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Shona Heath: fashion set designer


Shona Heath, 38, is a fashion set designer. She lives in East London with her photographer husband Tim Gutt and their two-year-old son

"I’m a night owl so I find it hard to get out of bed when my alarm goes off at 5.30am. My role is to create the sets for advertising campaigns for the likes of Dior, Prada and Hermès and fashion shows for Lanvin, Paco Rabanne and Topshop. It can be really physical work and I find jeans too restrictive, so I favour denim shorts from Whistles, tights from Tabio – they never ladder – and boots. I like to camouflage myself into my sets, so I often dress to match them, such as wearing a burgundy jumper if the set features deep reds.

My studio is a three-minute walk from home so I meet my assistants there to load all our props into a van. They’re stored in a mishmash of boxes and bin bags so it’s hard to believe that something beautiful could be created from them. If we’re on location outside London it’s important not to forget anything, so I write endless lists and spend most of the journey asking my assistants, “Have we got the glue gun?”

For Mulberry’s advertising campaign they wanted a woodland theme, so we worked together to come up with the concept of foxes, feathers and eggs. I created mood boards but also had to translate it into email to send to my clients – I can’t use a computer so my assistants use Photoshop and InDesign to create beautiful works of art, with me breathing down their neck. I work with a great set-building company who can make anything, including a giant UFO for one shoot last year. Although they did balk when I told them, jokingly, that it had to fly.

My three assistants and I typically arrive at the location, which could be anywhere from a studio to a country manor house, at 8.30am (after picking up croissants and coffee for breakfast en route). We spend the morning creating the set, grabbing a quick sandwich for lunch whenever we can. I love painting and making things – we created huge cardboard owls and oversized eggs from polystyrene and Perspex for Mulberry.

I always aim to have the set looking as amazing as possible when the photographer arrives at about 3pm so they understand my vision. They may want to move the set to another location because of the lighting, so we sometimes have to break it down and reassemble it. We work until 8.30pm, sorting out all the finer details, covering nails and touching up paint, ready for the shoot the following day.

It’s always challenging – and expensive – working with animals. In one campaign we used a real fox, which came in a massive cage and cost £2,000. For another shoot, we used cats but they kept hiding under the chairs.

We often work to tight deadlines and have to come up with solutions at the last minute, but I love it. It’s when I feel most creative. Despite all the planning, sometimes I’ll arrive at a set and think, “This would look better with 30 red velvet chairs,” so we’ll get them urgently from a props house. Or if I want to make a new cream chair look old, I’ll age it with coffee. For the Lanvin catwalk show, we made an enormous weeping willow tree and transported it to Paris for Fashion Week. We only had 30 hours to assemble it, so I didn’t get any sleep for two days.

When we’re on location, my team and I usually stay at a hotel so we can be back on set early the next day in case of any last-minute changes before the shoot. We go out for dinner together before going to bed at midnight. On nights when I’m at home, I’ll have a glass of wine and chat to Tim while he cooks dinner. I check my emails at night but other than that I like to keep my work at my studio. I think people are a bit disappointed when they discover I live in a normal home, rather than a house full of incredible props. I’m not really into entertainment – I get such a kick from my work that in the evenings I just like to relax or potter about the house doing chores before going to bed at 1am."



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