Internationally acclaimed fashion designer, cookbook author, and Project Runway judge, Zac Posen launched his eponymous collection in 2001 with a vision for modern American glamour that married couture technique with striking innovation. Over the years, his designs have been worn by some of the world’s most famous and stylish women such as Uma Thurman, Natalie Portman, Oprah, Michelle Obama, Gwyneth Paltrow, Naomi Watts, Claire Danes, and Rihanna. For last year’s Met Gala, Posen designed a show-stopping custom gown for the iconic Debbie Harry featuring a hoop skirt overlaid with silk swirls in red and white echoing the furling stripes of the star-spangled banner and a denim jacket
that he repurposed from his own jeans.
Admired for his technique in artisanal craftsmanship, anatomical construction, and textile manipulation, he was a natural choice for the producers of The Outfit to call upon as a consultant and costume designer. The film, released in US cinemas today, is the feature directorial debut from the Oscar-winning writer of The Imitation Game. Oscar-winner Mark Rylance stars as a master tailor who finds himself caught up in the dangerous games of the vicious gangsters of 1950s Chicago who buy his elegant hand-crafted suits.
Ahead of the US theatrical release of The Outfit on Friday March 18th, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with costume designer Zac Posen about the draw of the film, how the creative process varies to creating his own collections, his passion for film and theatre, and growing up in New York City in the 80s and 90s.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: when this first came to you as a screenplay what were some of the things that drew you to it and how actively looking to design for film?
Zac Posen: “I’ve always been interested, before I was brought into the fashion world for 20 plus years my first love was definitely film and theatre. Over many years I’ve had some really amazing opportunities and fun moments with film, like on both of the Sex and the City movies and on Ocean’s Eight with Rihanna, but I’d never been able to be part of a process. About two and a half years ago, I first saw a version of the script for The Outfit and I was really taken aback by how beautifully written it was, with such care and nuance. I was familiar with Graham Moore’s work. I read a lot of scripts and behind the scenes quietly over many I’ve given notes and guidance to directors or actors that I’m friends with in terms of development, but I was blown away by this one. It was an interesting project where clothing is such an important element to the storytelling, there are great symbolisms and parallels through it in terms of our lead character’s process and the story, which I thought that were amazing.”
“As the project progressed, I went to an early table reading of it before COVID and I saw that this was a beautiful piece of tight theatre and got a sense of how great it was going to look on camera. I really saw it and felt it. Zoey Deutch was at that reading and I thought she was really spectacular. I’d never seen her at that level before, I had dressed her and knew how talented she was, but in person I saw this magic that was exciting and inspiring. Then as the project came together, I knew that it was essential to have an amazing tailor and cutter partner and when I knew that it was going to be shot in the UK I had this epiphany and I called some friends of mine at Huntsman. They read the script and loved it and they love Mark as an actor and were really excited about coming on board.”
“The other component, because of Mark’s training and method technique, I wondered if there was any way that he could job shadow at Huntsman and learn the trade. The fittings at Huntsman right off the bat were just amazing with Mark. He was learning with Campbell Carey, the head cutter and creative director of Huntman, all the tricks of the trade and Mark cut his own suit. I was slightly jealous because I really wanted to have that experience at Huntsman and still hope to one day, working with a master cutter and understanding the nuances between what that means versus being a tailor. To watch his character come to life through the making of his suits was extraordinary.”
“Sadly, I wasn’t able to be in the UK at that time and so we brought on costume designer Sophie O’ Neill who was able to coordinate with me online. She did exceptional work putting this together. Her level of care and detail was quite extraordinary and from afar I was kept in the loop through many decisions during pre-production. It started with Graham, me, and the producers going back and forth with lots of different research and then Sophie brought additional research and had to put the film together in a very short amount of time using all the resources that she’d built up in the UK with Angels and others.”
The film is set during the winter in 1950s Chicago, what was the essence of what you wanted to bring out about that period and setting in the costumes?
“Well, it’s really a period before ideas of futurism and the modern world come into play stylistically, so we all wanted to capture the texture of traditional fabrics. Early on, we discussed this idea of when you cut fabric, seeing the particles fray and the dimension of tweeds and textures and bouclés and felted wools and heathered fabric in that dimension. We wanted to really highlight the traditions of knit, yarn, and wool which would show the nuance and sophistication of those colors, which could be seen as a little muddy, except for Zoey’s costumes. They have these pop saturations, almost as if you’re looking at it through an old Kodak film lens, where those colors pop in that great way through the darkness of the room.”
How does the process of designing for film differ from creating your own collections?
