Rockingham costume designer Woolfenden dressed for success after Emmy nod

Stuart HortonSound Telegraph
Costume designer Helen Woolfenden.
Camera IconCostume designer Helen Woolfenden.

The past few months have been a bit of a whirlwind for costume designer Helen Woolfenden.

The Rockingham native is still pinching herself after attending the Emmy Awards last year following a nomination for her work on the BBC/HBO-backed Tracey Ullman’s Show, and this week started work in the South West on a new children’s TV series funded by Screenwest, Lotterywest and the West Australian Regional Film Fund, based on the Itch trilogy of books by Simon Mayo.

Woolfenden may not be a household name — which is how she likes it — but chances are viewers have seen her work, especially fans of irreverent British comedy Peep Show, which helped launch the careers of not just the costume designer but also its stars David Mitchell, Robert Webb and Olivia Colman.

Back in Rockingham and hopeful of undertaking more work in WA to put her globetrotting behind her, Woolfenden sat down with the Sound Telegraph last week to talk about her career.

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“I’m back in WA and I want to stay here now. We’re filming (Itch) in WA and I’ve pulled a team together who are all WAAPA and Perth Tech people, all from WA, so it’s really exciting,” she said.

“I think (the film of TV industry in WA) is definitely growing.

“The film industry insiders and producers I’ve spoken to are excited about what’s happening here.

“I feel like I’ve come back at the right time. A lot of talented people have come from Rockingham.”

Having an early determination to make it as a costume designer, Woolfenden studied at Perth Technical College, which merged with the WA Academy of Performing Arts during her time there, and was set on her current path after moving to Sydney to work with the Australian Opera. “I had a choice to make (about staying in costume design) because my friend phoned me up and said ‘do you want to run away with the circus with me?’ Literally the circus, to travel around Australia as a magician’s assistant,” she said.

“At the same time I got offered the chance to work on a feature film making costumes in Sydney, and I thought ‘hmm, I don’t know if I want to do this’. I decided to do the film, which turned out to be Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom.”

Working on the costumes of Tina Sparkle’s dance partner, among others, opened lots of doors and Woolfenden’s next move was to England, where she worked at the Bristol Old Vic as a milliner, which led to work with milliner-to-the-stars Philip Treacy, then at a London costumiers.

After setting up her own costume design business, Woolfenden got her start in television on Peep Show in 2003, and has since added work on series Angelo’s, Star Stories, Pulling, The Kevin Bishop Show, Reggie Perrin, Parents, Big Bad World, Blackwood, Uncle and Tracey Ullman’s Show to an impressive resume.

Woolfenden speaks effusively of working on Peep Show and with talents including Mitchell, Webb and Kevin Bishop, and describes Ullman as “awesome”.

“(Peep Show) was the most fun; the writers were incredible, the writing and performances ... it was so uncomfortable sometimes, but we had such a great time and I consider myself very lucky to have worked on it,” she said.

The spin off from Peep Show, from the “lovely people” she worked and became friends with, included opening more doors in the industry, leading to an eventual nomination for outstanding costumes for variety, non-fiction or reality programming at last year’s 70th Primetime Emmy Awards.

Helen Woolfenden at the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards, September 2018. Woolfenden was nominated in the Outstanding Costumes For Variety, Nonfiction Or Reality Programming category.
Camera IconHelen Woolfenden at the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards, September 2018. Woolfenden was nominated in the Outstanding Costumes For Variety, Nonfiction Or Reality Programming category. Credit: Helen Woolfenden

Despite missing out on the statuette to the team behind the outlandish costumes on Ru Paul’s Drag Race — which she said was a relief — Woolfenden was thrilled just to have had the opportunity to mingle with TV’s elite.

“It was like being in a dream. I was a bit scared; I never imagined I’d be there,” she said.

“I was totally relieved (not to win because) I was terrified. Just being there was incredible. I love Ru Paul’s show and those outfits are incredible. Imagine sitting in an auditorium surrounded by stars ... I was just like ‘oh my goodness’. It was amazing, it was nuts. All my friends thought it was amazing.

“I’m very much a behind-the-scenes person; I love creating the look, the whole process from design to fitting to working with the actor and hearing their ideas and realising those, so it was a relief not to have to give a speech.”

Apart from settling back into life in WA, Woolfenden is happy to see what opportunities unfold for now, but is hopeful Itch will be successful enough to allow her more opportunities to work in her home State.

“I’d love that,” she said. “I just want to keep doing costume design.”

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