Category Archives: Costume Designer

Costume Designer Spotlight: Claudia Sarbu

Costume Designer Claudia Sarbu
Costume Designer Claudia Sarbu

A passion that courses through her veins and experience far beyond her years have earned costume designer Claudia Sarbu her place at the forefront of her field. Her sheer talent is reflected in her diverse work on films ranging from the epic 2014 blockbuster “Divergent” to the heartwarming drama “20th Century Women,” released early this year. Few in the field are able to move so seamlessly between such wildly different productions, but Sarbu has been training her entire life.

She was born near Bucharest, and growing up she lived just blocks from the film studio where both her parents worked. Her mother made costumes for the studio and encouraged her daughter’s natural talent.

“I remember when I designed my teacher’s wedding outfit, and then my mom made it,” she said, recalling how she got her first taste of design. “It was very avant-garde for that kind of small town wedding, but she looked great.”

Having been immersed in the field for longer than she can remember, Sarbu knows better than anyone how crucial good costume design is to any production that aims to create a believable universe. She proved this on an enormous scale when she served as Costume Coordinator for “Divergent,” the first in a hotly anticipated series of films based on the trilogy of internationally bestselling books by Veronica Roth. As the costume coordinator, Sarbu was responsible for ensuring the film’s costumes were made and prepared perfectly.

Divergent

The cast of the film made raised the stakes for Sarbu even higher. In addition to Shailene Woodley, known for her roles in “The Fault in Our Stars” and in “The Descendants” (alongside George Clooney), the film also stars Ashley Judd (“Double Jeopardy”) and Academy Award Winner Kate Winslet (“Titanic,” “Finding Neverland”).

The events of “Divergent” take place in a dystopian future where every person must fit neatly into one of five factions, each representing a different virtue. Anyone who is unable to assimilate into one of these factions is labelled a ‘divergent’ and faces mysterious but almost certainly deadly consequences. At the heart of the story is one such divergent, Tris (Woodley), who defiantly resolves to fight back against the unjust system.

The world in which the film is set is fractured and extraordinarily complex, which is mirrored in the relationships between characters and factions. It was an indescribably difficult undertaking to create a costume for each and every character that both captures the individual’s personality and visually represents the character’s faction and their station in the world’s social hierarchy.

“The majority of the costumes for ‘Divergent’ were manufactured in Romania by two workshops, and I was in charge of overseeing both. My job was to develop and translate the illustrations into actual garments by choosing fabrics, deciding on patterning and finishing details, as well as overseeing the quality of the manufacturing, aging and distressing processes,” she said, detailing her staggering list of responsibilities. “At the same time, I had to keep up with the shoot schedule’s demands, meaning prioritizing what to ship first while working under very tight deadlines. It was almost four months of intense work, but in the end we’d delivered over 2,000 pieces of costumes.”

All of Sarbu’s tireless work proved well worth it when “Divergent” was released in March 2014. It immediately shot to the top of the box office in its opening weekend as casual moviegoers and longtime fans of the novels piled into theaters to catch the first chapter in the epic trilogy.

20th Century Women
Poster for “20th Century Women”

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum lies “20th Century Women,” the exceptionally moving autobiographical story of two women who help a mother raise her son against the backdrop of Santa Barbara in 1979.

“The script for ‘20th Century Women’ is one of the closest to my heart, and also one of the most challenging ones I’ve read… spinning between past, present and future and mixed with dreams and flashbacks,” said Sarbu. “The costumes were extremely important to the film’s authenticity. We were dressing real life characters whose personalities and vibes needed to be conveyed through their style.”

The film debuted early this year and starred Annette Bening (“American Beauty”) and Elle Fanning (“Maleficent,” “Super 8”). Audiences and critics lauded “20th Century Women” with praise, and the film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay, a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Comedy, and a Golden Globe Best Actress nomination for Annette Bening for her powerful performance.

Despite being completely unlike “Divergent” in every conceivable way, the importance of Sarbu’s work to the industry at-large is illustrated by the fact that both of these wildly different films needed costumes, and both relied on Sarbu’s talents. For both, and for any other film, Sarbu knows that good costume design starts with understanding the characters and the worlds they live in. In this way, the process she follows for a film set in a nightmarish future is much the same as it would be for a film set in ‘70s-era Southern California. In practice, Sarbu’s process requires the instincts and training that she has honed throughout her illustrious career. When she describes what she does, however, she makes it sound straightforward and almost simple.

“Film and TV are essentially visuals,” she said, “and what people wear is essential to creating that visual.”

