Louise Coughlan has had three businesses, two children and become Head Cutter at Bristol Costume Services in the time she's lived in Bristol. She's juggled it all and reached the top of her game making costumes for TV shows like Sherlock, amongst various other TV projects and theatre productions. Find out why she's now ready to give her itchy feet a break and focus her attention on becoming the best at her specialism.
What was the first time you realised you were a creative person?
I used to like making dolls at home with a sewing machine when I was a kid and colouring in at my Nan's house. I like doing artistic things but I didn't think that you could have a career in it. I didn't think it was a real thing until I went to art college and was like "oh, this is it, these are my people". At secondary school I didn't fit in, I didn't know who I was, I didn't associate myself with anybody, and then I went to art college to do a BTEC in fashion. I started doing A-levels and just hated it and when I went to art college I just couldn't believe that you could just do art all day, or make clothes all day or design.. y'know, it was just a moment of clarity.
So how did you get to where you are now?
I did the BTEC in fashion and then I did a fashion degree, and then I had my own business called Peachie Keen which was knickers and bras, which was sold in Topshop, and then there was the financial crash. I'd always wanted to do costume, my degree show was quite costume-y. It was based on 1930's Jazz era stuff and it was quite characterful, but I didn't realise at that point that costume would probably be a better option for me. I think I'd always just thought in very narrow terms, that if you did clothes you did fashion. After we finished Peachie Keen I applied for the costume course at the theatre school and didn't get on it initially. I went to the tutor and I think she had reservations initially because I had Sonny [Louise's son] and he was five at the time and it was such a full on course, but then someone dropped out and she offered me the place.
That lead on to where I work now because obviously we had to use Bristol Costume Services for shows that we'd do at the school and then I got to do work experience there. I only did three days over Easter, it was Bank Holidays. I think I got on with people quite well because I was a mature student, so I was just quite normal rather than this kind of nervous, young student. I'd worked in catering prior to that and I think it actually sets you up to be able to talk to anyone. And also I found it quite easy managing shows and stuff because I didn't get as flustered as other people did because in catering you just get used to it, it's quite good training for lots of things. And then Jenny [Louise's manager] just offered me a job. I also got offered a job in London with The Globe, so there was talk of us moving to London and just biting the bullet because obviously there are loads more costume companies in London.
Why didn't you choose London in the end, what kept you in Bristol?
The Globe job was seasonal so we would have been risking that I wouldn't be employed over the winter, and then we would essentially have had to have found other work. I think it was just too much of a risk at the time and Sonny had just started school. I would have loved to have worked in London for a bit.
Is dressmaking really nuanced or is all clothes-making the same level of intricacy?
It's just about learning the techniques, there are certain techniques in tailoring that you wouldn't get in dressmaking, but on the flip-side tailors wouldn't know how to do dressmaking. Or if you were making a corset, for example, that's a whole other thing.. or if you're making trousers as opposed to a shirt, everything's different, so you have to learn to do every single thing. Then it can just be blown out the water because it can just be so random what you get asked to do, sometimes it's nothing you've ever done before so you have to constantly figure out how you're going to do it.
It's a real problem-solving job. You have to be confident and just go for it otherwise you just would never do anything. The more stuff you do, the more confident you become in your own skills and the fact that if something does go wrong you can pull it back. You still make mistakes, there are people that have been doing it for years who still make mistakes but there's always ways of sorting them out. It's one of those jobs, unless you've been doing it for years and years... the more years you've been doing it, the more you're going to know. It's not something that as a young person you can be like, 'I know everything because I'm clever or really talented'.
Even Olive [an employee at BCS] who's in her seventies is still learning stuff every day. We're always saying 'Gawd, every day I'm learning, am I ever going to know everything'.
So tell us what your actual job title is, are you a Costumier?
So I'm the workroom manager and head cutter. I'd say a costumier is a broad thing, just because you get people who source costumes, say if you were working doing a production, whether it's theatre or TV, you'd get the characters and the scenes and the script and then you'd have to break down what the costumes were and source those costumes. You'd have to have some of them made or you'd hire some or buy some - so that could be described as a costumier. You get a costume designer who designs it and then the supervisor who sorts everything and gets stuff made and prices it up, and then you've got costume makers and cutters. So in a work room, you'll have the cutters and then the makers. The cutters will liaise with the designers and cut all the garments out and the makers will put everything together.