“A runway piece of clothing needs to be produced in multiples, so that’s one component. It’s really all about how it moves and walks and generally it’s from a distance on a runway to a certain extent, although there are always detail shots. You’re able to pull from a lot of different kinds of resources in a different way. Things can have a one time use in a film and there’s an idea of age and texture that’s very different. At least with this type of film, it’s really about highlighting the mood and elevating the experience of the actor and what they’re going to feel inside. That’s what a great costume in this context should do. It helps build the actor’s performance, it doesn’t take away, it doesn’t distract, it just helps them become and feel. It’s different than doing a sci-fi project where the costume is the character in a different way.”
“With runway you’re making a commentary about the moment today and building and it’s your pure creative expression in a sense. Here, the work is really lending itself to a story. I don’t think I would be able to build a collection, even with the most talented people on Zoom. That aspect of doing the film was very challenging for me because I’m a very tactile person, but very quickly I knew that I had an incredible collaborator in Sophie, with an amazing eye and attention to detail. When you’re working with a team, when things are good it’s important to let things flow. This was coming together so well that even from looking at the dailies every day from abroad, I could see the coloration, the lighting, all come together and highlighting Graham’s vision which was so clear in the words on the page.”
You mentioned your love of film and theatre, when you were growing up to what extent did that intersect with a love of fashion? Were their movies where you were particularly taken with the costumes, like Marilyn’s iconic looks in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or even Dorothy’s gingham dress in The Wizard of Oz?
“I love Gilbert Adrian, so definitely! My father recorded everything on VHS so the great classics of Hollywood were always on rotation and become deeply ingrained in me. I definitely feel I have Singing In The Rain in my blood. It’s a big part of who I am and my aesthetic journey. I voraciously watched old films and a lot of MTV. I was more aware of that than fashion or fashion magazines at that time. I’m a real theatre kid and I went to as many Off-Broadway and Broadway shows as possible. It really built my love of character expression and storytelling that ended up in my fashion. When I entered fashion, at that time period both myself and the work I was making were too theatrical for people, but I really saw each runway show, especially early on, as a theatre production. Each model would have a script of the character that they were going to play as they walked down the runway and each hair and makeup design was individually developed. I think my love of production and of putting a show together lends itself to fashion and also to film in a really strong way. What I love about film is that there’s a real lasting quality to the creative work that gets put into it, whereas with a runway show, even if you produce a beautiful video about it, the purpose of it is still somehow more like a live theatre event. A film captures something the essence of it in a very different, much deeper way a lot of the time.”
Have you got a film that you go back to just to look at the costumes and is their a particularly costume designer whom you admire. I love Orry-Kelly’s work over all the decades he worked on classics like Auntie Mame.
“I love Auntie Mame! As a child I made a vow that with all of my friends’ younger children I’d be their Auntie Mame! I think that level of flair and panache and glamour is something that one inherently has, but when you have a great performer like Rosalind Russell in a role like that it really transforms you, you fall in love with her and all her kookiness and shenanigans. So definitely Auntie Mame, and Singing in the Rain is something I go back to. I love the work of Gilbert Adrian, Edith Head, and of Orry-Kelly.”
“American costume design and glamour had a really interesting cultural role. It was a real moment when the idea of the goddess came into play and took global centre stage, with theatres being transformed into movie theatres all over the world. It started to show strong female archetypes and that was something I was really drawn to. I think that dialogue between Paris couture of the moment and Hollywood is something that’s really interesting. Craft was at a really high level, the future was coming, and that level of elegance of dressing and glamour was something that was enchanting to me and still is.”
Finally, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“New York City! I’m New York City born and bred, in Lower Manhattan. I had an incredible childhood that was colourful and expressive and accepting, and I know how rare that is. I think it was a really interesting moment where, at least in my world, being gay was something that was definitely more commonplace. I went to school in the West Village, so growing up it wasn’t something unusual, yet it definitely wasn’t in popular culture as something common. The incredible teachers of the community that I had were in New York. As a young teenager, I had a mentor who was an artist and poet named Rene Ricard, that was certainly a crash course in life lessons and protection in the culture as I was learning my own identity.”
“It was totally a different time in New York. It was also a time when there was great fear, because I was born in 1980. People around me growing up were definitely comfortable in their sexual identity, but at the same time we were living in the AIDS epidemic, which was very pinpointed at the community, so it was a very formative time. For my parents, they lost many friends and that’s something I wasn’t really aware of at the time, but now I try to understand what that must have caused for people in terms of fear as I started to discover my sexuality and identity.”
“We’re living in such an incredible, transformative time right now and there’s so much progress still to be made. We have to keep moving forward and teaching acceptance and love and caring, and understanding that everybody is totally different from wherever they are and that we can have that mutual respect and love.”
By James Kleinmann
Focus Features releases THE OUTFIT in theaters today, March 18th 2022.