Meet Jemima Penny, the Costume Designer Behind some of the World’s Most Striking Music Videos

Costume Designer Jemima Penny
Costume Designer Jemima Penny. Photo by Shireen Bahmanizad

Modern music videos are huge productions with many of them having budgets comparable to that of a feature film. From Gwen Stefani’s “Make Me Like You” video coming it at $4 million to Madonna’s $5 million video for “Express Yourself,” and who can forget Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson’s “Scream,” which cost a whopping $7 million back in 1995, millions of dollars go into creating the visual stories and elaborate worlds we see in popular music videos. From expensive lighting to ornately designed sets, a great deal of effort goes into making these stories as memorable and visually striking as possible, and one of the key elements in all of this is costume design.

UK costume designer Jemima Penny is the one they call in to design the wardrobes for many of the high-dollar music videos. Over the years, Jemima has done it all. From working on the music videos for Sir Paul McCartney’s “Dance Tonight” featuring Natalie Portman and Mackenzie Crook, and designing Lily Allen’s “LDN,” Roots Manuva’s “Buff Nuff,” Juliette Lewis and the Licks’ “Got Love to Kill,” and countless others, Jemima has designed for some of the most famous artists in the world.

Compared to film, costume designing for music videos brings with it a unique set of challenges in terms of turnaround time, which require Jemima to work quickly to source the costumes, sometimes even fitting the cast and making alterations on the same day as the shoot.

“Prep periods and the shoot are very quick when working on music promos and commercials, and my team and I need to source and fit costumes within days… As such we need to create an instant vision for the song,” explains Jemima. “There is less emphasis on the intricate details and character work and instead I concentrate on designing a look for the video that immediately captures the audience and tells the story.”

In the same way that no two videos are alike, the wardrobe Jemima designs for each video she works on is completely different from the next; and with well over a decade of experience in the industry, the costumes she’s designed span the gamut. She says, “In some instances, for example the Klaxon’s ‘Golden Skans’ video, these costumes need to be totally fantastical and abstract, and for others, including Calvin Harris’ ‘Sweet Nothing’ it is about creating a complete world in moments.”

 

As the costume designer on the music video for  Calvin Harris’ hit song “Sweet Nothing” featuring Florence Welch from Florence and the Machine, the wardrobe Jemima designed was essential to creating the video’s seedy underworld environment full of strippers, call girls, their pimps and depressing looking clientele.

Directed by Primetime Emmy nominee Vincent Haycock, the “Sweet Nothing” video was a massive success airing on popular music channels all over the world and garnering well over 200 million views on YouTube.

For the costumes in the video, Jemima drew her inspiration from eastern European gangsters, streetwear worn by gangs in London’s poorest and roughest neighborhoods and styles from the 80s skinhead movement, which set the dark and grimy tone for the video’s overarcing story of a woman (Florence Welsh) dealing with an abusive pimp boyfriend.

She explains, “We shot the video on location at an old, rough working man’s club, and the fight scenes over-night in an alleyway in the East End of London, in torrential rain. Often there is not time to fit all the characters in costumes prior to the shoot so I sourced multiple options for the costumes for each character and then my team and I put together looks and decided on what costume feels best for each character on the day.”

Coming up with the final costumes for the cast of the caliber of music videos Jemima designs for on the same day as the shoot is as high pressure as it sounds; however, her background as a fashion stylist for magazines such as Vogue, ID and Dazed has endowed her with the unique ability to come up with killer looks on the fly by mixing fashion styling techniques into her work as a costume designer.

Jamie Clark, the producer behind “Sweet Nothings,” says, “I love working with Jemima. She has a unique talent for producing super stylish costumes. The cast and crew always respond to her really well, and her costumes are spot-on.”

Another area where Jemima’s tried and true talent for blending her fashion styling skills into her work as a costume designer is in the world of commercials, where turnaround times can be just as fast paced. A sought after figure in the industry, Jemima has costume designed commercials for leading brands across the globe including Johnnie Walker, Kellogg’s, Absolut Vodka, Microsoft, Cadbury’s Chocolate, Mastercard, Virgin Media and countless others.

Jemima explains, “My experience pulling together costumes for music videos and commercials together with my fantastic team of makers and buyers, assembled through years of working on different theatre and opera productions, means that I’m able to not only produce creative designs for a brief very quickly and with confidence, but facilitate the entire process from original design, to sourcing of materials and costumes, and oversee full costume makes from scratch.”

One commercial where these carefully honed skills were paramount to the success of the production was the ITV promo for the hit BAFTA Award winning series “The X-Factor” featuring series judges Cheryl Tweedy, Simon Cowell, Rita Ora and Nick Grimshaw. Set in futuristic science laboratory, Jemima designed original costumes for the entire cast featured in the lab from the bespoke lab coats worn by the celebrity presenters, which featured a splash of gemstones shining from the lapel, to Cheryl Tweedy’s unforgettable ‘Fembot’ costume with the angular neckline.

“I wanted to create an outfit for Cheryl that showed off her great figure, and was futuristic and sculptural,” She explains, “The whole feel had to be poppy, youthful, fashion forward, stylized and work with the feel and ethos of the TV show itself.”

Cressida Ranfield, the producer of the promo, explains, “When I saw the brief for this job, and realized that it was hugely reliant on strong costume aesthetic, I knew that I wanted Jemima to design it. She is a consummate professional, and has that rare combination of being able to deliver excellent costumes and an innate sense of style that means she is able to work with celebrity clients with ease.”

Aside from being a sought after designer for music videos and commercials, Jemima has made a prominent mark in the film industry through her work as the costume designer on films such as “20,000 Days on Earth,” “Minimus” and “In the Dark Half.” She recently wrapped production on the upcoming films “Stella’s Last Weekend” directed by Polly Draper, “Slumber” directed by Johnny Hopkins, and the music documentary “The Quiet One,” which follows the life of Rolling Stone Bill Wyman.

If all that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, Jemima Penny is currently a guest Fashion Editor for the popular fashion-focused publication Luxure Magazine as well.

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