You’d think that, after working with Madonna for 15 years, Arianne Phillips would have seen it all. But Phillips, the stylist and costume designer behind a decade and a half of Madonna videos and performances, as well as films like Walk the Line and W.E., says that the pop star’s 2012 MDNA world tour was like nothing she had ever experienced. “There were an epic amount, a tsunami, of costumes,” Phillips told Style.com of the show’s wardrobe, which included an updated iteration of Madonna’s iconic cone bra by Jean Paul Gaultier. “And we aren’t talking tennis shoes and sneakers—it’s costume and fashion.” Prior to the premiere of Madonna: The MDNA Tour, a documentary that airs on Epix tonight at 8 p.m., Phillips, who’s currently in London working on a new film, talked to Style.com about the MDNA costumes, Madonna’s collaboration with Jean Paul Gaultier, and what it takes to put on an unforgettable show.
Where do you begin when designing costumes for Madonna?
Well, it always starts with the music, of course, and usually Madonna crafts a set list that’s part of a narrative. It’s a story with a beginning, middle, and end. This show was really about transformation. Each act had a different theme and costume had a purpose. This tour with her was definitely the biggest undertaking I have been a part of—on the technical side and on the conceptual side. It’s one thing to just design a costume for Madonna herself, but if you think about it, we had 23 dancers, five band members, and two background singers. And everyone requires multiple costume changes.
How do the costumes help express the show’s narrative?
We think of it as characters, and [Madonna] is playing a part. That character requires development and visuals in addition to the songs she’s singing. In the beginning of the show, she comes out dressed like a queen in a crown with a machine gun. She takes that off to reveal this super-vixen character that we kind of debuted in the “Girl Gone Wild” video. The next act is all about expression and having a message, and it opens up with “Express Yourself.” She’s wearing this homage to a forties majorette. The third act is “Vogue,” and it’s all about identity and gender-bending—iconic Madonna. She’s trying to figure out who she is again. And in the end, it’s a celebration, and she transforms into this powerful Joan of Arc character. Everyone is wearing mesh T-shirts, and it’s just like a really fun party. The tour gave her an opportunity to take classic songs like “Papa Don’t Preach” and give them a new twist. She has been performing these same songs forever, but she’s the queen of reinvention, and she creates an entertaining concept for the shows that keeps it interesting and relevant. The costumes have to underscore that, and they have to provoke and entertain.
How many costume changes did Madonna do throughout the course of the show?
The costumes are part of the choreography, so we have a lot of quick changes, and people are literally changing clothes under the stage. Madonna changes full costumes about four times. But then, for instance, for the “Vogue” act, she comes out in the Gaultier corset and then she disrobes. So by the end of the act, when she sings “Like a Virgin,” she is in a corset and a bra, and she has done different songs in different deconstructions of the outfit. So her costumes change for almost every song.