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.”
Tilda Swinton’s Style Evolution: A Lot of Haider Ackermann
Tilda Swinton in Haider Ackerman at the premiere of A Bigger Splash in Venice, Italy, September 2015. Photo by Getty Images.
Tilda Swinton in Lanvin at the photocall for A Bigger Splash in Venice, Italy, September 2015. Photo by Getty Images.
Tilda Swinton in Haider Ackermann at the premiere of Only Lovers Left Alive in Cannes, France, May 2013. Photo by Getty Images.
Tilda Swinton in Lanvin at the London premiere of A Bigger Splash> after party in London, England, October 2015. Photo by Getty Images.
Tilda Swinton in Chanel Couture at the premiere of Hail, Caesar! in Berlin, Germany, February 2016. Photo by Getty Images.
Tilda Swinton in Maison Margiela at a screening of A Bigger Splash in New York, New York, April 2016. Photo by Getty Images.
Tilda Swinton in Vionnet in New York, New York, April 2016. Photo by Getty Images.
Tilda Swinton in Valentino Couture at a press conference for Snowpiercer in Seoul, South Korea, July 2013. Photo by Getty Images.
Tilda Swinton in Haider Ackermann at the 51st annual New York Film Festival, October 2013. Photo by Getty Images.
Tilda Swinton in Schiaparelli at the premiere of Snowpiercer in Los Angeles, California, June 2014. Photo by Getty Images.
attends the Sony Pictures Classics’ “Only Lovers Left Alive” screening hosted by The Cinema Society and Stefano Tonchi, Editor-in-Chief of W Magazine at Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema on March 12, 2014 in New York City.
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?”
Tilda Swinton Channels David Bowie and Her Father in an Out-of-This World Fashion Story by Tim Walker
Tilda Swinton wears Giorgio Armani wool and silk jacket, Sermoneta gloves.
Blumarine’s wool coat and dress; Stella McCartney’s fleece wool and cashmere turtleneck; Tommy Hilfiger’s silk pants; J.W. Anderson’s cashmere skirt. Patricia Underwood for Chris Benz hat, Comme des Garçons belt, Maison Martin Margiela gloves, Rick Owens boots.
VPL’s latex coat and dress; National Theatre Costume Hire Store’s bodysuit. Maison Martin Margiela boots.
Céline’s cotton turtleneck. Beauty Note: Revive hair’s moisture with a thick coating of Serge Normant Meta Morphosis Hair Repair Treatment.
Comme des Garçons’s wool jacket; Hugo Boss’s cotton and polyester shirt; Acne’s polyester skirt. Sermoneta gloves, Agent Provocateur hosiery, Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci shoes.
Zero + Maria Cornejo’s llama hair coat; Hugo Boss’s cotton turtleneck; John Rocha’s silk pants; Gucci’s silk chiffon dress. Eres cap, Rick Owens boots.
Chloé’s leather jacket; Maison Martin Margiela’s polyurethane and polyester dress; Jil Sander’s cashmere and silk hooded turtleneck. Maison Martin Margiela gloves, Rick Owens boots.
Hermès’s felted wool flannel dress. Stephen Jones swim cap, Hermès gloves, Rick Owens boots.
Acne’s wool jacket; Akris’s wool dress; Tommy Hilfiger’s silk pants. LaCrasia gloves.
Haider Ackermann’s wool caftan with silk lapels and wool pants; Ralph Lauren Black Label’s cashmere sweater. Haider Ackermann belt, Burberry shoes.
Yves Saint Laurent’s wool sweater and silk crepe de chine blouse. Sermoneta gloves.
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.”
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