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Incredible Women

A piece of my mind: Cruella costume designer Jenny Beavan

Each month, PORTER delves into the mind of an Incredible Woman making waves in the creative industries. Next up is multi-award-winning costume designer JENNY BEAVAN, who tells KATIE BERRINGTON what went into creating the wardrobe for a young Cruella, and why her work has always revolved around a love of storytelling

Award-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan

She might be a two-time Oscar winner (and 10-time nominee), but that didn’t stop Jenny Beavan feeling apprehensive when she got the call to helm the costumes on Cruella – Disney’s live-action origins story about the infamous 101 Dalmatians villain. In fact, she recalls feeling “terrified” by the prospect. Thankfully, her nerves withstood, and so began a fast-paced process to put together the wardrobe for the iconic love-to-hate villain, played with wicked perfection by Emma Stone. Vintage shows were scoured and accessories sourced from far and wide for the movie’s setting in 1970’s punk-rock London. The stakes were raised further still by the backstory: the film’s titular character is an aspiring fashion designer who comes up against her boss, Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). Cue high-fashion looks aplenty, with more than 200 outfits required for the main cast alone.

But Beavan is used to the industry’s fast pace and vast scale by now. She began working in theater as a set designer before being launched, almost by accident, into the world of costume and movies. A happy accident it turns out, as her illustrious career now spans more than five decades, as well as a huge breadth of styles, genres and characters. Her Oscar wins – awarded almost 30 years apart – celebrate her period costumes in A Room with a View (1985) and post-apocalyptic styling on Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). “[That film] changed my career,” Beavan acknowledges. “Since Mad Max, I’ve done quite a variety of work – I’m not [confined to] 19th-century corsets [anymore]”, she says. Her credits include major cinematic moments like The King’s Speech, Gosford Park and Sense and Sensibility.

Here, Beavan shares a behind-the-scenes look at what went into designing the costumes for Cruella, and gives PORTER a piece of her mind…

In Cruella, Emma Stone stars in the titular role, with Emma Thompson playing Baroness von Hellman with aplomb

“I took Cruella on quite late

They suddenly got a window of opportunity with Emma Stone, so it shot into production with a very short amount of prep, which was a challenge. Suddenly, I got the call: “Are you busy?” [It] was so terrifying. I did take quite a few days for me to say I would do it, because of the enormity [of the project].

We had a little extra time [to prepare] because Emma Stone had an accident

She slipped on some stairs and injured herself, which she was mortified by [but] I couldn’t stop thanking her!

This was definitely one of the bigger budgets I’ve worked with

We had a massive crew, with three assistant designers and an incredible team on the extras. They went out and sourced all this wonderful ’70s stuff, which took me right back to my youth.

Every job is completely different

Even if you do two Jane Austen [films], you’ll treat them differently according to who is directing and what the vision is. I love breaking down a script, because it’s very mechanical and, as you do it, the ideas begin to flow. I love the research – that’s a fabulous part [of the process]. For Cruella, because it’s set in the 1970s, there was still [original] stock around that we could find in costume houses.

The really exciting moment is when you fit an actor – you begin to actually create that character on the person, with their ideas, their body language

My parents were very creative people and were both professional musicians

My father was a cellist and my mother was an award-winning viola player. We didn’t have a television, so we were always making and doing. I was blessed with an overactive imagination.

My grandfather had a passion for Shakespeare and took me to one of my first plays

It was Twelfth Night at the Aldwych Theatre, London, and I totally fell in love. From that moment on I tried to see as much theater as I could.

School was fine, but I was a rebel and had other things to do

I used to skip classes to go to the theater – that’s how it all started. My parents were extraordinary; I remember saying that I wanted to miss physics and my mother saying, “Well, you don’t want to be a scientist, do you?”

A friend ended up commissioning a film that involved Dame Peggy Ashcroft

[I was] working as a theater designer [at the time], but I was into sets and not that bothered about costume. [However,] they needed someone to go to her house and put together a wardrobe of clothes that she was going to take out to do a film in Rajasthan. On our second meeting, when we were getting on quite well, she asked me if I’d go, too. After that, I was offered work as a costume designer and that was it – I was launched into costume. It wasn’t really where I thought I would be, but it’s still storytelling – just with clothes and people rather than big sets on stages.

The really exciting moment is when you fit an actor

You begin to actually create that character on the person, with their ideas, their body language – that’s when the character really happens. Up until that moment, it’s either two-dimensional or a rack of clothes, really. We went out to LA to fit Emma Stone and we ended up doing it in her kitchen, with everything set up in the garage. It just flowed because she’s such fun and really got into it, and in about four hours we got this arc of the character and the way she dressed and the way it changed. You can see how [her look] starts as put-together vintage and goes into quite tailored. Emma Thompson, who I’ve known for a long time, is always glorious to work with, too – we had to fit about 35 different looks with her.

The Cruella movie is full of high-fashion looks, with more than 200 outfits (and even more sketches!) required for the main cast alone
Vintage shows were scoured and accessories sourced from far and wide for the movie’s setting in 1970’s punk-rock London, as depicted in this cool behind-the-scenes sketch
Beavan’s illustrious career spans more than five decades, as well as a huge breadth of styles, genres and characters

Costumes always have to come from what the story gives us

With Cruella, because they’re great characters and so brilliantly cast, that really helped to make the process good fun.

At the beginning of a job, it’s like climbing Everest and you don’t think you’ll ever get there

You don’t know what you’re doing or why you’re doing it or what anything should look like. I find that with most films; you go through a little panic and then it gradually becomes clearer.

I love seeing [the final result], but you really never know how it’s going to turn out

Something you think is a sure-fire winner just doesn’t work, and something you think was just OK, with the extra layers and the music and the edit, really does.

I like it when something works as a whole

Even when [a movie] is not the showiest of my work, it’s [about] the storytelling. It’s always about storytelling.”

Cruella is available in cinemas and on Disney+ with Premier Access from May 28