Warden Neil Interview
(Hollywood Costume and Fashion Design)
He’s designed for everyone who’s anyone in Hollywood.
That list includes Michael Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kirstie Alley, Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Hanks, Carrie Underwood, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, and the list goes on and on.
He’s received eight Emmy nominations and he’s served as the head designer/stylist for the annual Golden Globe Awards for over 15 years.
We are talking about the one, the only, Mr. Warden Neil.
Q - You’re the head designer for the Golden Globe awards. What exactly does that entail?
A - What it entails is I am there for them. I have a lot of last-minute stuff that happens. I’ve been doing them for over 15 years. I’ve been doing it since 1992. There are instances where the stars stylists, most of the stars have stylists, say 95%. So, there is that 5% that doesn’t. I’m there. They say we have had stylist/designer so, I style for them. Then there are emergencies. One year and actress’s wardrobe went missing from a flight. That was last minute running around. I do have my celebrities that I’m stylist for, that I designed for. Sometimes they’ll come to me. If there is any dancers I’ll do the dancers costumes. So basically it’s being there. I’m there and I am for everybody. (Laughs). I’m for every star, every presenter, every person that’s presenting for the Golden globes. I’ve been the designer on the Grammy Awards for several years. I have stories from those because it’s live and sometimes you can’t predict that. Laura Linney, the actress, one year she was backstage and thank God, I was not far off. It was getting down to the wire when she was getting to go onstage. Her strap broke on her dress. So, I grabbed a needle and thread and tried to match the gallon as best I could. I mean, I know I had just minutes before she went out on stage. She didn’t have time to get out of the gallon for me to sew her properly. I sewed it on her and man, I was shaking, because just one jab of that needle could have drawn blood and she could’ve gotten blood on the dress. There was a lot of tension on the straps it was like one of those tiny, tiny straps, an eighth of an inch, but, quite strong. Somehow on the one side it had broken. The tension was very strong. It was a fitted gown and then the tension from the straps were holding it up with a needle and thread I really had to do some last minute work. I knew I had to do it real quick, but I know on top of that, that no matter what I had to make it really strong otherwise it was going to break again. I’ve had some last-minute things that have gone on. You just don’t predict and it’s live. One year Elle McPherson had this gorgeous gown, it’s like what you call a mermaid gown which is real fitted and it’s got all that full stuff on the bottom. It’s fitted and then at the knee it’s all either full and gathered or lots of simple fabric. Well, she had this gorgeous gown on. This was last year (2013). It had all this knitting at the bottom. Sometimes, in the evening with the fog and the dampness of the evening, the red dye in the red carpet had sort of run. So, what happened was the bottom of her gallon, the fuzz got a little bit nappy on the red carpet, and her down picked up all that red lint at the bottom of her gown. She came in and said, oh my God! Look at the bottom of my gown. What are we going to do? Here again, and I don’t know why, it’s always like last minute. Sometimes the stars arrive in full makeup, and they’ll come in their gown. Some of them bring the gown with them and then they’ll change their. I had a couple of wardrobe assistants and all three of us were on her knees almost taking this went off under the dress but because it was knitting, it actually looked like the gown was pinkish red. (Laughs). We worked furiously with brushes getting all this lint off. Sometimes were thrown things at the last minute that her tasks that we’ve got to do.
Q – That’s when you really earn your money!!
A - Oh yeah! Yeah. (Laughs). Over the years we’ve never held up anyone going on camera. Never. I’ve been with Dick Clark productions. He started using me in the 1970s. I was starting to do all of his shows. Then the Golden globes came along and I automatically went on to that. To this day, I do shows for Dick Clark whenever they want me to.
Q - Now, you came all the way over from New Zealand to Los Angeles.
A - Yes.
Q - You got an opportunity to be a figure sketch artist for CBS TV. What does a figure sketch artist do?
A - (Laughs). Now, that’s a great question. You know who Edith Head was?
Q - I do. She was a costume designer.
A - Yes. Do you know, a lot of people only in the industry know this, but, do you know she couldn’t sketch? The reason I’m telling you this is it’ll make you understand and relate how I started and where I started from. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Bob Mackie. He’s pretty famous
Q - Cher wore his clothing.
