British costume designer dishes on working with fashion designers, being inspired by the Kardashians, and styling Kate Moss for the film
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie starring Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley and based on the 20-year British TV series. The series, which ran 1992-2012, is a satirical look at the fashion world through the adventurous lives of a PR agent and her best friend, who is a stylist.
Fans of the series are no doubt excited about “AbFab” on the big screen. But, for this sartorial sleuth, the costume styling is what caught my eye. From a couture gown paired with a biker jacket, to a dress with Anna Wintour’s face emblazoned on it, the looks are fierce! And, in typical “AbFab” flair, expect to see some comical looks too.
With all the stylishly savvy outfits in the fashion flick (and funny ones too), I had to get intel straight from the source—costume designer Rebecca Hale. I recently caught up with Hale, who’s worked on other movies such as “Made of Honor” (2008), for an exclusive interview to discuss the film, her fashion inspiration, and an insider peak into the working life of a film and television costume designer.
Creating the costumes for the characters
How did you prepare for the movie and what was the process of creating the wardrobes for the characters? Just like you do for a TV movie really, you look at the script and you start doing moods. My initial thought when I first read the script was I wanted to reference, in some way, 90’s fashion. I thought maybe I could use some old pieces from the original show, because there are still a couple of them around.
Then I mood-boarded it and I approached Jennifer and Jo about the looks, and everyone else, and said this is what I think would be good. But, the thing about Edina (Jennifer Saunders) is that fashion has moved on so much since 25 years ago. It’s much more eclectic. And in a way, it’s a lot more outrageous, because everybody has a lot more access to vintage.
Edina still wears the iconic things like she use to wear, a lot of Moschino which had a social message—she use to wear this trouser suit, which had ‘Ban the Bomb’ printed all over it. Nothing like that was really around, so then I thought, who’s the next designer that has that sort of big political message.
Vivienne Westwood deals with a lot of issues like world politics. I thought she would be one of the perfect designers to approach because she’s English, she’s at the forefront of British fashion and Edina would look up to her and want to be wearing her clothes. Not only are the clothes interestingly cut, but they’re slightly anarchic, which would fall in line with Edina. She would still be wearing Stella McCartney, who replaced La Croix, and so that was my thought for her.
When you think about Patsy (Joanna Lumley) in the 90s, everyone thinks she just wears tight mini skirts and everything is very tight, but actually she really analyzed it. She will be wearing a beautiful bit of soft tailoring by Betty Jackson—who was her main designer—with an interestingly beautiful statement piece blouse underneath. The way that Patsy plays the part makes it look a lot more restricted because of her body movement.
I wanted to use British designers because I wanted to champion British fashion. I do think it’s extraordinary, the fashion we have here, it’s very atypical. We’re quite quirky and eclectic. But with Patsy, I wanted to find somebody who was a classic designer so that it would hark back to the looks that she use to wear in the early 90s, made by Betty Jackson.
I approached Mulberry for one of the pieces that she wore in the fashion show. She had this beautiful cream coat with a lovely pair of shark skin cream trousers that were high-waisted, quite 80s in fact. Then I went on from there. I started mixing up TopShop, Ashish, Alexander McQueen and all of these other big designers that Patsy would have access to, since she’s a stylist. She just goes into the stylist closet at the magazine and takes a piece off and walks away with it.
Edina is more considerate in how she puts her clothes together. She wants to make a statement and she wants to make everyone look at her and think how amazing she is. Patsy knows she is amazing. She’s more laid back about the way she looks because she knows she’s got the edge.
How much input did the actors have in their looks? A great deal because they’ve been these characters for 25 years. They absolutely know whether it’s something that they would wear and that they feel comfortable in—they really do understand who that person is.
Mixing couture with high street fashion
How do you feel you have evolved each of the character’s style for film vs. TV? Well, it’s just bigger and bolder. You’ve got a better budget. I wanted it to be a lot more bolder in the sense that you’re not looking at a TV screen, you’re sitting in a movie theater, so you really have to think about what you’re putting together.
I went for some very strong pieces that I wouldn’t have necessarily used on television. Giles Beacon provided some of the outfits and it’s not the type of thing that either of them would wear—we didn’t really use that much couture before. I’ve mixed up couture with high street pieces made by people like Westwood and Stella McCarthy.
The other thing I was very conscious of was using designers that weren’t so famous. I also looked at grad students who were literally fresh out of college—there’s this girl Yasmeen Udin. Then I used Shrimps—she’s a young up and coming designer (Hannah Weiland), and she’s an absolute darling in the fashion world. There’s Sadie Williams and Ashish, too. It went from the really high fliers to the people who were starting at the foot of the ladder, and they had just embarked on their career.
