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America’s got talent — and a few Aussie cupcakes, too.
Last Wednesday, amidst the judging results for the NBC reality competition show, a few cast members from the Broadway musical “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” took to the stage for a splashy medley of tunes — “Finally,” “Shake Your Groove Thing” and “MacArthur Park.” There, camping it up but dressed down in stripes and a black blazer, was lead actor Will Swenson, as well as a Supremes-like trio with fiery mile-high bouffants, eight back-up dancers in slick raincoats and a quartet of sprinkle cupcakes twirling about. The latter costumes, it turns out, were delivered straight from Down Under in boxes packaged as oversize ovens. “I think those are the funniest costumes in the show,” remarks “Priscilla” costume designer Lizzy Gardiner, in her cheddar-sharp Australian accent. “They completely freak people out.”
When it comes to freak-worthy getups, Gardiner has plenty to choose from. The show — which tells the story of three drag queens on a cross-country road trip through the Outback — features dresses with hand puppets tucked in the folds; a parade of giant tinsel-topped paintbrushes; screwball geisha girls and a Donna Reed fit-and-flare frock or two. The costumery is so gaudy it’s good, and that fabulous kitsch factor hasn’t gone unnoticed. Gardiner and partner Tim Chappel won the Tony last month for Best Costume Design of a Musical, going up against “Anything Goes,” “The Book of Mormon” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Not like there was much competition with, say, Marie Antoinette gowns that turn into the iconic Sydney Opera House silhouette.
When WWD recently caught up with Gardiner inside the cavernous bowels of the Palace Theatre shortly before yet another evening performance (the show debuted on Broadway five months ago), the costume designer was still dishing on her Tony experience. The first thought that came to mind when her name was called: “I hope I don’t fall flat on my face. My Chanel booties are killing my feet.”
It’s an anecdote that speaks volumes about the costumer, who, before this did mostly film work, including the wardrobes for “Mission: Impossible II,” “Bound” and the upcoming “A Few Best Men.” Gardiner is brassy, no-nonsense direct and a serious fashion hound. “That’s so superficial, isn’t it? I’m a fashion lover,” she adds, deliberately drawing out that last word for emphasis. “Absolutely love it.” Gardiner, who’s also a stylist and recently moved to Los Angeles from her native Australia, offers plenty of other sartorial examples.
Exhibit A: She’s quick to rattle off her favorite designers — Alexander McQueen (“of course”), Valentino, Lanvin, Balenciaga. “And I know I’m not meant to say his name, but John Galliano has been a great source of inspiration,” Gardiner adds. “For the moment, I love Givenchy, although I have to be careful because sometimes it’s a little too edgy for me.” Right now, she’s wearing a black Carven dress and Paul Smith jacket, her blondish hair tied back in a tight bundle — a stark contrast to the occasional actor passing by in Gardiner’s handiwork, a flurry of pink plastic and feathers.
Exhibit B: It runs in the family. Her mother, who owned a hotel in their hometown of Dubbo, was a clotheshorse. “She was obsessed,” Gardiner recalls. “She had a red Valentino smoking suit, to give you an idea. I just remember rolling around in her closet going, ‘Oh, my God.’”
Exhibit C: Following in the footsteps of Cher and Celine Dion, Gardiner had an infamous fashion moment of her own, mocked by none other than David Letterman. In 1995, when she and Chappel won the Oscar for Best Costume Design for the film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” Gardiner walked to the podium in a spaghetti-strap gown made entirely from American Express Gold cards (254 of them). Letterman joked that it expired during the commercial break. As for her rather demure turn at the Tonys this go-round — she wore a simple black kimono dress by Australian label Bassike — Gardiner explains, “After you pull a stunt like that, you never try and outdo yourself.”