Monique Brown

Staff. Technical Officer, Fashion Design

Monique began her career as a costume designer for feature films, working on the likes of Luc Besson's 'The Fifth Element' and George Lucas' 'Star Wars: The Phantom Menace'. She now works in our fashion studios, helping students and staff develop their creative process.

What one thing inspired you to do what you do now?

I worked on a film called The Fifth Element, and Jean-Paul Gaultier was brought on to design a lot of the costumes. Watching him work, suddenly it was one of those lightbulb moments. I thought ‘Oh yes! That’s a really interesting and creative side to an industry that I hadn’t really thought of.’ I’d been immersed in the world of films, and effects, and costume effects. He was fabulous, and to watch him work was amazing, so I think he ignited my interest in fashion. I didn’t act on that at the time - this was quite a few years ago - but looking back on it, that probably was the moment I did think ‘Oh, it could be quite interesting in fashion, as well’.

My team and I made all the Mondeshawans (an alien race), and Luc was great because he would always come down to my workshop, and we’d talk about how he wanted things. He was very hands-on, but because the performers in our suits had to be very specific, he just handed all that over to me. He just said ‘Monique, you know what you need, you know what I want,’ so I actually did all the casting - I cast the actors, I put them through their paces, I ran our rehearsals, which is quite unusual. You wouldn’t normally get to do that in my position. So he was very generous in that way. He was quite happy to hand over that kind of control to me, and to Nick (Dudman).

Our department got a BAFTA for The Fifth Element, so we were pretty chuffed.

What single piece of advice would you give your younger self?

I think it’s to not worry about taking opportunities. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had an awful lot of opportunities that have landed in my lap, and I’ve gone ‘Oh, this is really scary, and I don’t know anything about that,’ but because I’ve taken that opportunity it’s opened huge doors. So, I think that’s what I would say to my younger self: ‘Don’t be afraid of those opportunities. You go straight on and take them.’

'The Fifth Element' - Creating the Mondeshawans

What’s the most valuable thing you took away from education?

Probably not to be afraid to experiment. I see it a lot in our students now as well – they often seem very worried, maybe because there’s so much more invested in their education. They have to pay a lot of money for it, so they kind of panic about it a bit with the pressure to succeed.  Maybe they feel, ‘oh, I’ve got to get it right’. So, I sometimes say to them ‘Look. This is the only time when you can do what you like. When you’re out in the industry most of the time – and certainly when you start off – people are going to tell you what to do. This is your moment to experiment, and really push, and take as much from your education as you can.’

BA (Hons) Fashion Design is a very design-led course. Working closely with the academic team we demonstrate a lot of different techniques to the students and try to get them to think outside the box a little bit. We’re quite a practical-based course, the students get to use industry standard machines to make their garments. They have a lot of industry input as well, with industry briefs and feedback. I think that’s really valuable for them.

What do you think the future of fashion and costume design will be like?

I’m hoping it’s going to be a lot less wasteful and exploitative. This generation now, they are great, they’re so much more clued up on sustainability, wanting garments to be a lot more ethically sourced and created. I think that’s going to be really interesting going forward. Another big change is the difference the digital technologies can bring to the industry. You can create 3D scans of the body, produce parts using a 3d scanner, and laser cut fabrics. These new ways of working are evolving all the time taking the industry to new and exciting places.

But there’s still a place for traditionally made costumes in the film industry. When CGI first came out, we were all a bit worried about it, thinking our jobs were not going to be as they were before, and there was a period of time where things did evolve, and did change, but CGI is hugely expensive. Even now, if you ask someone to make a costume for £1000, but they wanted it CGI, it’s going to cost them a lot more than £1000, and the time frame is very different. So, I don’t think it’s ever going to take over completely. Even on other films I worked on like Star Wars, Fifth Element, and The Mummy films, we still had to make the suits for the actors to wear ans perform in.

Monique working in the fashion studio

What’s the most interesting thing you get to do in your role?

The collaboration with the students and staff, working with them and their ideas, and trying to help them develop their creative process, in whatever way I can. If I sat at a desk and just did admin, I think I would be so bored, so I need that interaction. Seeing people’s creativity, and their journey, I think it’s fab. I really like that.

We are entering a new and exciting period at ARU with a new management team, the School of Creative Industries, and Cambridge School of Art, collaboration between the various students and departments will hopefully be developing further. Our students have always worked with photography students, some fine art students, and some film students. There’s always been a little bit of collaboration, but I think that’s going to improve substantially, and that will be really interesting.

How does any work you’ve done outside the university tie in with your work at ARU?

Hopefully I can impart my experience of manufacturing and construction to help the students understand what the process of design and realising those designs three dimensionally will be. Also, what it’s like, as a professional, to work in an industry – whether it be the film industry or the fashion industry. Maybe try and bring a little bit of industry standard for them. I’ve got a lot of experience of working on-set or backstage on productions, so I help organise all the fashion shows and exhibitions.

Over the years, there have been a few students who have asked about going into costume design, and I’ve managed to put some in contact with industry people. It’s interesting how the student body evolves. Maybe in the early few years when costume was a pathway the students could choose, they were open to a broader outlet for their careers within the creative industries. Now the students are very focused on fashion - looking at ethical issues and sustainability, I think their interests are slightly different at the moment but maybe it will branch out a bit more again.