From Hollywood to Wellywood: Kate Hawley, Crimson Peak and Suicide Squad costume designer comes home

The three-metre Italian marble sideboard in the hall made Kate’s movers very unhappy. “They said it was the heaviest thing they’d ever moved and never to call them again,” she says. The artwork is by Andrey Klassen from Berlin, and the candlestick and bowl are by Britain’s Tom Dixon.

In a world where robots rule, superheroes surprise us and gorgeous frocks rock, costume designer Kate Hawley has found her forever home. Occasionally, she returns to Wellington where she’s surrounded by treasures magpied on her travels.

Words: Lee-Anne Duncan Photos: Paul McCredie

A young woman stands at the photocopier in a temporary film-production office in the Puerto Rican jungle. It’s late at night. She’s working, head down, watching copies slide warm from the machine. She’s blonde, attractive, and alone. Or so she thinks.

Hearing a noise she looks up to see a large man, a local Santería priest. He’s splattered with the blood of the two decapitated chickens he carries. He walks towards her, swinging the chickens, chanting. The woman quickly looks down. “Just keep photocopying,” she hisses to herself.

Kate Hawley, a classically trained film and theatre costume designer, creates fantasy worlds where future humans are forced to face down robots and aliens. Kate and cairn terrier, Brian, stand in the doorway of the Mt Victoria villa where she’s “the most settled” she’s been in a good 20 years. Brian traveled everywhere with Kate and her daughter, Ruby, but now, aged 11, he’s staying on home soil;

“Then he walked up to me, whacked me on the rear with the chicken, spat rum in my face, said, ‘you’re blessed’ and walked off,” says Kate Hawley, laughing as she recounts one of the many memorable events on her “first proper job” as a film and theatre costume designer.

“The director was into Santería [a religion where initiation, sacrifice and mediumship is practiced], so he had that man come bless the office. It was all very exciting.”

These maquettes are from the films Edge of Tomorrow and Pacific Rim.

Some 20 years later, Kate has countless tales of her time on film sets in exotic places, where she helped create fantastical cinematic realms, and got up close and personal with many of the world’s most beautiful people.

As a costume designer of international repute, Kate manages only about three months of the year at her gothic home on Wellington’s Mt Victoria.

Kate found the tiny alligator head in a junk shop and loves it next to Ruby’s baby-toothed grin.

However, for the past two years, she’s been officially resident in New Zealand, which is the most time she’s spent here since she left for her post-grad study at London’s Motley Theatre Design Course, helped along by a TVNZ Young Achievers Award.

“I think I got it for my enthusiasm,” she says. “My enthusiasm has taken me a long way.” She sure is enthusiastic; a conversation with Kate has you in stitches and filled with excitement for all she’s seen and done.

A Jonathan Adler couch sits under artwork by New Zealand’s Gavin Hipkins. “I love the colour of the couch in the afternoon light.” The rather confronting cushions were a leaving present from one of her costuming crews.

Her life of adventure started almost as soon as she was born. Her mother was a nurse, her father an opera singer and when her dad, Timothy Hawley, got a job with the English Touring Opera, six-month-old Kate took her first trip.

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“We left Wellington for a flat in London but all I remember is spending a lot of time in this blue-and-white campervan when they went on tour. It didn’t have a bathroom and my parents didn’t have much money, so they would sneak my sister and me into these terrible boarding houses to use the bathroom. Oh, lots of merry times.”

World traveler Brian has had a brush with royalty. When Kate and Ruby were living on Chiswick Mall, London, Brian went missing. Kate heard he’d gone into a particularly imposing house. “When I knocked on the door a rather grand butler opened it. Standing behind him I recognized Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands cradling a very happy-looking Brian, with two little princesses by her side and a party going on. I’m half Dutch so I didn’t know whether to curtsey or snatch the dog and run. She said, ‘He’s been having a lovely party with us’.”

Back in New Zealand, Kate’s father joined New Zealand Opera and, from about 12 years old, she found herself drawn to the arts. “My parents had a huge part in defining the way I’ve gone. My mum is so creative and spent countless hours with us drawing princesses and making peg dolls in costumes.”

With her dad in the opera, when she was bored on a weekend, she’d sit in on rehearsals. “Eventually someone would give me something to do, so I helped with props or the morning tea. Then I started scenic painting.

Kate lives by the adage “you can never have enough hats, bags and shoes”.

“I loved being part of it, loved the atmosphere and the music, and I got to appreciate the subtleties of opera by being able to listen many, many times. One day someone said, ‘You know you can do this as a real job?’ That had never occurred to me.”

