SOPHEAK SENG

THE VULTURES

Looking back on my time working with The Vultures, it will continue to stick with me as one of my career highlights. So many aspects of the project sit with me to this day, from the creative freedom of costuming and styling each character, the publicity shots of the first production, winning my first ever Wellington Theatre Award for costuming, through to the Auckland season of the  production. 

Coming from a fashion background, as a stylist for editorial and commercial work, costume design was not something that I had done. The trust and belief Tawata had in me, gave me a quiet confidence to know that I couldn’t fail.

When designing the look and feel of the costumes for the characters of The Vultures, I was fortunate in that I was given free reign within which  to work. I love the creative process of working with Hone and Mīria – as artists in their own right – their respect for their fellow creatives is truly on another planet. They always give you their references and touch points and allow you to work from there, pushing you and your creativity into new and other dimensions. 

From the initial meeting with the creative team, to the Opening Night performance, the costumes took many iterations and developments to get to the final product.

When we first started talking costumes for this production, Mīria mentioned the idea of birds of prey and the famous painting, Jingle Jangle Morning by Bill Hammond, as an inspiration. She also mentioned The Royal Tenenbaums. Mīria loved the idea of a faded glory about the characters and how they were stuck in a world that had passed them by. I was also told to take these characters and put them into a world that was hyper realistic but also other worldly, as if in a dream state, which meant for me a world of creative license when it came to dressing them. 

For each project, I always go into a deep research process where I look at art, film, fashion and all of  my go-to sources for inspiration. I draw from past works as well as what is currently on the runways to help me in my quest. 

From those references, I started to look at the costuming in The Royal Tenenbaums and the colour palette that Wes Anderson used. I love how in each Wes Anderson film, the focus of characters is so important and the clothes that they wear become a part of the characters themselves, the costumes embody a mood, a feeling and take on their own life. I loved the muted palette of the Tenenbaums, particularly Margot Tenenbaum. Her deep mink coat by Fendi and the tennis stripes from Lacoste all played into this rich, affluent lifestyle but somehow they faded and spoke of a bygone area in which her character has never fully moved on. The colours of beige, caramel, mocha and sepia clashing against pops of rust, blue and strong tennis white. 

My next source of research and inspiration came from the documentary film Grey Gardens. The film is about a famous mother and daughter who were the crème of society but faded into oblivion, choosing to live in squalor in their home in their old age. The two women lived amongst piles of newspapers, with stray cats and racoons on their properties. They maintained their sense of glory with their fur coats, gaudy brooches and Hermes scarf headwraps. Grey Gardens was a great source of inspiration and one that I come back to time and again for the vivid images that the filmmakers captured – such as the image of Little Edie on the fourth of July in a swimsuit with scarf wrapped around her head, a massive brooch pinned ever so and waving the American flag while singing and dancing. Or the image of matriarch Big Edie standing outside the property in her moth eaten mink with scarf wrapped around, looking stoic and foreboding. These images stayed with me as I was shopping for the looks of the two characters Atawhai and Hinemoa, the juxtaposition and familiarity of family was what I wanted to portray in these two leads. 

From the initial meeting where Bill Hammond’s Jingle Jangle Morning was mentioned, I also started to look at how to incorporate feathers into the looks of some of the characters. This was not something I had seen done well in the past. We wanted it to be subtle, evoking a feeling, rather than a caricature of a vulture or bird. I looked to the runways of Prada, Fendi and Alexander McQueen, who had recently incorporated feathers into their runway collections in interesting and unique ways. We started to play with the idea of feathers in traditional Māori kakahu and how we could incorporate this into the costumes. I loved the final evolutions of this where we produced feather capelets that Atawhai and Petera wore for their characters. I loved the gold of the feathers for Atawhai and the petrel blue, almost green sheen, for Petera. For the Auckland season, we added more feathers – this time pheasant – to the capelets, changing it up to be more spiky and vulture-like, giving them a presence of poisonous spikes.

Supplied by Sopheak Seng

Working on the original poster for the production was another highlight of being part of this project. Never have I had so much trust in my work, in bringing together a team outside of traditional theatre practitioners to bring a more fashion take on a project. We were lucky to have Louise (Hatton) Shields behind the camera to bring forth the images. Louise has long been a close friend and trusted collaborator when it comes to fashion images. She is my go-to photographer who understands my very unique sense of perfectionism and is the best person when it comes to capturing women; lighting; textures; and has an eye for detail and subtle nuances. We wanted it to be luxe, to speak to the key elements of the play without giving anything away in terms of costuming or set design etc. The idea to treat this as if it was a fashion spread helped also in capturing beautiful images. For Mīria and myself, it was also an opportunity to depict strong female leads in a way that was different, especially for female leads of colour, as other depictions have always been less than ideal. I think we got the best image for the poster, and it still stands as one of my favourite images I have collaborated on. From the textures of the peacock feathers, to the luxury of the fur and even the minute details of the teacups and brooches – all of this added to the world in which theatre goers could immerse themselves. 

Never in my wildest dream did I think I would ever win an award for costume design/styling – rarely are there awards for styling. Styling is one of those things where, although you work in a collaborative way with your client, rarely do you get acknowledgement for your work in this way. 

Image Credits Louise Hatton & Dawn Cheong & Aneta Pond


World Premiere Season 8 June 2016, BATS Theatre, Wellington.

Auckland Premiere Season 18 October 2017, Q Theatre, Auckland.

Sopheak Seng (Cambodian / Chinese) is a talented fashion editor, writer and stylist, who began his formal fashion training at Massey University before venturing in to the workroom of designer Robyn Mathieson. In 2010 he was appointed fashion editor of Lucire, overseeing the fashion for all editions, in print and online, the first male to hold the role. He also was given the Lucire beauty portfolio in 2011 for New Zealand.

As a stylist Sopheak Seng has worked with a number of local and international talent from singer Bella Kalolo to actress Evangeline Lilly, dressing them for music videos, editorials and red carpet events. Sopheak has also consulted on a number of key projects as the lead fashion director for commercials, advertising campaigns and for local designers.

www.sopheakseng.com | @sopheakseng_