Oscar winner for “Room with a view” then “Mad Max: Fury Road”, Jenny Beavan is today behind the incredible outfits of “Cruella”. She talks about this experience and her way of working.
In Cruella, a live-action prequel dedicated to the villainous 101 Dalmatians, it is thanks to her that Emma Stone and Emma Thompson wear such sublime outfits: Jenny Beavan, British costume designer twice Oscar winner, for her work on Room with a View and Mad Max Fury Road.
While waiting to know if he will allow him to make the pass of three, next year, Jenny Beavan looks back on the Cruella experience and the approach to her job.
AlloCiné: How did you get involved in “Cruella”?
Jenny Beavan : I knew the project existed, especially because I worked on Disney films [Jean-Christophe & Winnie et Casse-Noisette, ndlr] and people were talking about it. I never thought I would get involved because, to be completely honest, fashion isn’t my thing. I’m a storyteller with clothes, and fashion is secondary to me. I always thought that I was going to become a decorator in the theater. So everything about clothes and costumes was kind of the second half of what I thought my career would be.
But it was Kristin Burr, one of the producers of Jean-Christophe & Winnie, texted me and asked if I was free at the time, and then I met Craig Gillespie [le réalisateur, ndlr]. I think they ended up in a situation where they had an opportunity with Emma Stone because her schedule got loose and they suddenly needed someone. The preparation was very short. It is also possible that other people wisely refused.
After much thought, I decided to do it anyway. And even if this world of fashion did not suit me, I could use it as in a story. And I lived through the 70s, so I remember it very well. Wonderful things came back to me during this process. And there were a lot of references, wonderful photographs and fashion magazines. I had plenty to explore.
I am a storyteller with clothes.
You are no stranger to complex costumes, for having worked on “Mad Max: Fury Road”. But “Cruella” contains some amazing looks. What were your inspirations for their design?
There was something very clear about the storyline, not least the rivalry of the two main characters. La Baronne is for me a very good designer, without a doubt. But it’s slightly past its expiration date. It’s still a bit trendy, probably still appeals to a large audience of older women. But Cruella represents just the opposite: the rebel, the kid who comes from a pretty dreadful background, but who has some sort of wit and love for fashion, design, clothing and assembly.
And his story arc in the script was wonderful to follow. We discover her very small, what we had never seen before, using the clothes in her mother’s laundry basket to dress herself. A beautiful moment where you could see how a young child could do something inventive. And then we see her then learning, becoming a designer.
At first the idea was to combine vintage elements, like we all did in the 70s, and with the influence of military stuff that you inappropriately associate with jeans or frilly skirts or whatever. And then I wanted to take her to outfits closer to Glenn Close. It was fascinating as a process.
You’ve created 47 looks just for the character of Emma Stone. How did you proceed, and in particular for this magnificent red dress (above) ?
To start with, I have the most talented team we can have, including five amazing people with very specific skills. And an employee who found, in a vintage store, the perfect outfit for the red dress that was mentioned in the script, in a ballroom scene where the theme is black and white.
I wanted a Charles James Tree dress, that is, with twisted fabric bands. We of course tried to design the original dress that she cuts out so that there is enough fabric so that you can logically give birth to this one with a slight twist. Our employee took it and literally began to twist it. We have kept this little detail of the original dress. The Baroness had to recognize her.
There is always a story and a reason behind these outfits, they can’t just be there. But then, of course, your imagination can take over. But we, unlike fashion which is only interested in clothes, we are interested in the story and the reason behind it and how the allure of the costume embodies it.
What can you tell us about the creation of this dress (above) ? How many tissues and how much time were needed?
There was this idea of a photobomb: the scenario called for the unfortunate Baroness to drive to a red carpet, and Cruella to come out of nowhere, climb on the car and cover it entirely with her skirt. So what do we do from there? You need to make a skirt that you can ride on a car and spin it around to cover it. And it was Kirsten Fletcher, an amazing Australian designer who made constructive type costumes, as I call them, who created it.
