Even while sleeping in a glass box, as she once did in a performance piece at London’s Serpentine Gallery, Tilda Swinton has rarely failed to command attention. “Alien,” “chameleon,” and “androgynous” are the words most often applied to the five-foot-eleven actress, but perhaps only because the notions of beauty she subscribes to are wholly her own. “I follow my nose,” she says. “It’s as simple as that.” Ask Swinton about the sources of her bold fashion images and she’ll proffer a list as faceted as the screen roles she has played: the time-traveling, gender-switching nobleman (Orlando); a bloodless corporate lawyer (Michael Clayton); and, this fall, the suburban American mother of a son who commits a horrific act at his school (We Need to Talk About Kevin).
Many a style icon is a change agent, but Swinton may be alone in the way she transforms herself with such ease, both onscreen and in her subversive, playful public outings. A case in point is the one-sleeve silk satin sheath she wore to the 2008 Oscars the night she took home the best supporting actress award for her turn in Michael Clayton. She had advised Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz that she wanted “to attract as little attention as possible and to feel as comfortable as if I were wearing pajamas,” she recalls. “Little did I know that the really simple, chic dress one might have worn in Paris or Berlin would stick out like a sore thumb in Los Angeles.”
Her “dance with fashion,” as she calls it, began a decade ago, after she wrapped her first mainstream film, The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who was fresh off his Titanic success. An avant-garde darling, she was known for her cinematic collaborations with directors Derek Jarman and Sally Potter; the red carpet was foreign territory. Not wanting to be dressed by people she didn’t know, she turned to her close friend Jerry Stafford, the creative director of a French production company, who quickly became her fashion consigliere. “He’s my playmate,” she says. “It’s a game, and we have great fun with it.”
Through Stafford, she met Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren (of Viktor & Rolf), for whom she became a muse, as well as Elbaz, Haider Ackermann, Yves Saint Laurent’s Stefano Pilati, Céline’s Phoebe Philo, and Jil Sanders’s RafSimons, who designed her elegant, ladylike wardrobe for the 2010 film I Am Love. It’s these friendships, Swinton says, that lead her to the fashion: “For someone to know what you need to make you comfortable, they need to know who you are. Having them make clothes for me is like being cooked for by someone who knows what you like to eat.” Whether for photo shoots or the red carpet, their process begins with a series of questions. “We very much enjoy going, What are the elements of this event? What’s the place? Who’s the company? What is the moment?” says Swinton, ever the conceptual artist, adding with a laugh, “and then, of course, what do we want to wear?”
For the portfolio shot by Tim Walker above, Swinton and Stafford created a “mood board” together, collating images from diverse sources— Arnold Genthe’s portraits of Greta Garbo, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and the work of French artist and provocateur Claude Cahun, famous in the Twenties for her explorations of gender role play. “People talk about androgyny in all sorts of dull ways,” says Swinton, noting that the recent rerelease of Orlando had her thinking again about its pliancy. “Cahun looked at the limitlessness of an androgynous gesture, which I’ve always been interested in.”
Ultimately, though, her starting and ending points are always her own style icons: David Bowie—whom she says she’s been orbiting ever since she saw The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)—and her father, Maj. Gen. Sir John Swinton. “My aesthetic North Stars,” she calls them. “The individuals with whom I share the same planetary DNA.”
Swinton’s father is a former commander of the Queen’s Household Division in London, and she affectionately remembers the meticulous conversations she and Stafford had with him about the ideal way to pack the gold lace collar and cuffs on the dress that Pilati had made for the royal premiere of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in 2005. Her father’s years as a military officer in court uniforms had made him an expert in such matters. “From childhood, I remember more about his black patent, gold livery, scarlet-striped legs, and medal ribbons than I do of my mother’s evening dresses,” she says. “I would rather be handsome, as he is, for an hour than pretty for a week.”
Watch: Tilda Swinton Cuddles with a Puppy During a New Interview