The Academy Awards air this Sunday night on ABC, and after two years of pandemic, the ceremony and surrounding fanfare in Hollywood where it’s held, is actually starting to generate excitement again. After foregoing hosts the past three years, this year’s ceremony offers three sure-to-be entertaining ladies helming the show: Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes. Maybe more so than past years, the best picture nominated films (Belfast, CODA, Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Dune, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, West Side Story and King Richard) are all deserving of praise, and thanks to streaming, most of us have seen them. We don’t do winner predictions, but here’s something we will predict: the fashion on attendees will be fiercer than ever! As the pandemic numbers stay steady in the U.S. and we all start to venture out, many want to have fun with frocks and suits again, and celebrities have the money, stylists and designer relationships to do it to the max. Fashion and costuming were a big reason why 2021 movies were so enjoyable to begin with thanks to this year’s Oscar-nominated designers, and we think their pizzazz will be reflected on the red carpet and the Dolby stage.
Cruella and West Side Story, two front-runners in the Costume Design category, made particularly vibrant impressions. Their costuming not only compels us to re-watch these films to ogle what everyone is wearing, but it inspires us to be colorful, edgy, flamboyant and expressive with what we wear. We asked the designers behind these two unforgettable films about their visions and inspirations. Q&A’s with Cruella‘s Jenny Beavan and West Side Story‘s Paul Tazewell, below.
LA WEEKLY: You have been nominated for best costume design 11 times (and won twice). What has winning this award meant to you?
JENNY BEAVAN: I have been lucky enough to win the Academy Award twice for very, very different films and that means quite a lot to me. It means that I can design for any genre of film and do it reasonably well! Mad Max Fury Road really opened up my career and winning the Oscar compounded that, so I now have great freedom with my work.
What were the particular challenges and highlights of working on Cruella?
Challenges were very short prep time, originally just 10 weeks, and a schedule which meant a lot of the looks were needed early on as locations were available. I really debated whether it was possible .. I am glad I came to the conclusion that I should give it a ‘go’.
The highlights were my team, the actors, especially the two wonderful Emmas, wearing the clothes so brilliantly, working with Nadia Stacey and her team first time I had worked with Nadia who is wonderful and her hair, make-up totally completed our characters. Also working with Fiona Crombie whose sets provided the most wonderful environments for the characters.
You captured the punk aesthetic of fashion and the vibe of innovators such as Vivienne Westwood so well in the movie, as well as the high fashion element in both Emmas’ looks. What was your vision for melding edginess and high fashion?
Also, what were inspirations for the ‘70s retro looks of supporting characters as well as the leads?
Costume design is all about the storytelling and a lot of Cruella’s fashion journey was in the script. She starts from nothing and becomes a very interesting designer through her own talent and ending up in a fashion face-off with Baroness. The chart is clear.
I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so I remember it all well and had a few iconic clothes from Biba and the like. I could never afford Vivienne Westwood as I worked in the theater in those days … wonderful, but not well-paid.
So the inspirations were memory and Googling. There’s so much now online it does mean you can research really fast and we didn’t have much time. I also re-lived my youth by going back to markets like Portobello on a Friday still full of classic pieces, which are great for inspiration, and there is nothing like wandering among real pieces of clothing to get your imagination firing up.
LA WEEKLY: What were your inspirations and intentions in reinterpreting the iconic looks of “West Side Story” for new audiences?
PAUL TAZEWELL: When Steven Spielberg invited me to design the costumes for his vision of “West Side Story,” he made it clear to me that he wanted to infuse more naturalism into the look of his film. He wanted to see more of the grit that was New York City in the San Juan Hill area during the mid 1950s.
With this directive, I was inspired to investigate the photographs that had been taken of people and their neighborhood communities at that time. I referred to many images taken by Bruce Davidson of the gangs in and around New York City, as well as color photographs taken by Gordon Parks and many other photographers of the 1950s. My hope was that my costume design would be specific to this new vision that Steven was creating, while resonating with its own iconic style.
What is your vision for the role that costuming plays in this particular film, and film in general? Also, in your past theater work?
I am very aware that the images of characters that I create through my costume design provide the first indication and point of view of who a character is and what their personality, taste and economic level has the potential to be within the story.
The collective impact is the creation of a plausible community of characters that have a relationship to each other and manifest their own emotional arc within the story being told. This might be created in a very naturalistic way or in a more abstracted and poetic way through the use of clothing style, period silhouette and color.
What does it mean to be nominated for the Academy Award? You are the first African American male costume designer to be recognized in the category. Do you see that as significant in terms of representation and inspiration for others?
Significant in representation and inspiration is an absolute understatement. My Academy Award nomination exemplifies so much of what is important for me and how I see myself in the larger zeitgeist of this time in the entertainment industry. I have always held my visibility as important as an American Black man who is also a costume designer. This role is held by very few Black men, and I am very fortunate to have created a successful career making a living within what I am so passionate about costume design. I am very honored to be greatly seen within this profession, breaking down barriers, and inspiring those that come after me.
See Tazewell and Beavan’s work in person (along with all the Oscars nominees) at FIDM’s “Art of Costume” exhibit open now thru June 4.