Just a browse of Maria Tapper’s CV will have you in awe. She is a costume designer that has worked with Ikea, the Wexford Opera Festival, Macnas and John Rocha to name but a few. It’s a notoriously difficult industry to make a living from but that is exactly what she has achieved.
Her Grandmother’s Sewing Machine
She has no formal background in costume design but it’s obviously in her blood. “We always had a sewing machine at home. My mother would sew curtains and fix trousers. All the women on my mother’s side have always worked with clothing. My great-grandmother made shirts, and my grandmother was really amazing embroiderer, she made her own clothes. It’s always been something that was present in my family.”
“I don’t think I realised I could do it until my grandmother died, and I got her sewing machine. In a way I regret not knowing or not even being interested in sewing before she passed away, because then I got really interested in it, it’s all I do now. I would have loved to have chats to her about it,” she smiles. You can’t help but romanticise that her grandmother was guiding her fingers through the historical patterns that her hands made all the years she worked the threads through the machine.
From Sweden to Dublin
Maria divides her time between Dublin and Malmo. She is Swedish but found herself drawn to Ireland several years ago, “I didn’t really want to go to London because everyone went to London! I’d met a few Irish people traveling in Europe and had some friends that had been to Dublin, everyone raved about it and also I loved the commitments!” She planned on staying for six months but ended up staying 17 years.
Her foray into design was as a result of necessity, “I was really broke. I decided that I’m just going to make some bags and try to sell them. And I did. I sold a few in Sé Sí and the owner asked whether I would like to work for her, of course I said yes!”
Selling to Topshop
“Whilst working there I realised that I could do this, and I was quite good at it.” It acted as the perfect place to develop her apprenticeship. “I started learning by making mistakes. There were rails of cheap secondhand clothes that I could work off. You could take anything from there, and restyle it or use fabric to make something else, and then that was sold in the shop. I had a certain amount to make every day. It was great because I could see how everything was made. I could see how clothes were built and how they form around your body.”
Once she got into a rhythm she began to get very interested in up-cycling items. Topshop became one of her clients. A high street brand like that would make a lot of people think that you’ve hit the bit time, not so for Maria. “It was really hard to make money with Topshop because I was producing items in Dublin and trying to compete with items that were produced in cheaper countries. It was really difficult. I was doing that for about a year and then I got pregnant. I thought I can’t continue working like this when I have a child.”
Discovering Costume Design
“So when I was on maternity leave I met a friend that was doing costume design, and I thought, that sounds really interesting. The thing that really appealed to me about it is that I’ve never really been into following trends, or I never really could get my head around them. I just did what I liked to do.”
The prospect of a steady income also was an appealing lure of costume designing. “You’re employed by a theatre or a production company. You get a wage even though you’re employed per project.” To break into it, “I started doing some free work because that’s what you have to do,” she pauses and emphasises, “and networking, it’s all about the networking.”
The Hectic Life
For Maria the pace of film sets are addictive, everything needs to be done yesterday but she thrives on that energy and creativity. “You get a script and you have a map to follow. Of course the director may want it a certain way, but as a costume designer you can suggest alternatives. For me it’s very creative because it’s very hard to make mad things in fashion, unless you can charge a lot of money… and then will anyone buy it?”
She adores sewing but sometimes she welcomes a change and film offers her that, “I just finished a short movie in Sweden about a female football team. For that my role involved buying things, organising who’s wearing what at what stage in the movie. If I’ve been sewing a lot then I welcome the change into project management.”
She has returned to Sweden full-time and has been there three years. She pops over to Dublin frequently to teach eager students, it’s something that she loves doing.
Maria is realistic about what it takes to stay doing this job that she loves. “It’s extreme hard work. I was working almost all of last year, from January until October. Then I didn’t have anything for three months, you really start losing hope. I thought no one’s ever going to ring me again. But then people start ringing, and then, there’s three people in the same week that ring. And you have to turn some projects down.” She acknowledges that this is the life of a freelancer and the stress of finding work is surpassed by the freedom it affords her. She flashes another big smile and repeats what must be her mantra, “a big part of getting work is through networking, you have to try to meet people.”
“You’re established as long as you have work. I’m always sending e-mails to people, always sending all the new work I’m doing, making sure people know that I’m looking for work. You always, always, always look for work,” she laughs.
Her ready grin and jovial nature is quickly quietened by the draw of her work. She is focused and tenacious which are the qualities you need to make a living in her world. She describes what she does as a job but it’s deeper then that. It’s part of her DNA and the attention required to make costumes allows her to drift into a meditative type state. It’s her life’s art.