The Poem You Make of Me

The Poem You Make of Me

Artist Karyn Lyons’ evocative, sensual paintings explore youthful vulnerability and desire – emotions costume designer, Stacey Battat, was also charged with evoking for Sofia Coppola’s newest film, 'Priscilla'. For Violet issue 20 Karyn spoke with Stacey about the transporting power of memory, clothing, and childhood when applied to art and film.
Violet Issue: Violet Book Issue 20
Published: 2024/02/15
Updated: 2024/02/15
Karyn Lyons
Stacey Battat

STACEY BATTAT: I like your outfit.

KARYN LYONS: This is my painting sweater. I turned it around for you, because on the other side it's covered with paint.

Oh, beautiful. I did a similar thing. I just had some leaves in my hair.

Thank goodness this isn't a visual, right?

I like seeing your office [on a Zoom screen]. I'm in the garage. These aren't all my books, but I wish they were.

Oh, it looks great.

It makes us look like we're people who read a lot. We have lots of visual references here.

Do you have a bulletin board for yourself? Do you have things in an inspiration book?

I do, but I think [with each] project, they're always different, and then I usually leave them wherever we're shooting. I don't know why. I should care for it more, but I'm just kind of like, oh, I’m done. Anyway, I have a little one. I'll show you my desk. Mine's messy. This is my desk here. Can you see it?

Oh, yes. That's great. So not a lot of images on the wall.

No, but it depends. I'm not working on anything at the moment. There's not a lot of images when I'm not working – the images are usually things that just inspire me in life. There'll be fabric swatches, or a couch, or a recipe.

I have the same images on this wall. These have been the same set of images probably for the last five, six years. And then when I'm starting a show – maybe the same thing with when you're starting a film – I try to do a smaller mood board of imagery. Then when I’m painting, I start to accumulate images around [those].

That makes sense, because your work is a body of work that grows upon itself, and mine is not. It does to a certain extent, but it's not the same subject matter every time.

Right. And also not the same time period. I guess we should say we met at the premiere of Priscilla, in New York, which you had been working on as costume designer, and that film was a very specific time period.

It was the ‘60s, the ‘70s, and the late ‘50s. A lot of time periods. Similar to your work, I feel like I'm always trying to make a character. Who is that person? What are they feeling? What are they going through? How does that manifest itself in what they look like? I think you do that too in your work.

I do. My work is very much about growing up in the ‘70s and the clothing that will take me back to those times. Times of nostalgia, the things that my friends’ older siblings were wearing, the cool boy that lived across the street who wore his grandpa's Aran sweater with a hole in the elbow.

I love those details in your work.

Those are the things that you would pay attention to and register. What they said about that person…I find that interesting. I think [costuming in] films [can have that impact also]. For example, the other day I watched Three Days of the Condor. I don't even understand why I feel a certain way about what they're wearing [in the film], but it transmits something that is so impactful, at least for me.

I think that's good costume design. We're in the business of character development. That's what our job really is. We don’t know why we feel a certain way, but we're trying to tell you what they're going through.

I could see it in [Priscilla]—a very different change in the way she dressed [through the film].

Yeah. Well, she was young, and then old. I mean 27, but still…

[At the start] she was living with her parents. She was very conservative. Then she meets Elvis. He tries to influence what she wore, and then later in the movie, when she starts to feel her independence, you could see that the way she dressed was much freer.

She was also just more herself. She came to a place where she was like, “what is it that I like? I've been doing what you like for all this time, but who am I? What do I like?”.

I think you did that so well in the film. You can really get it through clothing.

That's really nice of you. I tried really hard. I worked really hard. We all did. I had a great team.

And there were so many clothes. There are so many characters and so many looks.

So many. I know that there were about 120 costumes on paper for Priscilla, but I feel like those are just the ones we document on page for specific scenes. But then there were all these things that we did that were inserts of ’she's flipping calendar pages’ or ‘she's writing a letter to Elvis’ that kind of came up, with all of us on the fly to show the passage of time. And those [costumes] aren't documented per se. So yes, so many.





Was there a particular look that you liked the best for her or him in the film?

Yes. My favourite look for Elvis is always consistent. I don't know why, but there's a scene when he comes to pick her up in Germany, and he's wearing this beautiful brown wool blazer that our tailor, Ahmed, made. And then underneath it is this gorgeous shawl collar sweater Valentino made. He just looks so elegant, and I'm like, I want to date that guy. Who is that guy? I want to be with him. I love that one because I feel like it's cosy, it's sophisticated, it's all the things that I would want in the guy that was coming to pick me up. [Yet] every time somebody asks me about hers, I change it.

Oh, I love that.

What about you? Is there a favourite one of your new works?

Well, that really depends. For me, the paintings that I like are usually the ones that I don't belabour. The ones that come easily. Someone was in earlier this morning and was asking me all of these questions, “which do you like the most?”. It's very hard for me to say—which I think is a good thing. I like each of them for different reasons.

Sure, that makes sense. I like each of them for different reasons too. I feel like they all kind of speak to me in some way, but then this one for that reason and that one for that reason.