A - Yes. He still does Cher and Diana Ross. Bob Mackie started in the industry as a sketch artists to Edith Head. She hired sketch artists. She couldn’t sketch. For a designer that’s not a great thing. It’s very detrimental. So, what happens is, it creates a job for me. I could always sketch. I was never trained. I was only 18. I put a portfolio together. I came to the United States. I didn’t know anybody. Los Angeles was so overwhelming because I had no idea, coming from small town in New Zealand. I had two weeks. I came on a visitor’s visa. I wasn’t even on a working visa. I just wanted to test it out. When you’re 18 years old, you’re not really realistic I was thinking in my head, okay I have two weeks. That was my round-trip ticket. You had to do that back then. I put together a portfolio of my sketches which as I said I was never trained, but, I had the gift. I looked at it as a God given gift. It was just something that I could do. I loved costumes. I love designing. No one taught me any of that. I started going to a couple of studios. A couple of em I’d already written ahead and asked if I would be able to interview with them. Going back in the 60s, when I came over, it was so much easier than. Now, it’s major to get your foot in the studio and go for an interview. Back then it was so much easier, thank God. Anyway, I’d already sort of reached out and got in contact with both the fashion house and studios, I guess they did feel sorry for me, oh, yeah, ok you’re from New Zealand your 18, okay you can come over. (Laughs). They were probably curious how this young guy thinks he can just come over to the United States and start working.
Q - You had graduated high school?
A - Yeah. In New Zealand the schooling is different. In New Zealand, back then, you could leave high school at 15 and you got your certificate. At 15 it was legal to go out and work, which I actually did. I was like a commercial artists for the advertising agencies, but, I wasn’t in fashion at all. In New Zealand at that time there was nothing to do with fashion, nothing to do with costume designing. Now, it’s quite different with those big movies like Lord Of The Rings, and The Hobbit. Back in my day there was no industry down there at all, in fashion or costume. I always had that thing about Hollywood and the stars. I was always fascinated with it. So, I sort of did my own thing as a fashion sketch artist. I sort of trained myself and put my portfolio together. So, I came over with my portfolio and one thing led to another. Do you know of the designer Mr. Blackwell?
Q - I do know of him. He used to put together a worst dressed list.
A - Yes. He became famous for that he was one of the people I’ve reached out to interview with but, as it turns out at that time, he didn’t really need someone like me. You know how one thing sometimes leads to another?
Q - Yeah.
A - This designer at CBS, I went on an interview and although they couldn’t use me, they sent me over to the union. They said, at least they can put the word out. Well, I went over there and the guy said to me, and this was within the first week of my two weeks and it was getting down to the wire, look, they’re just so happens to be a costume designer Frank Novak for CBS and he is the designer for the Red Skelton show and he is looking for a sketch artist. So, wow! Needless to say I went and interviewed with him. He loved my work. I did designs too, not just the sketches. He saw that I did have the certain talent and he said, yeah. I’ll take you on. Then what happened and it’s a little bit of a miracle, he had the lawyers at CBS do my paperwork and make me legal and they sponsored me.
Q - It sounds to me like the locals in Los Angeles, couldn’t do the work you could do
A - I’m glad you brought that up. This is the biggest miracle. It’s almost like unreal. Part of it was with the government and the employment department; they said to me, you have to advertise in the LA Times that position because an American had to have the first opportunity if they were eligible. Well, you see, two things worked for me one of him was it was a certain talent that you can’t necessarily be trained for but it’s the look and talent that you are wanted for. Okay? The ad went in and do you know not one person out of the millions in Los Angeles replied to that ad. You explain that one.
Q - What year would that have been?
A - It was 1965.
Q - Timing is everything!
A - Isn’t it?! I agree with you. It was my time. Right at that particular time.
Q - You’re now teaching a class called figure fashion sketching intro. Is this a skill you can teach someone?
A - Oh yeah.
Q - You just said it was a God given gift.
A - I do a very simple step-by-step. Some people don’t have the same natural talent in that area, but, you’d be amazed at what I’ve been able to teach those that aren’t really that creative as a designer. They are really able to sketch their vision and it’s gotta be on a particular female form that I call the 11 head fashion sketch. What that is, is, you measure up the first head and then you measure down 11 of them. That gives you the elongated theory. The elongated fashion figure. My objective is that the student can work and be efficient in costume and fashion.
Q - How many people work with you or for you in costume design?
A - Now, it does vary from show to show. I did a Bob Hope special and I had 20 wardrobe helpers. It was a huge special. It was like his 90th birthday special. NBC did this really big extravaganza. We had like about every major star in the world and dance numbers galore. Really, really elaborate.
Q - Were you the guy who first designed the military jacket look for Michael Jackson?
A - Yes.
Q - What was this fascination of Michael Jackson’s for the military look?
