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Cruella costume designer Jenny Beavan: I like to tell stories through costumes- Cinema express

Cruella costume designer Jenny Beavan: I like to tell stories through costumes

Two-time Academy Award-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan speaks about working on Disney’s latest release, Cruella, which stars Emma Stone and Emma Thompson

Published: 29th August 2021

Madame Cruella de Vil has finally set her diamond heels in India! Disney's latest release has Emma Stone embodying a young version of the fan-favourite villainess Cruella, as she locks horns with Emma Thompson's Baroness, another fashion legend. Everything about this film screams style, and two-time Academy Award-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan says that the script had so much detail that the pressure didn’t matter. “It was clear on the characters’ arc and their progress and how the costumes would evolve alongside. For me, it’s not about the clothes; it’s about telling stories through them.”

The designer needed a starting point to get into the process of designing the clothes Cruella wears in this film. “A young Cruella starts putting together clothes from her mother's laundry basket. So, here's a creative child who loves clothes and is clever about how she puts her ideas together. Later, in high school, she is a rebel, and there, the uniform she wears becomes an integral part. All of this guided me,” she says. “The challenge comes when Cruella joins Baroness and becomes a talented designer herself. We had an amazing crew who were working on all these ideas."

Jenny attributes the creative output to teamwork, which she says involved lead actor Emma Stone too. “We did a test shoot and took all these massive costumes to her to check how they fit her. She was gracious and welcoming throughout the process.” The actor, Jenny says, was key to selling the costumes to the audience. “Emma poses with them, like she owns them. The costumes too were fun and comfortable to wear. We couldn’t take too much time, as her schedule was rather tight.” Though many costumes from the look test didn't make it to the cut, Jenny says they were able to identify many looks that worked.

When the first trailer of Cruella dropped on YouTube, the internet was quick to dig into the details of each shot, like the one in which Cruella, wearing a black and white gown, steps in front of the Baroness herself, lights up a match and sets her own cape on fire, only to reveal a beautiful red ball gown underneath. VFX was involved, of course, but Jenny says that they also tried it without the help of technology. "We made sure it was possible to do it with fire wires and fire papers. We could have pulled it off, if we had to. Personally, I’m not a big admirer of visual effects. Ultimately though, whatever it takes to deliver the punch!” she says.

Cruella's most effective punches in the film, incidentally, don’t have anything to do with visual effects, with the costumes playing a big part. "You rarely get a chance to do something as major as we did in this film." For the many enormous costumes featured in this film, the team brought in Australia-based designer Kristen Fletcher, who Jenny calls an “extraordinary constructionist”. Speaking about one striking photograph that shows Cruella on top of a garbage truck, Jenny says, "She had to come out of that truck wearing an enormous dress. We used so many old frocks and fabric and anything we could find really (laughs). When we finished, the dress took up the entire floor of the massive workshop. The red dress comes at a point when Cruella has to prove a point to the Baroness." Jenny calls it a "construction nightmare" as "it had to be light enough, flow a certain way, and yet, had to be real too."

The attention to detail in the film is evident particularly with the choice of colours employed. For Cruella, Jenny and her team had to use a colour palette of black, white, grey and red. Jenny, who has been in the industry for over forty years, says she knows what colours will work for the audience and what won’t. “Baroness, meanwhile, was brown, and so, we used a lot of brown there. But Cruella is a rebel—so black is her colour," shares the designer.

Though Jenny can't recollect specific inspirations behind her ideas for the extravagant dresses, she says that she did look at some “classy women from the 60 and early 70s”. “There were old magazines available online that we used as references. We did get a ton of fabric as she has 30-odd looks in the film. I brought in designer Jane Law for Baroness; we would go to her studio, put fabric on the stand, drape it, tweak the look..."

For such a grand film, collaborative work was crucial. Jenny, for instance, had to closely work with hairstylist and make-up artist Nadia Stacey. “The looks are so specific in this film. Being in the same studio building was advantageous, as we could all remain in constant communication. The minute I made a fitting design, I would go to the director and the make-up artist so that they knew exactly what I have done. We would constantly inform each other of ideas we were working on. As a costume designer, you are a part of a team. In fact, the pleasure for me is not in fashion or fine art; it’s about belonging to a collective."

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