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Natalie Dormer's Stylist on Taking Risks on the Red Carpet

What is a "risk," exactly?
Dormer in Nicholas Oakwell at the "Mockingjay" premiere. Photo: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Dormer in Nicholas Oakwell at the "Mockingjay" premiere. Photo: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Say what you will about certain offbeat awards show looks, but they certainly stick in your mind longer than most of the lovely, safe looks that come down the red carpet. Do you remember that nice thing Amy Adams wore that one time? No. You remember Bjork's swan dress.

One up-and-comer who tempers easily digestible dresses with sassier looks? "Game of Thrones" and "Mockingjay" actress Natalie Dormer. We got in touch with her London-based stylist, Alison Elwin, to chat about how Dormer's style has evolved since they began working together in '06, what defines a red carpet risk, and how that changes from one side of Atlantic to the other. 

I wanted to talk to you because I think your work with Natalie is quite different from all the mermaid dresses we're used to seeing on the red carpet. Her look at the "Mockingjay" premiere, for instance, was something that struck me as relatively brave.

It’s funny when you say that we’re brave. We think it’s all quite London and English style, and obviously I think slightly differently when I’m working with Natalie because she’s in a different [international] arena than people I work with in the UK. It was quite interesting when we started working on these big awards things. Everyone in America makes everything so slick. Mermaid dresses are typical red carpet dressing, I suppose. I think there aren’t so many London-based designers that do that — it's quite an American thing. The classic red carpet dressing is what some American designers do well.

With Natalie, she really likes to [play up] the fact that she’s British and she likes to wear London-based designers. She's keen to support those brands as well as everyone else. I suppose that could bring a different angle [to how she dresses].

That's so interesting, that part of the difference comes down to sourcing from British designers rather than American ones.

I’m based in London, so it's quite interesting coming from the American side and hearing what you all think of Natalie's style there. I find it so fascinating. With the "Mockingjay" premiere, we had a longstanding relationship with Nicholas Oakwell, who’s a couturier in London. Natalie and him know each other quite well now, and we decided he was someone we’d like to support. That's how that decision was made. 

It doesn’t always work that way. Normally I would prep lots of outfits, and we'd select from a massive rail of different designers and different looks. But he had shown support for Natalie. I think it’s important to remain true to the people that have supported someone even from their early stages in their career. Sometimes you’ll get a designer who really believes in [an actress] and has really backed her. I always love them and think they’re the people to have relationships with, as well as the people who have learned to love her now that she’s in the public eye.

So given that London-based designers design differently for the red carpet, does that mean the public in England is also more receptive to fashion-forward looks than in the U.S.?

It’s the same here. If something isn’t conventional sometimes it’s not liked as much. Sometimes the fashion pack love it and understand it, and then everyone else doesn't understand it really. Style’s quite eclectic here, in London specifically, but what I have to remember is that London is like New York. You go further out in smaller towns where that kind of fashion isn’t in [people's] everyday life. You just have to go with your gut and believe in what you think is right and what you and the team think is right.

What's your process when you're at the beginning of a relationship with an actress, and you're figuring out how best to style her? Do you go out for a getting-to-know-you coffee?

That is my ideal, to either meet them or speak on the phone to understand what they like, what inspires them. Some people are really into clothes and some people just aren’t. In an ideal world I’d like to research them, where they come from, what they’re doing. If it’s a one-off job where they’re promoting TV, film or music, you work out specifically what you’re looking for at a certain event. When it’s a long relationship, you work out how they want to be perceived for a long time. Who are they?

How does that long-term view apply to how you've styled Natalie over the years?

At the beginning Natalie was working out who she was as an actress and her personal style. You know, when you’re younger you experiment a lot, and this isn’t related to Natalie, but just in general you follow the crowd. This is fashionable or that is fashionable, and you wear it because all your friends are. Then suddenly you develop your own identity. She began to learn about designers and understand clothes. She became really confident walking the red carpet and therefore she understands how she wants to look and how she wants to be perceived, which is to make sure that she’s always true to herself.