The dress had to be big enough, and light enough at the same time. We could have done it with silicone, but it wouldn’t have been so spectacular. I am asked how many pieces of fabric are in it, and I’m shocked because I don’t remember. But we are talking about 300. Everything was dyed by our textile department, which also cut and sewed each petal. [de la robe] by hand.
It gave work for a lot of students and interns, and took up a ridiculous amount of space. But I was pretty proud every time I looked at it, especially considering the amount of work that went into it. We had made an original version with a sort of rustle, which was fabulous, but it was too heavy. The great thing about this sort of thing is that you can try it out on a stuntman. Or at least someone who can try it out to make sure it works. So we did a lot of testing [avec cette robe], the idea being to stay light, but still visually impressive.
Were Emma Stone and Emma Thompson involved in the creation of their outfits? Or did you know exactly what would go to one or the other?
I have worked a lot with Emma Thompson, since 1991 [et le film Impromptu, ndlr]. She’s an old friend and she still has this gorgeous figure, so it was easy for me to see what the character should be. We went to Scotland to try it on, and that helped us find the shapes that would really work.
I decided to stick to one theme because that’s what people do. And she’s got a tall stature and great femininity, with a beautiful figure, so why not make the most of her? The Baroness would have proceeded in this way. It was still a question of finding the story [à travers ces vêtements] and then find its colors: gold and brown seemed to us to be the best, because Cruella was obviously going to be black and white.
It was a great process. Emma always told us if she didn’t like something, or found it too ordinary. But overall we had a blast. And she was terribly excited about everything, because she was going to look spectacular. The other Emma, I had never met her before, but I had heard wonderful things from many people who worked with her on The Favorite.
And regarding her character, again, the storyline was pretty clear as to the sartorial arc that marks Estella’s transformation into Cruella. Like Emma Thompson, she seemed genuinely interested, and when she put on clothes, she really sought to make them her own. To look fabulous. But she didn’t ask me anything specific. Except, from time to time, the possibility of wearing shoes that she considered more comfortable.
Every time they got a new costume I would drop by to make sure everything was okay. But I felt them involved. You can tell they’re having a lot of fun, but they haven’t tried to influence me.
My work is the same for an adaptation of Jane Austen or on Mad Max.
How did you transcribe the conflict and the shock of generations between Cruella and the Baroness through their clothes?
It’s my job as a costume designer: it’s about reading the script, finding the essence of the story. I sometimes call this the narrative line. And then, with the research you do and your understanding of the character, I keep making lists of what they need and how many looks they have and where they are.
This becomes clearer even though I work instinctively. So when someone asks me why I chose this or that subject, I don’t know what to answer, I did it because it seemed right to me. It went with the context. The characters are so clear when you read the script that there is no doubt. And then their interpreters were brilliantly chosen.
But you often don’t know the cast at first, which doesn’t stop you from finding your niche. As for the Baroness, I watched Vogue a lot. Numbers from the 60s, because it doesn’t really match the speed of the 70s, unlike Cruella. But we still had to restrain ourselves a bit when we were too in the excess of the 70s. It could work on some characters, like the assistant to the Baroness, who has a very extravagant outfit. But on everyone it was too much, so you had to be careful.
You have worked on films as varied as those of James Ivory, “Mad Max” or Cruella. Where do you find your inspiration? Do you find ideas in what you see around you?
I would say yes. I am a people watcher. In the subway, I can pretend to look at my cell phone, but I collect information about people. But in the idea my work is the same, whether it is for an adaptation of Jane Austen or on Mad Max.
George Miller is incredibly clear on when the apocalypse took place – four or five years ago, last Wednesday, I believe. And what happens to people under these circumstances. We recently talked about the new [le prequel sur Furiosa, ndlr] and it is very interesting. Particularly because they are not simple costumes like Marvel seems to do. They all have a purpose, a reason, and a story behind what happened to these people, how they survive, and what tools are needed to survive in the wilderness.
Interview by Maximilien Pierrette on April 30, 2021 in Paris