I know you've had businesses of your own before now, there was Peachie Keen and Pala Mino (a kids-wear brand Louise started). How did you balance all that with a full-time job and kids?
An understanding husband and an untidy house [laughs]. I just had itchy feet. I've always felt like I've wanted to do something, I can't just not do stuff. I just get inspired, I like being inspired and I like moving things forward. I don't like to stay in one place and just stagnate.
So talk about a time when you've felt like you were losing your way or things didn't feel like they were going the way you wanted them to.
Up until recently probably. I've always been thinking about doing loads of different things all the time. I've always got ideas and there's always other stuff that I want to do, but I'm trying to not do that anymore. I'm trying to focus on one thing because I think what happens is you have too many things going on and you don't fully immerse yourself in anything. I want to specialise, ideally in a type of costume, whether it's breaking down [the name given to the process of making clothes look old, dirty, sweaty, bloody etc.] or tailoring or dressmaking, but it's good to have a broad knowledge of everything.
I feel like I'm going in the right direction now, but I think for a long time I just wanted to do everything. I probably still do a little bit but to be really good at something you have to just concentrate on that one thing I think. And also, if you're parenting as well you've got to give time to that. I really realise that. I don't bring any work home now, I haven't got a work room at home. I got rid of the little work room I had at home and it feels really nice. When I'm home, I'm home, I'm not thinking 'I could do that bit of work', I do my work at work and then I go home and that's it.
So on the flip-side, whats been an air-punch moment where you've felt like things are going great or you're really proud of yourself?
Every time a show goes on. Every time something gets finished. I think with things like that you're kind of excited at the time but when you look back on stuff you did you're like 'I can't believe I did that'. At the time it's so intense, you're never happy because you think 'that could look better or whatever'. But when you see stuff on stage or on TV it's really nice. Especially when it's on an actor and it's well lit and it's in the right period room, you're like, 'I made that shirt' [laughs]. We had some stuff on Sherlock, so it's good to do stuff like that. It'd be good to do more principal actors and do a main character.
What's been the biggest risk you've taken in your career?
Going to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre school because I had to still work part-time and Sonny was only young, five or six, and we didn't have much money and we needed to pay for it. I just thought 'I've got to do it now', I was 29 at the time and I just thought 'if I don't do it now I'm never going to do it'. So it was kind of a now or never situation, and I'm so glad I made that decision, because I could have easily just fallen into just a job - I dunno what I would have done really.
Have you had any mentors along the way?
I had an amazing pattern cutting teacher on my BTEC, she really inspired me to do the technical side of making and cutting, all the mathematical side of it. She was really fascinating. Olive, who I work with now is amazing because she's still excited, she still loves it. I don't think I'll stop working.
As you've gotten older do you think your attitude or thoughts around creativity have changed?
Yeah definitely, I'm a lot less desperate to do everything. I've calmed down a bit. It was a bit much before. I know where to channel it now, whereas before I was kind of land grabbing. I knew that I liked making stuff, I liked designing costumes but I also like the pattern cutting, the structure, the mathematical nature of it and I like seeing something at the end that I made with my own hands. I think as a designer you don't get that element.
When do you feel most creatively satisfied?
When I can see something through to the end, when I can start it and finish it. Which is what's difficult about being a cutter, you get to cut the garment out, you can figure out how it's going to go together but you don't get to do that making bit of it, you don't get to put it together and finish it.
Is there anything you wish you'd been told when you started out?
Don't rush it, take your time. There's plenty of time to figure out what you're gunna do, but take opportunities when you can. Don't be frightened to change it if it's not working. This is it, it's not like there's a dress rehearsal for your career. You don't have to have all the answers straight away, and if you're graduating that doesn't mean you have to do what you graduated in, it could go on to something else. And never be afraid to ask questions, that's a real error that interns make is to go in somewhere thinking 'they're going to be impressed because I'm not having to ask any questions'. If work experience people don't ask questions I think they're not that interested, or they think they know everything already.
How important is social media in your self-promotion?
I don't think it's important for me personally. If you've got your own label it's important to engage with people. It doesn't need to be contrived, you just need to be seen to be moving forward.
We're at your wake and you're floating above us as a ghost, what's the one thing you'd like to hear someone say about you?
That I was a nice person. I used to want to have imparted some legacy on the world but not anymore. I'd like to pass on knowledge to people if they want it but I get frustrated if people aren't passionate about what they're doing. I think just a good person that's kind.