By Judith Woods
As Strictly Come Dancing shimmies into its 15th season, Judith Woods meets the woman behind the sequins, tassels and plunging necklines, costume designer VICKY GILL.
Sequins and glitz! Ruffles and splits! Cleavage, he-vage and rhinestones galore! The most glamorous show on television is back on our screens and promises to be bigger and more dazzling than ever. Yes, Strictly Come Dancing, now in its 15th series, has returned to light up the autumn schedules. Every year the BBC’s costume department presents a spectacle that leaves viewers in awe. Yet somehow with each new series the previous year’s ritzy frocks are topped. They have to be – the nation expects. No pressure, then?
‘Oh, there’s lots of pressure!’ cries Vicky Gill, Strictly’s long-standing costume designer. ‘But it comes from me. I’m the one who wants every series to have more showstoppers than the one before. If audiences aren’t gasping in amazement then I haven’t done my job right.’ There’s no danger of that. Vicky – a modest, softly spoken 44-year-old with the sing-song accent of her home turf, the former colliery town of Stanley in County Durham – was born for this role.
Her mother Emily is a retired seamstress, so Vicky, a mother of three, has sewing in her blood. Admittedly, her father Alan was a butcher, but perhaps he gave her the nous to never dress up mutton as lamb. Either way, Vicky learned her craft first-hand when she studied fashion at Newcastle College of Art. Her lucky break came when ‘a friend of my husband introduced me to Girls Aloud’s stylist and I went on to make costumes for several of their tours, the Brit Awards and lots for Cheryl when she went solo,’ Vicky says.
Following Girls Aloud, Kylie’s 2011 Aphrodite: Les Folies Tour beckoned. Given that the Australian superstar’s other go-to designers that year were Dolce & Gabbana, it gives some indication of Vicky’s stellar reputation in the business.
Indeed, when we meet at Vicky’s workshop in Surrey, one of Kylie’s barely there costumes – a tiny, shimmering, smoky grey corset – is gracing a mannequin. ‘Kylie tends to wear this one for private gigs when she’s performing for mega-wealthy clients,’ says Vicky. ‘But, you know, I like to think that when she’s finished she pops down to the shops wearing it before she has to get changed.’
Vicky gives me a gorgeous grin; she smiles a lot for someone under the cosh to help the show beat last year’s viewing figures, which saw a record peak of 13 million tune in to watch TV presenter Ore Oduba win the final.
‘After so many years of doing Strictly, I have a system,’ Vicky says. ‘When I first meet a celeb I take along some magazines to look through together; it’s a great way of getting an idea of what their likes and dislikes are, and it is easier for them to refer to an actual garment rather than a sketch,’ she says. ‘I am on the lookout all the time for colour combinations, shapes, trends. It can be anything, anywhere, so I always have a sketchbook in my bag. My mind never switches off – not even on the school run!’
Vicky is married to graphic designer Mark, 47, and they have a son, Ollie, 14, and daughters Izzy, eight, and Evie, five. The girls enjoy visiting their mum’s studio, stuffed as it is with spangles and treasure. But it’s not just for little girls: my eye is drawn to myriad boxes of sequins and colour charts of gems in shades of dark orchid, ripe peach and peridot.
On her moodboard are midnight blues and snippets of dark lace, but also crazy pops of zingy lime and orange. ‘What you see here is the jumping-off point, so I’m not giving anything away,’ she assures me. ‘The original idea goes through many incarnations before it ends up on Strictly. We make around 200 dresses per series and each has to be different.’
As soon as a celebrity is announced, Vicky gets to work, researching their body type and colouring, so that by the time they meet she has already gathered a few ideas about styles that might suit them.
‘I am one of the first members of the Strictly team they will meet and usually they are scared of what I’m going to do to them,’ says Vicky. ‘My task is to reassure them that we will work as a team and to get them to trust me to design dresses that will not only look fabulous but provide all the support and the right amount of give during the dance. The celebrities tend to focus on a static image, but the dress needs to deliver when put through its paces.’
Vicky likes to have three or four dresses made for each contestant by the time the series begins, ‘even though I won’t know the concept for each week until the producers tell me. Then I’ll adapt the design if I need to – it’s easier to tweak something than make it from scratch. An elaborate dress should take four days to make but we have been able to do it in two. All-nighters are part and parcel of Strictly.’
When there is an offbeat theme the stakes are higher. ‘The Halloween episode is a joy to watch but difficult to make happen,’ says Vicky. ‘But when we have a challenge it does keep the blood pumping. Only professional dancer Aljaz Skorjanec could rock a mummy costume as he did, and his partner, actress Helen George, looked fantastic in her white catsuit for their samba in 2015.’