Soon after, theatre designer Tony Rabbit and director Colin McColl came to Kate’s school, Samuel Marsden Collegiate, to talk about their latest production, Romeo and Juliet. “It just blew me away because it was set in a swimming pool.

It was so modern and so raw. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can understand it’ because finally I could see the guts and animation of Shakespeare. After that I was always at Downstage Theatre going, ‘Can I have work experience?’”

In the living room, the dining table is an original Tulip table she got for a bargain in Los Angeles. “You’d pay an awful lot for a new one now.” Above it, is a Capiz shell lightfitting by Verner Panton from Belgium; beside the fireplace is a 17th-century French leather-embossed screen Kate found in Buffalo, New York.

At her parents’ urging to “have a back-up plan”, Kate trained in graphic design at Massey’s School of Design. “I don’t think I was there a lot – or at school a lot, even – but everyone was very tolerant of my involvement with theatre. So I was always at Downstage or the opera company helping during performances and exhausting myself.
I loved it.”

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Accepted into the prestigious Motley Theatre Design Course, which takes only nine students a year, Kate left for London aged 22. “We learned to draw, to see the character. The training I got there set me up for everything I do now.”

An 18th-century Italian wool cloth is draped over a chair, not secreted away. “I have utter respect for antique textiles, but unless they’re really delicate I like to have things out and use them,” Kate says. A Jake Walker artwork is reflected in a mirror created from reclaimed art-deco industrial trash.

On graduation Kate’s peripatetic life began. “I’ve become nomadic. In this industry there’s almost a self-imposed exile by nature of the work.” And don’t think she travels light.

Even before daughter Ruby (15) was born, and cairn terrier Brian came into the family, Kate needed her things about her, so daughter and dog “joined the traveling circus”.

“Ruby could always take two boxes of toys and I’d take fridge magnets and photographs to put up, as well as my own bedlinen.  I love bedlinen, and when you’re away for so long you like to sleep in your own.

“And I have to have my art books with me. I love real books; there’s a pleasure and stimulation that comes with turning a page or pulling a book from a shelf. I try to limit what I take and it depends on the film, but I average about nine packing boxes of books.

Another stunner of a fireplace is in Kate’s study where, on the mantelpiece, three tribal Chinese Mao 19th-century wedding crowns and a 17th-century baroque cross from Bern are flanked by cabinets to keep her precious books safe.

I think my record is traveling with 90 boxes, most of them books, but on some films I try to pare it down. However, if I’m working with Guillermo I’ll have books covering everything from Renaissance to … well… whatever.”

That’s Guillermo del Toro who won this year’s Best Picture Academy Award for The Shape of Water. Kate met him when she came back to New Zealand for a spell in 2009. The film industry being what it is in Wellington, Kate soon wangled an introduction to Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, and began working on The Lovely Bones.

One day Peter brought Guillermo – at that stage attached as director to The Hobbit – into Kate’s costume area. For Kate, a long-time admirer of his work, it was quite the fan-girl moment.

Kate picked up these paintings in Buffalo, New York and then snaffled them in the set sale (when props are sold off) after the film Crimson Peak wrapped. “Nothing like having a bunch of old ladies keeping you company.”

“I sat there going, ‘Oh my God’. I knew he was on the lot and now he was in my room, looking at my drawings. Then he looked at my books and we discovered we had many in common. So we first bonded over books.”

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While Kate didn’t design on The Shape of Water, she’s worked with Guillermo on Pacific Rim (2013) and Crimson Peak (2015). “He’s an amazingly beautiful, educated man.

 In the hall  1908 psychiatrist’s couch is under a Fiona Pardington photograph.

When I work with him, we approach the creative process from many different disciplines. We look at things through colour, objects that might be stimulating to the conversation or direction of a character, or the world they are in.”

A vital part of being a costume designer is translating a director’s vision onto screen. “I laugh about wanting a chip that can go in and download a director’s thoughts. Each director is different.

Above the kitchen’s original coalrange is part of Kate’s ceramic collection, all by New Zealand artists. “For such a small population New Zealand has a huge amount of sophisticated visual language.”

Guillermo goes into a project knowing exactly what he wants, whereas someone like Doug Liman, whom I worked with on Edge of Tomorrow with Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise – who’s lovely and funny, by the way – is more organic. It’s no less great, but Doug likes a feeling of improvisation and sometimes I’m tap-dancing to keep up.”

Between films for the past six months or so, Kate’s been doing a little less tap-dancing. Brian has retired from travel and Ruby is settled at boarding school, where Kate says she’s flourishing. “Ruby would come on set and all the actors were so generous with her.