Yes, and it was neat. He came in with his wife and his daughter and it was really fun for me to see what they liked. I think the daughter was probably a teenager. I didn't know exactly how old she was, but she had a very personal feeling about the work—I think the one of a girl and a boy kissing—and I got the impression that she had just gone through a breakup, so she got very emotional about it.

As a painter, it's a very solitary job.

Sure. Yes.

So you really miss out on the opportunity to experience the work with people. It's so nice when you get to do a studio visit and talk to people about the work, because I don't sit with the work in the gallery, so I miss that. It was really very moving. We all ended up crying. All the women ended up crying by the end of the studio visit because it brings you back to those really difficult moments.

Of course.

Vulnerable moments in adolescence where your heart gets broken, and you feel like it's the end of the world.

The end of the innocence. It's the end of that world.

Yeah. I always say, I'm trying to get to this point in the work where it's like where childhood imagination meets adult possibilities. You're still a child, yet you're starting to see these little cracks of light of what world could be for you.

I mean, I think that's very visible. I always feel like when I look at your work that I am somehow being invited into a world that isn't my own, that it's somebody's private moment.

Great. And they're private moments, and I mean, she's lonely. She's always alone, and she's always exploring her own world, meaning the books she reads or the music she listens to. And it was different then—it was the ‘70s for me. You weren't connected to the world in the palm of your hand, so you had a lot of time.

When you sit down to paint, do you think about those things? Do you have an imagination of the setting?

I used to paint from photos. I used to be a photorealist painter. You look at the photo and you paint what you see. And it was during the pandemic that I realised that there was really no fun in that for me anymore. So now I hang up a canvas on the wall. I don't know what size I'm going to paint. I really don't. I have an idea of the narrative. I figure out [what aspect] of my adolescence I want to paint, and I really don't plan anything. I just start going, and then it just grows. For example, some of the paintings have changed from being outside to being inside. The Trespasser painting, she had a whole different head, a different outfit, a different environment. I really think that's why it takes me so long to paint a painting, because it goes through a lot of changes.

I think that's good.

It does feel more of an organic thing, which is much more fun for me. Do you ever have your heart set on something, and then you get it on set and you're like, ‘ugh, this isn't working'?

Sometimes, yes, that does happen. I really didn't want Elvis to be in dark colours until later [in the film]. I had him in this ivory sweater the first time we meet him, and [cinematographer] Philippe Le Sourd was like, “It's too light. I can't shoot that.” So I had to put him in a darker sweater, and I was bummed about it because I didn't want him to be that guy for her yet. But it was okay. I don't think anyone noticed.

For you, is it weird to have somebody analyse your work?

No, I like it. I used to have studio mates and I don't anymore, so I don't really get the opportunity to talk to people about work. So it's nice. My brother and I talk about my work a lot, but he's not a painter. He's a writer. He comes at it from a different point of view.

It's funny, when I was a kid, we used to have this ongoing debate, my dad and me and my sister, about what art is. The final conclusion in our family – our definition of art – is anything that uses one of your senses. So, sight, sound, touch, whatever that makes you experience a feeling. So, food, paintings, fashion is art. Any of those things can be art. It’s funny that we're talking about your work [in terms of] how it makes you feel.

I also wanted to ask about the references you take from historical paintings. You also infuse a modern-day ennui, a teen angst into your work. How do you go about that juxtaposition? Is it something that you think about from the start?

I do. For example, for this show that’s opening at Turn Gallery, I took a painting from Titian from the 15th century, a painting of Bacchus and Ariadne. It's the moment when Bacchus sees Ariadne – they have this instantaneous intoxication, infatuation. A lot of my work is about those moments when you're a teenager and you see the cute teenage boy across the room at the keg party, and you have this rush of emotion you don't even really know anything about. Might've seen him around school, maybe not, but you're –

Madly in love with him.

It's all your projection of who he is, what he is.

I feel like I was doing that until I was 35.

[I’m] still doing it, still doing it. I loved that idea, so I have teenagers in this embrace on a couch—a couch which I actually took from American Gigolo. [In that movie], Richard Gere is sitting on a great blue couch. So I took that, I put them on that couch, and then I infused some of the symbols and elements of the Titian painting. They're in the landscape of the Titian painting, and the foliage is taking them over. I wanted to try to capture that feeling of when you just lost your mind in lust.



You have a really impressive visual catalogue of references. I love that you took the sofa from American Gigolo.

Well, I love film and I love art history, so I love combining all of it. But I do try to hit a time period, as you have to do. ‘What was the Adidas sneaker in 1979?’ ‘What did Tab soda look like in 1981?’ I try to keep it very specific. I'm sure you have to do that, too.

Yes, I do. I love doing that. I like the idea that there's an element of our jobs that's historical. I know we're not making documentaries when we're making a film, but I do think people watch movies and it becomes real, even if it wasn't. I think it's important to honour history.

Yes. Do you have things made? Do you shop vintage? How do you do it?

