.
“My parents are the most beautiful people in the world. Can you imagine me being 17 and telling your parents you want to work in theatre?” she laughs. “My parents, my family, we don’t believe in back up plans. If you really believe in something, people will see that.”
Through that determination, Barrett now normally finds herself on the set of any given project amongst professionals 20 years her senior.
“I used to be so scared and terrified,” said Barrett. “I got out of school and I started working with people I was studying eight months ago. It was unbelievable and so intimidating.”
While fashion is inherently a glamourous field, the production that goes into each of the garments Barrett creates can be exhausting.
“I’ve passed out on my sewing machines more times than I can count. And, at times, making clothes can be so intimidating. You can start a piece and then halfway through you’re like, ‘It looks like crap.’ And you have to have that mental dedication to get through it,” she said.
When Barrett discusses her love of fashion and clothes she gushes and lights up more than her cheery persona already emanates.
“I always say that I look at the world and dissect the world through clothing. This is what I love to do and it’s how I see the world. There’s so much history and story and feeling that you can put into garments … and I just love making people feel beautiful in clothes.”
Barrett works out of her studio space Eye Of the Needle, located at 560 5th St., which includes working studio space and a downstairs gallery showcasing local artisans work.