Adiós to the woman behind the Superman suit

Yvonne Blake poses with one of the four Goyas she won during her career.
Yvonne Blake poses with one of the four Goyas she won during her career. / EFE
  • Yvonne Blake, who dressed Sean Connery, Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn and was president of the Spanish Film Academy, has died in Madrid, aged 78

"I'm an expert in packages." That's how Yvonne Blake (Manchester, 1940) got a smile out of comedian and actor Dani Rovira and the then minister for Culture, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, at last year's Goya film awards ceremony. Rovira was wearing a Superman suit in honour of Blake, then the president of the Spanish Film Academy, who created the original costume worn by Christopher Reeve four decades ago.

Being at the helm of Spanish film was the British woman's last but one role - she later became honorary president until her death on Monday at the age of 78.

Yvonne Blake arrived in Spain at the age of 28, when she was working as a costume designer with one of the international productions that came here in search of the ideal filming conditions. A paella lunch and a conversation with the only member of the Spanish team who spoke English led the young woman to stay in this country, where she was to continue with her career in the film industry for the next five decades.

Her work won her an Oscar (Nicholas and Alexandra) and four Goyas (Rowing with the Wind, Cradle Song, Carmen, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey).

Blake often recalled how she made Christopher Reeve sweat with her superhero costume. The six-foot American actor suffered with every move, especially during the long waits between filming.

She used to smile every time she told this story, with fond memories of the time when film had more glamour; it was this world she fell in love with when she was 14 years old and her mother took her to see Funny Face. She was captivated by Audrey Hepburn dressed by Givency and knew she wanted to be a designer and form part of the fascinating world of cinema.

"I have always dedicated myself, body and soul, to this; I've never done anything else," she said when she collected Spain's National Cinematography Prize in 2012.

Two years after that visit to the cinema, she won a grant to study at the Manchester Regional College of Art and when she was just 18 she was taken on as assistant to Cynthia Tingey at Bermans, the London fashion house responsible for dressing actors in films such as Cleopatra. There, she learned the profession from the bottom, sewing on buttons and feathers, pleats and embroidery.

When she had gained some experience she started to design costumes for the horror films made by Hammer Film Productions. And when she was 22, she received her first chance to be in charge of the designs for a film. Daniel Mann chose her to dress the characters of Judith, starring Sophia Loren. That was the first of the almost 60 projects during her long career.

But it was not all happy. Several months ago, when the Weinstein case hogged the news, she confessed to the Huffington Post that she had been raped by an American producer when she was 24 years old during the filming of a British movie. She had only told one of her closest friends.

"It was a totally unwanted experience and very horrible. He was a famous person and I was scared. I couldn't say anything to anyone. It was awful. In those days I was ashamed to talk about it," she said.

Spanish base

When she had moved to Spain, she was sought out for some of the biggest Hollywood productions. In 1971 she won her Oscar, and was nominated again five years later for Richard Lester's The Four Musketeers. Lester also chose Blake for his Robin and Marian starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. François Truffaut, John Sturges, Richard Donner, Paul Verhoeven, Mark Rydell and Peter Bogdanovich also called on Blake to dress the many international stars they directed.

Among them were Marlon Brando, Julie Christie, Michael Caine, Omar Shariff, Lawrence Olivier, Gene Hackman, Charlton Heston, Elisabeth Taylor, Faye Dunaway, Glenn Ford, Ava Gardner, Max Von Sydow, Harvey Keitel, Lauren Bacall and Natalie Portman, who worked with Blake on Goya's Ghosts, alongside Javier Bardem.

Her last project was There Be Dragons, the controversial hagiography of the founder of the Opus Dei, directed in 2010 by Roland Joffé.

Two years ago she took on the Spanish Film Academy during one of its many crises. Former president Antonio Resines had left in July 2016 and she took over. Among the steps taken during her presidency was to encourage more young creators to get involved, as well as to give more visibility to women.

Her projects were cut short when she suffered a stroke in January.