It depends. On Priscilla, because of the subject matter, who they were, and our colour palettes, we ended up making 90% of the clothes. Which is insane, considering we shot it in 30 days. We had so many costumes. I had the most incredible tailor Ahmed and these two beautiful women, Yulia and Kat, who just sewed their little hearts out all the time and made patterns. I had both [leading actors] Jacob’s [Elordi] and Cailee’s [Spaeny] bodies scanned – it sounds really high tech – then these forms made out of their body measurements. They’re not perfect, but they do have the proportions of, say, the clavicle to the waist. Those are proportions that you need to make clothes fit well.

Do you have a background in fashion design?

I do. I studied women's studies and sociology at Hunter College. And then my last year I started going to the Fashion Institute of Technology, but I did not finish the course. I just took some classes. I also got a job working for Marc Jacobs in-store. I have a good knowledge of draping and pattern making. My drawing is meh, but I do have some knowledge.

I mean, clearly you have knowledge. If you could say, ‘okay, we need to make this for Priscilla's wedding gown’, or whatever it is.

You’d be surprised. Sometimes I draw [designs] on the back of a manila tag. I’ll be like, ‘okay, this is the body, this is the fabric’, whatever. And then I would hand it to the tailor, and then I'd be like, ‘I think there's a button in the back, but probably not, because [Priscilla’s] baby could choke. How would we close it?’

I love how it seems like it's so organic. It's like my paintings – ‘we'll change that, and we'll move that around’.

It is organic. Your work is so solitary. I could never do my work without great people behind me. First of all, I cannot sew the way Yulia, Kat and Ahmed can. I do have a good understanding of pattern making. I can say, ‘I think it needs a dart here’, or ‘it needs to come up here,’ or whatever. But I'm not a super-talented pattern maker or super-talented draper. I can do it – I have enough knowledge to understand where seams need to go and stuff like that. But the execution…you don't want me to sew one of the costumes. They would look like shit. I need a team.

That's great. Everything is so beautiful in the film. Do you have a style icon or icons that you look to?

I love Slim Keith and Katherine Hepburn.

Oh, Katherine Hepburn. It's a very tomboy or a very masculine kind [of look], which is the same thing I love.

Do you know who else I find as a style inspiration too, by the way? My younger stepson, because he puts together whatever he feels like and does not care what anybody thinks about it, and always looks cool. He's 12.




THE STARE, 2022.

Why do you think you keep coming back to the theme of trespassing in your work?

I grew up in Rowayton, Connecticut, which is this little town on the water. All the kids around us went to private schools and lived in these beautiful mansions that you could see across the river. But I didn't live in one of those. I think it's a little bit about the idea of being an outsider or a trespasser into this world.


You kind of wanted that life, or you thought you wanted that life. My parents are immigrants. My mom's Israeli, my dad's Australian, but I feel like in Connecticut, they weren't aware of those customs. I would go to school with a cucumber in my lunch and kids would come to school with Lunchables. The rich kids’ parents just bought this package lunch or whatever. My parents wanted us to eat healthy and didn't grow up in places where there was packaged food, either one of them. You didn't buy a sandwich in a bag. It just didn't exist. We didn't have fancy cars. That kind of status-y thing was not in their view.

Is there any film that particularly inspired you growing up? Or is there a film that you love the costume design of?

I loved Annie. The original Annie really inspired me. I loved those costumes in the orphanage. They're so dusty and kind of sad, but beautiful. And then she goes into this world of opulence and gets that super shiny red dress, which is not my favourite.

You always remember people in a particular way, in a particular outfit. You don't see them in 10 outfits. When you think about somebody, you see them in one outfit. And actually, that’s true of your paintings as well. They feel like somebody's memory of something.

It's exactly true. [The protagonist in the painting series] is wearing the same clothes often. And maybe that's why – because it's like this flash I have in my mind of someone in my town, or my mom, or my neighbour. That's why I keep repainting the same outfits over and over, because that's how I remember them.

Wait, is she you? Just out of curiosity?

Yes. It's always me. It's not necessarily what I looked like, but these are my memories of those years.

I should have known that, I think. I mean, you've been saying it this whole time, but I didn't realise that she was also you.

She is me, and now I kind of call her ‘my girl’, but it really is my memories of those years. Moments that I lived or felt during those years.

They make me very happy to look at.

Thank you, Stacey.

What about fantasy? Do we want to talk about the fantasy [element]?

Well, I also had the element of fantasy because for me, those years were very difficult. So, they're also a lot about escapism. It's like, I just wanted to be older and with the Rolling Stones hanging out. I didn't want to be their girlfriend. I wanted to be Mick Jagger. Living that creative life, really.

It's funny that you said you wanted to be Mick Jagger. I feel like I was always kind of never wanting to be the girlfriend, either.

I wanted to be the hero of the story.

I wanted to be the hero of the story too. I don't know what that says about us.

I think that's the way we should all feel. I was reading some of Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, where she's talking about the way women were always considered second to the man. And when you're a teenage girl, you are—at least when I was growing up—conditioned to not be the centre of the story.

The girl in your story, it’s always her story.

It is her story. She's an active protagonist, but sometimes it's a struggle.

We're being invited into her world. It's her story. We're watching her experience of the world. She's not experiencing it through somebody else. She's experiencing it through her own self.

Yes. Her own inner world.

Exactly. So, all you girls out there – develop a strong inner life.

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