At the Screen Actor's Guild Awards in Marios Schwab. Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

At the Screen Actor's Guild Awards in Marios Schwab. Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

I feel like Natalie landed on my radar when she shaved part of her head for "Mockingjay," because it was such a badass look. How did that haircut impact how you styled her?

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It defined her, didn’t it? I know other people have had a shaved head before; it's not a revolutionary idea. But for her it was such a defining moment because people were used to having luscious locks of blonde hair and being kind of soft and pretty, and she still remained that, but it gave her something really strong. Clothing-wise I felt that if we showed her head off, everything had to be clean and simple so everyone was focusing on her hair and there wasn’t much else going on. A tailored suit, or a dress that had clean lines and was white and black and minimal.

That's true, it's not a particularly original haircut. But for some reason it just looked right on her, more so than it does on a lot of people.

I thought it was brilliant. When she called and said it was going to happen it was top secret. It was amazing and it changed what you could wear, how you look, how you feel, and therefore it made her style evolve. She didn’t always have to be in a pretty dress. I think that really challenged her, thinking, "What do I want to be from here? How should I look and feel and be with such a strong haircut?" And she probably felt like she had it for ages. It feels like it was gone fast.

Are there particular occasions that you feel are better or worse for pushing the envelope, fashion-wise?

There are always events where you expect a gown. I would love to say someone should go to the SAGs and wear a pantsuit or a jumpsuit or even something else, because everyone is always in a long gown there. Literally, it’s a pages of gowns, and they’re all these same aren’t they? Satin or something where you think, "Oh no..." I sometimes fear a satin gown. I try to run in the other direction because it makes me think of when I was a bridesmaid. 

At every event we have to think about what’s going on. Some of my clients like to think the opposite way: "If everyone’s in a gown, I don’t want to look like everyone else." I want to stand out or wear a trouser suit or dare to be different, to break it up a bit. There do always seem to be red carpet rules for events, but it is quite nice when you can push the boundaries. With Natalie at the SAG awards, I think showing the hair off there, we could have taken it to any event that she was attending at that period. 

I think red carpet is quite safe. We often — if it’s a younger event like People magazine — will pick a younger designer like House of Holland or someone along those lines. If it’s a major red carpet, we go to someone well-established. I like for most things upcoming designers, designers from London who I really love to introduce to people. Like, let’s support them. I wouldn’t be scared to do that for a red carpet either.

Dormer at Comic-Con in M Missoni. Photo: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

Dormer at Comic-Con in M Missoni. Photo: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

What does your schedule look like right now, as awards season is getting underway?

It's not too bad. A few of the girls I work with are still on holiday so there are some things people aren’t going to which is unexpected but makes life a little calmer. Right now it’s awards and prep. We're doing sample requests, putting boards together for people. I’m running through ideas and starting that whole process of call-ins. Then we go straight into New York Fashion Week and London Fashion Week, so that will keep me busy through to the end of February.

How much prep time do you usually have for events?

It really depends who it is and how much time they have prior to the event. In my dream world I would love months, but it doesn’t always work that way. I think the longer you have, the better opportunity you have to get amazing pieces. It could be anything from a few months to a week, which is never enough time, by the way.

Do you feel like there's a payoff to being more daring on the red carpet?

I always think [after the fact], "Was that that risky?" But you have to draw a line under it and that’s the decision you made.

Risk taking is hard, because you probably feel like maybe we’ve taken lot of risks, but there aren’t as many mermaid gown options in London, so maybe it’s almost like it’s not part of my everyday thought process. I don’t go into a showroom and [see] hundreds of gowns. [Instead] there are hundreds of things that are oversized, which you just know straightway won’t work on the red carpet. I think those things are most risky. That's a London thing: anything that’s oversized is what I’d step away from.

It's almost like we need to actually define what a "risk" is. 

It’s defining risk, isn’t it? I was thinking about [Natalie at] the SAG awards last year. I was constantly looking at that, thinking, "How is this going to go down?" Thinking about the hair, thinking about the dress, so in a way that felt risky, but the whole package felt not risky, just different to what we’ve done before. Anything that’s slightly different could be classed as a risk.