Set designer Shona Heath reveals the cultural references and collaborations that inspire her extraordinary creative vision
Ever since she strung a daisy chain of jewel-coloured taxis along the concrete balustrades of J. Crew’s Regent Street store this September, Shona Heath has been the biggest name in set design. But really she’s been wearing that crown for about a decade now. As the go-to creative director for the likes of Dior, Prada, Miu Miu, Hermès and Mulberry, hers is the eye that frames each new season’s collections, and she is a regular collaborator with the likes of Tim Walker, Paolo Roversi, and Tim Gutt, responsible for the fantastical trappings of their most extraordinary fashion shoots. This week, as she completes work on her latest undertaking – the installation of Somerset House’s exhibition honouring the late, great Isabella Blow – Heath gives us an insight into the people, books and happy accidents that have inspired her work.
Shona Heath on... Isabella Blow
I never met Isabella. She is somebody who I identified with only very recently when I first started researching for this project, but I was always aware of her as an iconic image in my brain. Doing the research, I was inspired by her personality and her way of working, I really respect the ripple effect she had, her creativity and everything that she did, whether she was a stylist or a catalyst. She was very generous in the way that she channelled people and showed the right people who were talented how important they were.
Shone Heath on... creating the exhibition
It was all about the clothes that [Isabella] owned, through them tracing a backstory that gives an idea of how she lived – such as her owning a piece from Hussein Chalayan’s graduate collection and most of the graduate collection of McQueen. The storytelling of her life starts with these clothes, it’s a key part of why she was important. Indeed everything does seem to have a story, it’s not like “oh, this is a Chanel jacket”. But the show is more than just clothes: she sketched a self-portrait of herself on a serviette which I love and then there’s a broken Chanel lipstick. They are my two favourite pieces.
Shona Heath on... collaborations
Tim Walker plays an enormously big part in my world. I love working with him and that’s fantastic. When I first worked with Paolo Roversi, I was really blown away. We did a shoot for the S/S08 issue of AnOther Magazine together, and he was so nice. I made these silly things and these prop big hats and I remember they won’t really working very well in the pictures and then all of a sudden he decided to light it all by torchlight. So all the lights were off and he just coloured in the girl with a red torch and a blue torch and then a yellow torch. When the polaroid came out, we were literally just in shock. It was the first really great creative thing I’d done with him, and it was just fantastic. I loved it.
Shona Heath on... fashion
I studied fashion – it’s what I always wanted to do – and fashion is the thing that I really love. It sounds stupid but I always try and make fashion relevant in a way, to build sets that either contrast or complement the clothes, to consider what materials to use, what colours, what approach to take, whether it is antiquey and destroyed or slick and spacey or weird undertones of something dark and gloomy. I always try and think about the fashion before – I love knowing what the clothes are going to be like so I can dress the set to contrast or complement it all. I like that intangible feeling that you have to somehow harness them and make it relevant.
Shona Heath on... inspirations
I’m inspired by fantasy and the creation of the fantastical. I love fairy-tales and also sort of darker unnerving stories, like Aesop’s fables and Kit Williams who is a children’s book illustrator that I grew up with who has something really unnerving in his pictures and stories, something quite strange. I love Surrealism. I’m inspired by narrative and then I’m open to something being off or a bit wrong. Also, it’s vital to be open to taking a risk because you could be doing a set with gorgeous flowers and fashion and you might use a bin bag and think ‘oh my god that looks amazing!’ And suddenly we’re doing six bin bags. You have to try and keep open to life references: anything, stuff and people and mistakes. I’m always excited by mistakes; they’re the best things.
Somerset House presents Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! in partnership with the Isabella Blow Foundation and Central Saint Martins from 20th November – 2nd March 2014.
Text by Tish Wrigley