A - I was brought on as a designer for Michael and his brothers the Jackson Five, and Janet and the sisters. There was this huge show and Michael of course was the star. Michael got involved with costumes. He had a fascination. He had a lot of natural talent in creative areas. One of them was costumes. He’s 19 years old. He’s just a young guy and he was over everybody when it came to costumes, producers, directors, choreographers. It was him. I dealt with Michael and whatever Michael wanted I came up with to please Michael. That was it. One day he came to me and said, I got this cutting from a magazine. I’d love to have costumes design around this. And what it was, was a military look from the 1800s. It was like a naval military look. So, I went and did some sketches and he loved it. He loved red and black I noticed. (Laughs). So, I did it in red and black and then it had that epaulets, double-breasted. My version had little tales behind it. But, there were particular tales they did in that era. He absolutely loved it. I guess it was like one of his favorite costumes out of all the ones I did. His first military jacket is kind of like my main claim to fame with Michael. I did a video for Michael called ghost. I’ve been really blessed. That was one of my highlights. That actually started my getting into the “A” list of stars.
Q - So, when you work with star like Michael Jackson, other stars call you don’t they?
A - There was this agent at William Morris Agency. I was at my Taylor and this guy comes in and he’s needing a suit made. We got to chatting and he’s one of the big agents at William Morris Agency. He said, I’d like to take you on and represent you. The next thing you know, they get me Michael Jackson and the Jackson’s. Then, it was from there. People were calling them about me. I got publicity. I was in the Hollywood Reporter, Variety. Next thing was Donny and Marie, and the whole Osmond’s family wanted me. I went to Utah back and forth. I started getting the big Bob Hope specials. It all catapulted from that.
Q - Are you still represented by William Morris?
A - I went with Jeff Witjas and then he went to A. P. A. (Agency for the performing arts) and I went with him. I’m not with William Morris. I’m still with Jeff. I want to be loyal.
Q - You also designed for Lucille Ball.
A - In New Zealand they had the I Love Lucy TV show. That was our favorite show. I remember rushing home to watch I Love Lucy and I just loved Lucille Ball. Who would’ve ever thought that one day I was going to be her designer?
Q - That’s a great story.
A - She had a designer and something happened. The designer got sick or something. I thought, wow! I can’t believe it. I was doing Bob Hope specials. They said Elizabeth Taylor, you’ll need to designed for her. I’m going, I remember as a kid I went to see Cleopatra and for a want to be designer that was about the biggest dream for costumes, with Cleopatra. All those heavy duty gorgeous Egyptian costumes. I remember seeing Cleopatra and going home and my family saying, how was the movie? I said it was great! They said, well what was that all about? Do you know, I couldn’t tell them what the movie was all about but, I could tell them what the costumes were all about and what Elizabeth Taylor wore. She was like my favorite star along with Lucille Ball. Then, to think there’d be a day that I would design for her, who would have ever comprehended that? If someone had said to me when I was in New Zealand and 16, 17 years old, one day you’re going to design for Lucille Ball and then one day you’re going to design for Liz Taylor... The world’s biggest stars! I’ve been really, really blessed. All I can do is give the credit to God.
Q - If you’re a costume designer like Edith Head and you can’t sketch, then how do you translate what you’re thinking in your head to a guy like you who was/is a sketch artist?
A - Great, great, great, great, great question! I’m going to go to me and then I’m going to go back to Edith Head with the designer Frank Novak, he could do little stick figures. He would say to me, there was one number in particular, a red, white and blue patriotic number for the dancers. He said, I want a dress and it’s going to be real full in the bottom. He did a little fullness on the stick figure. Then he said, at the top I kind of want this, and you go ahead and sketch it so, he depended a lot on my creative design. Then I did a side panel and did the red, white and blue coming down one side panel and that was my creation, my part of it. And then he goes and signs his name on the bottom. That’s a sketch artist. You got to have that creativity. With Edith Head I’m sure it was the same thing. And of course Bob would bring his creative design in to it too. But, the designer they get the full credit for it, but the sketch artist usually has a real design sense to. They can bring in a little bit of element to it. The designer usually likes that. They usually like that you can follow through in a good way. Bill basically does a rough sketch and indicates to you what they want.
Q - Who comes up with the different fabric, the material that’s going to be used in a costume?
A - Oh, the designer does that. That’s the designer’s job. That’s not the sketch artist job. The sketch artist has nothing to do with the fabric or anything like that. There are full-time sketch artists and that’s their career. That’s all they want to do. But, I always wanted to be a designer, so I’ve progressed. That was my stepping stone.
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