I experienced firsthand the reach of the show when I brought my aunts Les and May to set one day. My family never understood my work for film and television. “What’s a stylist?” my mother asked more than once. I invited them to watch a scene we were shooting in Rockefeller Center, so they could see what I did. They were happy enough, as they always were to see me, but not particularly impressed. That is, until Aunt Les saw Chris Noth. My little elderly Greek aunt lit up like a teenage fan and, looking up at the tall actor, said in a loud voice, “I love you, Mr. Big!”
At the risk of sounding ungrateful, “Sex and the City” was like an in-law who won’t get out of your life. It’s hard to move on from a show with that kind of reach, and where the costumes were so central. So when I called my assistant, Molly Rogers, to tell her that our next gig was a movie where Meryl Streep played the villainous editor in chief of a Vogue-style fashion magazine, she accused me of practicing Greek witchcraft.
Dressing one of the world’s greatest movie actresses as a sadistic style fashionista was certainly a soft landing after saying goodbye to Carrie and the gang. But ancient spells didn’t get me “The Devil Wears Prada.” No, it was earthbound relationships — in this case my long-standing friendship with “Prada’s” director, David Frankel. We knew each other from Miami, where we both had places.
Although the movie, based on Lauren Weisberger’s best-selling novel of the same name, had a tight budget and David hadn’t directed a feature since “Miami Rhapsody,” the script was so good and the cast even better. In addition to the Oscar-winning Meryl Streep, there was also the fresh-faced Anne Hathaway, then-unknown Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci, who is one of my favorite male actors.
Although the book was loosely based on the author’s experience working as an assistant to Anna Wintour, all of us were committed to the fact that the film wasn’t going to be a sendup of Vogue. I certainly didn’t model Meryl’s editor in chief character, Miranda Priestly, after Wintour, because anything interesting has to be original. Nobody wanted to see a poor man’s Anna traipsing around the big screen. I would never do something like that to Meryl Streep.
I took David with me to the shows in Paris to loosen him up a little and inspire him for the world he was about to shoot. But when it came to dressing Miranda Priestly, I dove headlong into the archives of Donna Karan, who was gracious enough to share them with me. Donna revolutionized workwear for the modern woman. She replaced the absurd pussy-bow blouses and overcompensating shoulder pads of the eighties with classic silhouettes in muted fabrics that stretched to flatter busy, important women trying to get s— done.
The Donna Karan reps at her New Jersey warehouse were astonished that I was the one climbing ladders and unzipping garment bags, and not some minion. No matter how much success I had achieved, I was not made to sit at a desk. I pored through her designs from the eighties and nineties, which was when Donna introduced the world to what was known as her Seven Easy Pieces: bodysuit, skirt, tailored jacket, dress, leather element, white shirt, and cashmere sweater. Her tailored feminine clothes flattered women without being difficult, and they stood the test of time.
Timelessness is a very important quality in everything I do. It’s fundamental to my work that the pieces I use — whether it’s a tutu or Donna Karan wrap skirt — be classic, which means not pinned to a specific time. When enjoying the sublime, the eye doesn’t want to be distracted by pedestrian markers like current trends.
We wound up using a lot of those Donna Karan pieces we hauled over the bridge from New Jersey. They served as an elegant and flattering foundation to more expressive jeweled jackets, bold accessories, and, of course, that marvelous white hair.
That hair was a great moment. White, high-style, and shocking: I knew Meryl and her longtime hair and makeup stylist, J. Roy Helland — who had worked together on all her movies since “Still of the Night,” more than two decades earlier — had thought a lot about how the look could serve the character. Their references were a mix of the octogenarian model Carmen Dell’Orefice and the president of the European Central Bank and former managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde.
Their idea made perfect sense to me, and I could do a lot with it. “White goes with everything,” I approved. “It’s such a good palate backdrop.” But when the producers heard white, they went into a frenzy. To them white equaled old lady. Producers are business types. They are not the fashion guys. A lot of them have wives who tell them what the actresses should wear. So when they see something that looks odd, they are afraid of it.
“Did you talk to Meryl?” a hysterical producer said to me. “White will kill us.”
I did my best to talk them off the ledge, explaining she’d have a stylish haircut with killer clothes to match, but they couldn’t see it. Finally, I had to relay their concerns to Meryl.
“They won’t stop bugging me about this white hair,” I told her.
“I’ll take care of it,” she said.
She told them: “My hair is going to be white, and that’s the end of it.”
You can do that when you’ve been nominated for dozens of Oscars.
Hair was also very important in the transformation of Anne Hathaway’s character, Andie. She’s not a slob or loser; she’s a writer. Bangs and a shaping up of her shaggy hair went a long way toward signaling Andie’s embrace of fashion. Even more helpful, however, was a closetful of Chanel. Anne became a “Chanel girl” on “Prada.” The famed French fashion house was keen to see modern iterations of its iconic tweed jackets and quilted bags on a young woman, and I was happy to have the luxury brand solve all my problems in a way that was believable for her character.
Well, maybe not all my problems. There is a montage of Meryl entering the office and throwing a series of coats and purses on Anne’s desk while barking orders at her. (We used such heavy coats, like richly colored Dennis Basso furs, that I thought she was going to keel over by the end of that shooting day.) We didn’t think we were going to see Emily Blunt’s character in the shot, but we were wrong. At the last minute, David ran in to say Emily was in the scene, sitting at the other assistant’s desk. “I need twenty-six more outfits for her!” he said. “Not a problem,” I answered, before Molly and I hit the road to do what she wryly termed “drive-through costuming.” We got it done. We always do.
When “Prada” wrapped, everyone knew the picture was good. But just how well it would be received, we had no clue. It was the sleeper hit of the summer of 2006, crushing what was supposed to be the summer blockbuster, “Superman Returns.” For context, “Prada,” which cost $41 million to make, grossed $326 million worldwide. Meanwhile “Superman” made $391 million on a budget of $204 million.
An instant classic, “Prada” not only proved financially successful, it also received the industry’s highest honors. The Academy Awards nominated Meryl for best actress (her fourteenth nomination, but who’s counting?), and me for best costume design. Neither of us won, but if I had to lose to anyone, I was glad it was Milena Canonero for “Marie Antoinette.”
I might not have gone home with a statue, but I did stand out on Oscar night 2007. At that time everybody was wearing either black or neutral. I didn’t want to join the sea of beige — that’s not me — so I had David Dalrymple design me a bright-red strapless dress that nearly matched my hair. On the long shots of this whole big theater, you could always spot me, a vision in scarlet.
Adapted from “Pat in the City” by Patricia Field. Copyright © 2023 by Patricia Field. Reprinted courtesy of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
My Life of Fashion, Style, and Breaking All the Rules
A note to our readers
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program,
an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking
to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.