Years before she moved in, Kate attended parties at the villa when it was an art gallery. When it became vacant she had to take it. “I’d just come off Crimson Peak so I was all about things gothic. It has so much character and I thought it suited a transient, eclectic collector like me.

She’s been so many places and met so many people. I don’t know if she’ll go into the arts, but I do know she can argue the pants off anyone so maybe there’s a career in that.”

Kate’s last project was Chaos Walking with Liman. “It was more like ‘Chaos Running’ the production time was so tight,” she says. That’s yet another science-fiction film credit for a woman who lost her heart to opera and Shakespeare.

15-year-old Ruby is now at boarding school “and thriving” after traveling with her mother for her first 13 years. “She loves to sing, play drums, play rugby and row. She might be the Saffy to my Eddy from Ab Fab. It’s hard not to have her traveling with me but it’s great to see her doing her thing.

“That is quite funny and for a while I went, ‘I don’t want to be doing action films with robots’. But now I appreciate it because you get to play in an insane way. Where else can you get costumes milled in 3D, where there are five cameras on set and things explode? Whatever I’m working on it’s about serving the script and the director’s vision and doing what’s right for that piece. But certainly, I’d love to do something quietly beautiful, like a Shakespeare or Tolstoy.”

A self-confessed bedlinen addict, Kate takes her own along on her travels and orders it online when stressed. “When the crew see me ordering linen, they know there’s trouble.” The artwork is by Dunedin artist Kim Pieters and the Georgian table was inherited – it exhibits a handful of the many photos Kate uses to recreate her home away from home when working.

For Kate, there’s still much fun to be had, costumes to be sketched (on paper, not computer), directors to be consulted and actors to be counselled. She’s come a long way from the Puerto Rican jungle.

It seems the Santería priest’s blessing made good.


No-one’s an island on a film set, least of all the costume designer. Depending when they come onto the production, costume designers may be involved in conceptualizing a film’s look and feel or may have to adapt to one already decided.

Then they work with the production designer, lighting, make up, stunts and practically every other part of the team to ensure costumes are fit for purpose.

“Finally, the actors come in and there’s a good chance they might go, ‘Oh, but I didn’t see my character like that’, or they’ve changed shape, or the measurements you were given are wrong,” says Kate. “Then the stunt guys tell you they need a dozen ‘repeats’, versions of the costume, for the horse-riders, the water guys, or for ‘breakdowns’, where the costumes are distressed. Oh, and ‘we need them in two days’.

“So sometimes it’s total heart attack-ville, and that’s when the chippies come out and we eat our feelings. But we get the job done. It can be
a really wonderful, rewarding thing.”

As a costume designer, Kate is always – always – looking for beautiful things, including vintage textiles. The piece she’s holding is a pleated silk skirt from China. Kate also loves her art books and travels with them for on-set inspiration. So far her record number of packing boxes at the end of a film is 90 – and a substantial portion of them were her precious books.


This film, a Victorian-inspired fantasy, featured stunning gowns that kept Kate and her team busy crafting and creating.

For Edith: “Edith is all about smiling, blooming fertility, with a gold colour palette.

For her wedding outfit I found these antique mourning flowers, but I wanted them bigger.

Mia Wasikowska as Edith.

So we got antique velvet, dyed it the colour we needed, then laser-cut out hundreds of petal shapes. Then we hand-painted them and sewed them on her dress.”

For Lucille: “In contrast, Lucille is a withered vine where nothing grows. Guillermo wanted to exaggerate Jessica Chastain’s height and slimness, so we had to find a language to make this amazingly beautiful woman look skinny.

Jessica Chastain as Lucille.

I looked at lots of photos of the English moors with sheep skeletons in the snow. We decided to paint into the fabric of her dress to suggest a hint of her bones coming through, did lacing on the back so it became like a spine, and fitted everything tight. Jessica then had the idea to wear nine-inch stripper heels.She could run in those heels. Amazing.”


Working on any cult film such as Suicide Squad is tricky, Kate says, because the characters have already been created many times
and fans have set ideas of how they should look.

“David Ayer, the director, didn’t want them to look like superheroes, so we based the costumes on street culture. The conversation is changing in Hollywood around women’s costumes, as women get more power, more control, so I worked closely with [actress and film producer] Margot Robbie  to create Harley’s outfit.

“I got all the Suicide Squad comics and wrote down everything Harley said about herself and what was said about her. We decided Harley had total choice about how she looked and she didn’t care what others thought. Then Margot and I got out the dress-up boxes and tried everything on until we found a costume we felt Harley would have chosen for herself, rather than one that was imposed on her.”

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.

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