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Clothes can be storytellers, says Cruella costume designer

Oscar-winning Jenny Beavan says she looked at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's early designs and their famous shop at Kings Road for the film 

Emma Stone plays the ‘Cruella’ in the Disney film. 
Emma Stone plays the ‘Cruella’ in the Disney film.  (Courtesy Disney)

Clothes as storytellers. That’s the “whole basis” of her work, says Oscar winning costume designer Jenny Beavan, who bagged Academy Awards for her work in the period romance A Room With A View and again with the action-adventure Mad Max: Fury Road.

Beavan, who has most recently designed costumes for Emma Stone and Emma Thompson in Disney’s Cruella, said she is terrified at the beginning of every project but it is a fun job that always starts with the script.

Also read | Cruella review: The supervillain and style icon we deserve 

“Clothes as clothes I'm not too interested in. Clothes as storytellers, I'm very interested. That's the whole basis of it and that's what I really enjoy,” the 70-year-old, whose career profile includes most Ivory-Merchant films as well as a host of others, including Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, told PTI in a Zoom interview from London.

Set in 1970s London amid the punk rock revolution, her new film is about the rebellious early days of one of cinema's most notorious and fashionable villains, Cruella de Vil. The film, streaming on Disney Hotstar, charts the journey of the character from childhood to iconic fashion designer.

"You should always start from the script and the director's vision. In this case, the script was very clear in the ways that Cruella (Stone) would develop and find her arc of clothing from a very small child, putting together stuff from her mother's basket to, you know, sort of this arch-villain, who's obviously had influence from the Baroness (Thompson) in terms of her skills in cutting and at learning," Beavan said.

The story follows a young grifter named Estella (Emma Stone), a clever and creative girl determined to make a name for herself with her designs. She befriends a pair of young thieves on London streets. One day, Estella’s flair for fashion catches the eye of Baroness von Hellman (Thompson), a fashion legend. Their relationship sets in motion a course of events and revelations that will cause Estella to embrace her wicked side and become Cruella.

While shooting for the film, Beavan said she would frequent Portobello Road every Friday to find stuff that inspired her. She also looked at fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's early designs and their famous shop at Kings Road.

"I remember a lot about the 70s. I remember Vivienne Westwood and her little shop in Kings Road and Portobello Road where we've always gotten our vintage clothes so I kind of knew where she would get stuff from.

 "And I just followed her (Estella's) storyline of that, escaping in her school uniform, then when the boys become successful pickpockets, they are able to afford some clothes to give her disguises. It's there for you if you are open to it in the script," she said.

The process of how she builds a particular look for her characters is a "bit like playing cards", Beavan said.

"It's in the fitting that you really find out where you're going, and then once we've fitted, we would take photographs and sort of juggle them around a bit like playing cards to see how the look should develop to give you that place she starts from and where she ends up," she said.

Beavan is something of a legend in the costume designing world, especially when it comes to period films and her work on Merchant Ivory films, an enduring collaboration that began with an unpaid position on India-set drama Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978).

She went on to work with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant on films such as The Europeans, Jane Austen in Manhattan, The Bostonians, A Room with a View, Maurice, Howards End, The Remains of the Day and Jefferson in Paris.

Her other major collaborations include Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, Franco Zeffirelli's Jane Eyre, Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes and its sequel, Tom Hooper's The King's Speech and George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road.

Asked about her secret to staying relevant through the decades, Beavan said she doesn’t know how it happened.

"All I know is that I now feel more confident about how to approach design. But I'm terrified at the beginning of a project, I have no idea what I'm doing. I have no idea what it should look like. But I know how to overcome that fear. You find images, you find things that start to develop and then you can build on that process.

"I think I'll stop designing when I stop being terrified because that would be no good at all. But it's about just knowing how to approach the problems and how to deal with them, and how to solve them… It's one of the only things that gets better with age," she said.

Beavan said she mostly relies on archives and old magazines to research her looks.

"I don't see vast amounts of films, mainly because it's too long a day working in it, and then you want to do other things. But also, I don't really like being influenced by films, I'd rather get my influences from books, archive stuff, from painting, or whatever," she said.

Beavan had already worked with Thompson in many films, most notably on "Sense and Sensibility”, before they embarked on “Cruella”. She considers her "absolutely wonderful and a good friend". Stone, she added, worked brilliantly with the costumes and totally owned them.

“Cruella”, directed by Craig Gillespie, also features Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Mark Strong. 

Also read | In a punk 'Cruella,' dogs play second fiddle to the designs

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