Working with emerging fashion designers
What a great way to merge the established designer with the emerging designer. Yes. In the film, Bubble (Jane Horrocks) wears some pieces by Yasmeen Udin, who is literally straight out of college. She’s such a talent. Her outfit is this dress, which has Anna Wintour’s face on it with the sunglasses that are a great big necklace. It’s a genius idea and that’s what comes when you are fresh and young. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and she’s humble and grateful. It’s exciting for them and they need to have this platform because right now she’s working in a high street fashion brand, sort of double-checking clothes, and she should be out there ready. It takes one thing, it’s always one thing that gives you your break.
What a great way to make your break, in a major film and for you to help make that happen. You’ve got to pioneer the kids. You can’t be frightened of youth coming, because it’s the youth that refresh and energize everybody. We’ve all got something to say and I think it should be a great big melting pot really.
Fashioning costumes that tell a story
As a designer, you define characters visually and use wardrobe to further tell their story. What do you look for in fashion to support a storyline? I don’t look for anything specific. With Edina and Patsy, I suppose I had to use pieces from 2016. But I’m not frightened if the piece is a vintage piece or it’s from the high street. In terms of Edina and Patsy, it’s just got to fit.
Edina in the old days, the more ridiculous it was the better, and the tighter the trousers with the camel hoof, that was fantastic. Whereas, I have refined her a little bit now. It’s quite organic, that whole process is a very organic process. You start compiling clothes and rack them up and then you look it all and you start looking at everything. I like to mix things up a lot and I’m not that conformist. So, I’m not frightened to use something I found in a charity shop, along with a really beautiful expensive piece of couture as long as it works.
What is your favorite look from the film and why? I really like Lubliana (Marcia Warren), who’s the richest woman in the world. Because it’s like an amusing character, we could go totally over the top with her. I used vintage Givenchy. It’s funny, she’s a really old lady, so you just pile masses of jewelry, it’s so ridiculous that she looks bonkers. There’s an American designer who makes the most fabulous glasses, Amorir eyewear and she just looks fantastic. She looks a bit like Gloria Vanderbilt. That’s one of my favorite looks.
I was very fond of Jennifer’s cream trouser suit with a great big hat, that she wears when Patsy gets married in the South of France—it’s just a classic statement piece. I love the picture of Mick and Bianca Jagger getting married in San Tropez in the 70s. I’m very fond of 70s fashion. That was something that I really liked.
I haven’t got a specific piece I really love, I think the piece that makes me laugh the most was Jennifer at the fashion show when she’s wearing a piece of Giles Beacon. I like her in it actually. I think she should wear that in real life. She thinks I’m completely mad! It’s the Stephen Jones hat, which is all feathers all over; you know it’s just bonkers. I think that’s probably my favorite piece.
Dressing supermodel Kate Moss
Kate Moss makes a cameo in the film. Did you dress them as well? Yes, yes! I wanted Kate to look like herself. She’s a British fashion icon. I went to speak with her and told her ‘I really want you to be you. Do you mind wearing your own clothes?’ She was actually fine with that. But the scene where she gets pushed in the Thaimes, we were going to have to recreate or get hold of seven or eight dresses,and that dress would have to be able to accommodate the wet suit underneath it.
At the time we started the film, it was right in the middle of the fashion weeks and it was very badly timed. I couldn’t actually access that many designers and we were thinking of approaching Yves Saint Laurent and the fact that they might not have six of one particular dress was very likely, so she said, “Well I’ve got this amazing dress and I think we can just copy it.” Johnny Depp had given it to her for her 21st birthday present.
It was a very simple dress. It was made at Western Costumes in LA. It was easy to copy and it wasn’t too expensive—this isn’t a big budget movie. It was a simple design we could put with a wet suit underneath, although she just looks a little wider around the waist. But for all intents and purposes, it works.
Splurging on costumes for the film
So, what was the fashion budget? I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell you that (laughs).
The reason I’m asking is so people can have an idea of how much goes into costuming a film like this, so I guess a better question might be, do things get lent to you or do you have to buy most of the items you use? It was a bit of everything actually, people were very generous. Stella McCartney was very generous, Net-A-Porter, all the fashion houses were very generous in terms of loaning something. But not every actress is a sample size, so that’s the problem you have. Because most of the actresses were middle-aged, it’s very rare to have a middle-aged actress who is a sample size.
My budget was in between 120 thousand and 170 thousand pounds, so that’s not a lot of money. Giles and Vivienne were incredibly generous and Stella just gave me everything. There’s lots in the movie you don’t see now because it’s been taken out. We did a whole lot of montage shots from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Everything had to be made for that, so you have to be very careful in the beginning. Gradually, once you’ve done half the movie, you kind of know what’s coming up and I’m very lucky because I have a costume constructor I have a very close relationship with and she made a lot of clothes in the film.