 

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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.

GIVING A 50’S LOOK TO SHAKESPEARE WITH RUOXUAN LI

When it comes to revered creative works, there are those who believe that a classic is not to be touched and those who believe that the spirit of creating art is in pushing those boundaries and buttons, to attempt to develop a new piece of art that both pays homage to the original and seeks to place it in a contemporary setting that it might be more accessible to the general public and thereby spur them to revisit said classics. Costume designer Ruoxuan Li has worked with those on both sides of this idea. She feels that her role is not to be the one who is polarized on the topic but to grow through embracing both perspectives. This what me be referred to as a “creatively open mind.” It’s something that would seem to be inherent in the artistic mindset but is not always so. Luckily for those she works with, Li has the pedigree and the experience to enable both factions. When ISC (Independent Shakespeare Company)was presenting a modernized production of Shakespeare’s “The Two Men of Verona”, Ruoxuan was an obvious choice as costume designer. Li cut her teeth in Shakespearean theater at the at Wimbledon College of Art, University of The Arts London. Since then she has worked on countless productions including Distant Vision with Francis Ford Coppola. Intensely familiar with both traditional and contemporary approaches to the look of stage, TV, and film, Ruoxuan worked with director David Melville to place the characters in a modern world for crowds of 20,000 in Los Angeles.

Melissa Chalsma is the artistic director of the ICS production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” who sought out Ruoxuan and enlisted her into the production team. Melissa describes, “I was first attracted to Ruoxuan’s work because of her outstanding portfolio and the breadth of her experience. She is an inter-continental artist who excels in a wide range of styles, has done excellent work in a variety of mediums, and has wonderful inter-personal skills. Without Ruoxuan “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” would not have looked as good as it did, nor would the actors have even as able to do their jobs. She created an entirely unique world with vastly different styles authentically placing the action in the 1950’s. Each costume piece supported the actors in their work. Speaking personally, the costumes Ruoxuan created were absolutely perfect!”

Early meeting with the play’s director set the tone that the play should be apolitical and be a place of respite for the public to escape the volatile events around them. Melville communicated to Ruoxuan that he was interested in a Rockabilly style that was full of bright and engaging colors. The two primary challenges in this is that Shakespeare is not known for its use of bright colors and, as a native of China, Li does not share the same frame of Americana reference that many might in regards to the 1950’s Rockabilly style and era. Research would begin for her at ground zero rather than twenty or seventy-five percent. To fit the classic Shakespearean sensibility into a new concept of 1950’s, she started by matching the social group status for characters such as the greasers for the outlaws, teddy boys/girls for the naughty ones etc. Li then tracked each character’s change of status and change of their mental/emotional evolution, trying to express the changes cohesively through costuming. She was given some allowance to be not period-dead-on but tried to catch key elements of the 1950’s rockabilly look such as white socks, rolled up hems, pointy shirt collars, circle skirts, etc. These helped to sell the period when it’s not a full-on authentic period show.

It’s the very nature of a mingling of the arts that they affect each other. This also applies to the costume design; add maneuverability to that as well. The Rockabilly application to this classic Shakespeare play was like an actor itself, taking on the visage of a “greaser” from the era. This meant that the music and style of the 1950’s was inseparable from the look Li created. Watching the rehearsal is a key part of her process in finalizing the costuming. Ruoxuan relates, “When I saw the rehearsal with the band and all of the dancing, I realized that the research I did was not fully matching the energy on the dance floor. There were actors rapping the Shakespeare lines, the duke being the drummer at the same time, one of the two gentlemen acted like a nerdy teenage facing his lover…all these sparkling moments gave me inspiration. I switched my color palette to a much more vibrant and youthful combination of bright pastels and saturated jewel tones. I shortened all the skirt for dancing, added ruffled collars for crab the dog, and asked the attendant rapper turning his bell boy hat front to the back. These might seem minor but they bring everything into focus.”

Broadway World stated, “Ruoxuan Li’s black leather jackets for the outlaws, and circle skirts and preppy plaids for the leading players all lend authenticity to the period and its unbridled optimism.” This statement communicates the concept that the costuming itself is part of delivering the emotion to an audience, an emotion that must be congruent to that of the intent of the director. With this understanding, Ruoxuan takes great care to plan and maintain an aesthetic consistent with her director’s goal. This process begins with a conversation that continues up until the actual showtime. A strong sense of design partnered with an ease of flexibility is what has resulted in so many directors seeking out Ruoxuan to create the look for their productions whether it be stage, TV, or film.