Interestingly – and reassuringly – Vicky prefers the challenges of dressing fuller figures. ‘I love making a larger lady feel beautiful and graceful,’ she says. ‘It’s all about accentuating the things she likes about her body and building the dress from there. Whenever I see a celebrity shedding her self-consciousness for a new poise and confidence, I get real job satisfaction.’
Curvy Lisa Riley setting the floor alight in fiery orange fringes in 2012 springs to mind, and while Ann Widdecombe  was never a natural dancer, her costumes – gold lamé, white ostrich feathers, imperial purple – transformed her into an entirely unexpected glamour puss.
Every dress is built round a leotard-style ‘body’. Celebrities often decrease at least one dress size as they tone up during the series, so this base is gradually taken in as required. Skirts, sleeves and spangles are sewn on top. ‘Believe it or not, I’m all about simplicity,’ says Vicky. ‘I love a less-is-more, elegant silhouette where all the impact is in the cut of the fabric rather than in a kitchen sink’s worth of spangles, but Strictly is a kitchen-sink-spangle sort of show, so more often than not, more is more!’
Vicky is drawn to dramatic dances in which there is a sense of theatre and emotion, such as the paso doble and the Argentine tango. ‘If the set is dark, the dress has to match the mood yet still stand out,’ says Vicky, remembering Georgia May Foote dancing the Argentine tango in a ‘deceptively simple’ dress covered in jet crystals to give a liquid effect.
Vicky’s enthusiasm is so infectious it’s easy to understand why she puts the celebrities at their ease – sometimes rather more than she bargained for. ‘When Ed Balls was on the show he loved being in wardrobe and having a chat so much that we would have to turf him out so we could get on with the job,’ laughs Vicky. ‘He’s a lovely man; he even invited us to his 50th birthday party.’
As for the class of 2017, ‘the new contestants are a fun bunch and we’ve all had a giggle,’ says Vicky. ‘Ruth [Langsford] is bubbly and game for anything and Susan [Calman] is well out of her comfort zone in a sparkly frock, but is so up for it I think we might reward her enthusiasm by letting her wear a trouser suit one week. Chizzy [Akodulo] oozes personality and loves bright shades, but it’s always an adjustment for the women to swap everyday clothing for bodycon shapes.’
Vicky shies away from commenting on the more abrasive celebrities she may have encountered. ‘I always warm to people,’ she says firmly. ‘Some personalities need a little more attention than others but we find a solution most of the time.’ Only once (so far) has a celebrity ever point-blank refused to wear a frock – that was Jerry Hall, who was voted off early in the 2012 series. But Vicky is a model of diplomacy about the ‘divergence’ of opinion. ‘It was just one of those things; Jerry had a very clear idea about the dress she wanted and the one we had made was a different colour. I don’t remember the details but we changed it for her.’
Usually last-minute nip and tucks are to facilitate greater movement or to prevent a wardrobe malfunction. Waterloo Road actress Chelsee Healey was mortified back in 2011 when her dress slipped perilously far down her cleavage during the tango. ‘I was at home watching it on television,’ recalls Vicky. ‘I was willing the dress to stay in place and was so relieved when it did.’
Often it’s as simple as finding the right shoes. Three and a half inches is the very highest heel the dancers can wear; any higher and they can no longer flex their feet properly. ‘Nude shoes give the leg a longer line,’ says Vicky. ‘There’s a lot to think about and so many heel shapes to consider.
‘Nancy Dell’Olio [who competed in 2011] went to the max every time and always begged to go higher, although we couldn’t let her.’ It’s a brave woman who says no to Nancy, but Vicky is a consummate diplomat; on a show where egos and insecurities do battle and everyone is striving to be their best, she has to be.
Although Vicky won’t disclose her budget, she is at pains to point out that despite its success, Strictly does not enjoy a blank cheque. When costumes are sold on, profits go back into the programme’s coffers.
The female contestants tend to buy at least one dress as a memento of their time on the show, says Vicky. Fern Britton, for example, chose the jewelled dress she wore for her American smooth, and Sophie Ellis-Bextor the gown from her Viennese waltz. Frankie Bridge’s husband Wayne bought her the apricot, feather-trimmed dress she wore for her showdance as a birthday present.
Parts of costumes are often recycled and between seasons Vicky has a much smaller team of seamstresses who design dresses and men’s outfits for the international ballroom dance circuit.
And as if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, all this happens alongside her other primetime projects, which sees Vicky put together ‘designer and high-end high street’ looks for shows such as The Voice and the latest new kid on the talent-show block, Pitch Battle. But she always comes back to Strictly.
‘I feel so lucky to have this job where I feel quite emotional when everything comes together,’ she says. ‘When everyone’s dancing really well and the costumes are being shown off by the lighting and the music is filling the air, it’s impossible not to get a little glassy-eyed. But that’s the unique magic of Strictly.’ It certainly is. And it’s no exaggeration to say we’re on tenterhooks to see just what tricks Vicky has up her sleeve this year.