How much do you design vs. shops and other designers? For “AbFab” I’ve made a lot of clothes for Bubble. I would say it was probably 35% made by fashion designers, I made 25%, and then the rest was bought.
When do you decide to make something? If I can’t find what I want. In the film Kathy Burke plays Magda, the magazine editor. Jennifer wanted to base her on Glenda Bailey the fashion editor, and at the time she was wearing a lot of capes. They were beautiful capes made by people like Céline. So I took the idea of the capes—because also we didn’t have much time to fit her—and I knew that a cape would fit her for sure. So I designed some outerwear for her. I also designed this dress … you know how these women go to the red carpet they are virtually nude? It was Jennifer’s idea to have a dress that actually showed her entire bottom. I made a lot of things for Jen and Jo too, like the caftans they wore in the South of France.
Kardashian inspired designs
What is the story behind Bubble’s hashtag outfit? Always in “AbFab” there’s some sort of social message of our time, so that was one of my initial thoughts when I was mood-boarding. How has life changed in the past 25 years? We’ve got the internet now and 25 years ago some of us had mobile phones, but it wasn’t the absolute thing to have. You didn’t text, you didn’t buy—you know how you order it on the internet and it can come in two or three hours? The other big thing was reality TV. So what I wanted to do was combine all of that in one costume.
Also last summer, everyone was talking about the Kardashian’s bottom. It seemed to be in every single newspaper Kim sitting on the beach, sitting on that boat, or Khloé working out and you can see her when she’s working out and they’re asking if her bottom is real. I thought, really? There’s got to be better things to talk about. So I created this bottom for Bubble, which was much bigger than her’s so that you can put a bottle of wine on it and then put a smiley face.
Then I rang Vin + Omi and said, ‘Guys I have this idea.’ I met up with them to include social media in this costume. You’ve got the bottom, which is relevant to Kardashian’s and then I put some things together. They came up with the hashtag idea and texting and they made this sort of crazy shirt and shoes.
The life of a costume designer is full of challenges and opportunities
As a costume designer you work with celebrities, designers, and influencers. What would you say to someone who says what you do is glamorous, like a stylist? It’s the most unglamorous life that you could possibly imagine (laughs). It’s very different from being a fashion stylist. I just had a cup of tea with my friend who’s a costume designer on a movie and it’s very frustrating. You are consistently working ‘til 10 o’clock at night in the shops putting things together because people have changed their minds. On a daily basis you are lugging clothes around, humping them up the stairs, packing and unpacking. People get the wrong sizes, so everything you spent the week buying doesn’t fit. It’s very demanding and it’s certainly not glamorous.
You worked on the Heineken Bond “007 On the Train” commercial featuring Daniel Craig and Bérénice Marlohe From the film “Skyfall.” How do you interpret style for a woman, inspired by a spy? My thing is, I don’t think you should really have to notice the clothes. It’s all about the silhouette. I would keep it very tailored, maybe slightly 40s. I’m quite classic in the way that I dress women. A bit like Antonio Berardi … that sort of nice silhouette with a beautifully cut skirt. I love their work because it always harks back to the 30s or 40s, which is when tailoring and the ascent of Dior, you know, it is absolutely beautiful.
If you could style anyone past or present for a film, who would it be and why? I’d love to do something that was 40s with Rita Hayworth—30s or 40s. Greta Garbo, I think would be someone I would really love to dress. I also love the 70s. It’s when I was growing up. I’m very influenced by the 70s. Costume design was a bit more blatant then. At the time when I was growing up, I loved “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Great Gatsby.”
What is one insider technique you use as a costume designer to fashion a character’s look that is also good real-world style advice? What I do, and I always do this with the actors, is I sit down with them and I try and get to know them in five minutes. So I try and get to know their frailties and their strengths. I ask quite personal questions. I think the most important thing is to make that person trust you and give them confidence. So many people are not confident in the way that they dress. I think it’s a really good thing to be able to empower someone. I try to understand them and then look at their body shape. I find one piece that really works and then I’ll build from that.
That’s a great style strategy that everyday people can use. Find that one piece that they feel fabulous in and then build upon that. It’s like Donna Karan’s approach back in the 80s, you had a capsule wardrobe and you’d be able to interact with all the other pieces. It’s an effortless way of dressing. You don’t have to fret about how you are going to look, because you know that piece will work and you can add it with a certain shirt or something that’s similar, and it’s the basis for design. I use to admire how Donna Karan approached putting people’s wardrobes together. She made it much more simple for people, if it was right for their body type.
Why should this film be on every Agent of Chic’s radar? In this very depressing time, the world is in such an awful state and all we hear is somebody getting killed or people are getting attacked or bombed. I think it is a little bit of lite relief. What I love about Jennifer as a writer is her motivation of people and how she takes the piss out of them, but it’s not hurtful though, it’s just a bit of fun.