In Conversation with: Cynthia Lawrence-John
In Conversation with: Cynthia Lawrence-John
“I love the way you can use clothes to tell stories”, explains Cynthia. She is a stylist, costume designer, and moreover a storyteller, using clothes, accessories and props to create captivating narratives that showcases the wearers personality and vision.
Whether she is working with celebrities like Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Johnny Depp, magazines like Vogue, Dazed and i-D, or brands like Nike, Adidas and Burberry, the picture she creates is memorable. In line with the release of South London based film, Rye Lane which she designed for, we had the chance to talk to her about her creative process, her influences and her challenges. Find out how Cynthia became one of the most sought-after stylists and costume designers in the business and what she has in store for the future.
What were your first steps into the industry?
So, back in the 90s, I actually got a degree in photography. It’s interesting because, for a while, I worked as a portrait photographer and took pictures of bands. I was more of an art photographer than a commercial. I also did some installations.Then, one day a friend called me to come along to meet them and it turned out to be a shoot for a denim brand. They wanted real people to wear their own clothes, so I brought my own clothes and they dressed me in denim. That’s actually how I got into styling. I never planned to be a stylist or anything like that. I’ve always loved clothes and how they can tell a story. But I’m not into using clothes just to sell them, you know? So, I’m not really interested in editorials that are just there to sell a product. It bores me, to be honest. That’s why I got into films. I love using clothes to tell stories, to develop characters. It’s fascinating to see how clothes can add so much depth to a scene.
How did you make the transition in your career from styling to costume designing?
I still work as a fashion stylist and am heavily involved in the fashion industry. When I started, I primarily did fashion editorials, but I always felt that the limited space didn’t allow for enough storytelling. It was a natural progression for me to move towards fashion films and commercials, which allowed for more narrative and a longer-lasting impact than a few pages in a magazine.
As for how I got into costume design for film, it was a bit of a strange journey. I’ve worked with directors who have directed fashion films, commercials, and then features. Some of them wanted someone who had a fashion sensibility, but also understood the fundamentals of costume design. I happen to have experience in both areas, understanding fashion history and how to use clothing to tell stories, as well as understanding how film works.
In the end, it all comes down to storytelling. Whether it’s through a fashion editorial, a fashion film, or a feature film, the goal is always to tell a compelling story through the visuals. And I’m lucky enough to be able to do that through my work in fashion and costume design.
How do you approach costume design in comparison to styling?
It’s almost the same? Because for me it’s about research, research, research. You need to read the script multiple times to really understand the character and their story. After that, it’s all about creating mood boards and discussing the director’s and writer’s vision for the character.
If you’re working on an editorial, you might collaborate with a photographer who has their own inspiration or vision in mind. And once again, it all comes down to research. Creating mood boards and delving into different artists, paintings, drawings, and films is all part of the creative process. Personally, I find the research aspect to be the most exciting part. It’s where you can develop your own ideas and aesthetic.
How did you go about researching for Rye Lane?
It was about reading the script, it’s crucial. It’s the best way to understand the character and their personality through their dialogue and interactions with others. For example, if a character is meant to be shy, how do you convey that through their clothing? I’ve had past characters where I gave them specific shoes or knitwear to create a certain vibe.
With Dom’s character, he wore a jacket with tiny, awkward pockets. When he tried it on, the first thing he did was put his hands in those pockets and it just helped to create a sense of discomfort and awkwardness in his body language. It was this moment where the actor and I looked at each other and knew we had found the perfect piece for the character.
For me, it’s all about the nuances within costume design. It’s not just about the visual effect, but also the way the clothing affects the character’s body language and behaviour. For example, in a recent project, I designed costumes for a character who initially wore baggy vintage military clothing to protect herself. But as she shed those layers, she became more confident and powerful, culminating in a final scene where she wears a jacket from 1999 that was special to me. It was a way of telling the character’s narrative through her clothing and body language.
So, in a nutshell, that’s how I approach costume design for characters. It’s all about creating a narrative through clothing and how it affects the character’s behaviour.
What story were you trying to tell with Dom and Yas, when costume designing for Rye Lane?
For me, it was important that the characters in the film didn’t feel cliched or stereotypical. I wanted to showcase individuals that you might know, but with their own unique nuances and personalities. Black people aren’t a monolith, and I think that’s the main thing. We have different tastes and preferences, just like anyone else. Being black doesn’t mean you automatically like a certain style or type of music. We should be free to find inspiration and joy in whatever speaks to us.
That’s really what I wanted to convey with the film. I also wanted the characters to feel timeless, relatable to people now, but not just a snapshot of a specific moment in time. I didn’t want someone to watch the film in a few years and immediately think, “Oh, that’s so 2020.” We shot the film in 2021, but I wanted it to feel like it could be from any time period, from 2025 to 2120 or beyond. Does that make sense? I wanted the style to feel natural and not forced.
How do you balance keeping your work authentic and personal, while still staying on trend?
Great question! Personally, I think it’s tough when you’re not following the latest trends because it can feel like your work isn’t relevant anymore. But for me, I try to maintain certain reference points that are always true to my vision. For instance, when I started out, there was always a certain type of model that I wanted to work with. It wasn’t necessarily about their race or anything like that, but there was just something in their eyes that spoke to me. They weren’t just there to wear clothes and look good, they had a story to tell.
That’s actually why I love films so much, too. There’s something about capturing a moment on camera that feels more authentic and real than just trying to keep up with the latest trends. So, for me, it’s about staying true to my own vision and trying to tell stories that are meaningful to me.
What was the experience like creating Volt magazine?
So I actually started Volt with a photographer friend of mine named Louie Farrier. We felt like fashion was moving too quickly at the time and people were just flipping through magazines without really taking the time to appreciate the images. We wanted to slow people down and make them really look at every detail in the photos, so we came up with a three-sided format that wasn’t particularly practical, but served our purpose. We also wanted to promote sustainability in the fashion industry, so we partnered with organic printing and sustainable paper companies.
One of the reasons we started Volt was also to provide a platform for people who may feel like outsiders in the fashion industry. Sometimes it can be a very close-knit community, and we wanted to give everyone an opportunity to share their work and their perspectives.
I had worked for other magazines before starting Volt, but I really wanted to create something that felt different and special. It may not have been the most practical format, but it gave people a chance to really appreciate the artistry of fashion photography.
Any advice for those looking to enter costume design?
You need to figure out who you are and what you want to say to the world. That’s the key to keeping your creativity flowing and continuing to evolve as an artist. If you’re constantly looking to the left or the right, trying to see what everyone else is doing, then your own voice gets lost in the mix.
When you’re true to yourself and you know what you want to say, it shows. Brands can tell when someone is just doing things for the money versus when someone truly has something to say. Authenticity is key, and I think that’s something a lot of brands are looking for these days. They want to work with people who are genuine and have a unique perspective to offer.
If you have been inspired by Cynthia’s journey and are interested in becoming a costume designer, you could try this short introduction course linked here and a UAL BA for Costume for Theatre and Screen, which can be found here