With Chappel’s latest project, designing costumes for the second series of the reality show The Masked Singer, Chappel no longer needs to rely on prison labour, nor is he constrained by a miniscule budget, as he has been in the past. (The thong dress was made for $17 from thongs he bought on sale at Target, where his mother then worked.)
Nevertheless, his latest gig arguably has more design – and celebrity-ego-related – challenges than any other TV show.
The conceit of The Masked Singer is that celebrities compete to be the best singer while wearing outlandish costumes, so the judging panel and audience who vote on their performances will base their verdicts on the contestant’s voice rather than on their (human) good looks.
Mostly, this is a wash. Legendary singers frequently lose to their arguably less talented counterparts. Earlier this year, on the American version of the show (itself based on the original South Korean show), Chaka Khan, considered by many to be one of the greatest funk singers of all time, lost to a football player. Last season in Australia, multiple Aria-award winning singer Deni Hines lost to Nickelodeon star Cody Simpson.
But, of course, that’s not the point. Arguably, the costumes are. (That, and how much fun viewers have, on social media, trashing the judges’ wrong guesses.)
Chappel is renowned for the sort of creations Dr Seuss might have fashioned, if he attended the Parsons School of Design while dropping acid. His credits include the Sandra Bullock-starring film Miss Congeniality, and the theatrical productions of Gypsy and Little Shop Of Horrors, but here the challenge is to make costumes that are robust and comfortable.
“The costumes were a torture,” says Chappel of the first season’s creations. They included a pirate-outfitted prawn and a hot pants-wearing spider – and were underpinned by heavy “welded steel” frames.
“We [also] didn’t take into account how hot it would be on set, and that really affected everything; the foam would sag, the glue would melt, it was like the scarecrow from The Wizard Of Oz after a big dance party,” he says.
This season Chappel has punched discreet holes in the heads of the costumes (for better airflow) and used lighter carbon fibre frames.
But what of the potential for the celebrities to be offended by their costumes?
What, for instance, was the reaction from the person who will, this season, be dressed as a goldfish (a notoriously dim animal) or a cactus (the prickliest of flora)?
Celebrities are often given tongue in cheek songs, says Chappel, which undercuts any such perceptions.
“For the cactus, you could do a song like, ‘When I think about you I touch myself,” he says with a sly grin, referring to the Divinyls’ classic.
But it’s Chappel’s way with fabric – when combined with his eclectic inspirations – that does the rest.
“We had our fitting yesterday,” says Chappel, about his goldfish costume, which was inspired by the surprisingly sensuous, eyelash-batting sea creature from the 1940 film Fantasia and made using 80 metres of sunray-pleated silk organza. “And when she [the contestant] put it on and inhabited my fantastic goldfish, she instantly knew exactly what I was talking about, and started to move her arms, and wrap herself in, just like in Fantasia,” he says, slowly encircling his chest with one arm, and then the other.
Chappel doesn’t know which celebrity will inhabit which costume when he initially designs them, because of the need to keep the contestants a secret. And when he does work with them for fittings, the contestants – and whichever children and agents accompany them – wear long black capes, fitted with mirrored eye panels, to evade being recognised by paparazzi or the public.
Understanding how fabric moves on a body is something Chappel says he learned as an “earring”, or backup dancer, for drag queens at Sydney’s Albury Hotel in the 1980s.
“It was kind of like the mecca for the drag scene,” says the designer, originally from Lismore, NSW. “For Sydney and Australia in general, it was an amazing time for creativity. It’s like Darwin’s evolution, you know, we were far enough away that we developed our own characters, our own styles.”
Australia has a long history of Oscar-winning costume designers – among them, Orry George Kelly (three, including Some Like It Hot) and Catherine Martin (four, including Moulin Rouge) – but even so, Chappel stands out, according to Dr Julie Lynch, director of NIDA’s Centre for Design Practices.
“Tim’s wit and boldness, and kind of joyful use of colour and materials is a signature style,” Dr Lynch says of Chappel, who sometimes teaches at NIDA. “He’s also willing to do things that are risky, and inventive. You can pick a Tim Chappel costume.”
Certainly, this year’s judging panel – comedians Dave Hughes and Urzila Carlson, radio personality Jackie O and singer/actor Dannii Minogue – will be copping an eyeful of wildly varying inspirations, and techniques.
For his frill-necked lizard costume – imagine a prehistoric creature which has taken up motorbike riding – Chappel was inspired by French designer Hedi Slimane, the former creative director of Yves Saint Laurent renowned for his slim suiting and paired-back aesthetic.
Chappel’s fluorescent pink kitten, which looks like a cross between a Korean cosplay character and a drug dealer’s shag carpet come to life, is another matter.
“You know those bathroom rugs made of ripped up old T-shirts, from the 80s?” says Chappel, while holding up his hand and pretending to feed a goat, munching on straw in a black and white video that he has chosen for the background of his Zoom call. “That’s what she’s made from.”
Actually, his team hand-knotted 500 metres of organza, which was cut on the bias – a technique more commonly used to make slinky dresses that hug a woman’s curves, like the white slip of a Narciso Rodriguez dress worn by the late Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy to her wedding – and then woven it into the costume using their fingers, in order to give the costume its “plumpness”.
Chappel was still working on the kitten when lockdown hit, necessitating that he and members of his team take the costume home to work on, in turns.
But rather than sounding exhausted – he’s still creating the costumes, as we speak – he trips into laughter.
“Candy kitten was birthed from all of us,” he says, with a slight drawl, before letting out a giggle. “She’s the one child that came from all of our loins.”
In order to exactly replicate the rust, bullet holes, studs and screws on Ned Kelly’s famous armor, Chappel scanned an archival photo and replicated the markings in “Golden Shadow” Swarovski crystals.
“Well, he did have a fondness for dressing up in ladies’ attire,” says the designer of Kelly, when asked if creating a Liberace-esque version of Australia’s most notorious bushranger was a delicious prospect. “His mother’s. That’s how they evaded the police.” (Some historical reports back this up.)
Chappel’s other inspiration for the costume was the catwalk.
“It looks like Balenciaga 2020, fall, I’m serious,” says Chappel, referring to creative director Demna Gvasalia’s collection, which was heavy on voluminous black cloaks.
The echidna may be a technical feat, with 320 quills, each made from a piece of piano wire covered in a lycra “sock”, and then screwed into a fiberglass shell.
“It’s fantastic, when you jump up and down in it, the whole thing has incredible movement,” says Chappel.
But it’s also a conduit for the designer’s renowned wit. The costume features different band T-shirts – for every time the Echidna performs – with emblems and zoological jokes.
“One is a band, and it’s called Monotreme,” says Chappel, referring to the class of animals that the echidna belongs to. “The other is a cracked egg; echidnas hatch out of an egg. One is like a zoological portrait of an ant, which is what they eat. I’m obsessed with details.”
The Masked Singer (new season) is on Ten, Monday, August 10 at 7.30pm.
Samantha Selinger-Morris is a lifestyle writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.