Cruella, the Disney prequel imagining the early years of the dalmatian-hunting ubervillain, has arrived on our screens, and safe to say it is the fashiest film of the year. With Emma Stone as Cruella and Emma Thompson as her rival, the Baroness, it looks to be a stylistic face-off, not least since their battlefield is quite literally fashion: the Baroness is a couturier in 1970s London, and Cruella her apprentice. So who is the woman entrusted with designing this sartorial feast?
Step forward Jenny Beavan, a woman who confesses jollily that “fashion isn’t my thing”. A woman who received an Oscar wearing an M&S pleather jacket, and whose attitude to the red carpet is so relaxed that Stephen Fry once welcomed her to the stage as a “bag lady” (more of that later). Even when we discuss the film via Zoom, she sticks unrepentantly to her line.
“It’s still not about the fashion in my eyes,” she insists, a lively 70-year-old chatting from the kitchen in her home in south London; both her daughter and her former partner are theater producers, to give you an extra sense. She talks warmly and tangentially, lots of “brilliants” and “loves”. Her bobbed gray hair sits on her shoulders, on top of a crisp white shirt layered over a black T-shirt. “It’s about the story it tells.”
Beavan getting the Cruella gig isn’t totally counterintuitive, of course: she is one of the most important costume designers working in film and television today. She has received two Oscars for her work, and they represent her range and longevity — from the first one in 1986 for the Merchant Ivory classic A Room with a View, up to the second, 30 years later, for the futuristic desert saga Mad Max: Fury Road. In between she gained a further eight nominations, for the likes of Howards End, Sense and Sensibility (both with Emma Thompson), Gosford Park and The King’s Speech. So she knows her way around a bonnet, although please don’t get her started on how people are sniffy about “costume dramas”.
“I hate that!” she cries. “That dismissive, ‘Yes, what you do is costume — bonnets, you know, corsets and bonnets.’”
Her bob positively bounces with frustration. “Of course they wore bonnets — they didn’t have sunscreen and they wanted to keep their pale complexions!” Beavan is terribly polite but wonderfully excitable. She promises she has taken on board the lesson she got from Charlize Theron, who got impatient with her during a fitting for Mad Max: Fury Road. The actress loved what Beavan had made for her, to which Beavan got very English and dithery. “Take the compliment, bitch,” was Theron’s reply.
Cruella, though, is still some kind of surprise, not least for Beavan herself. “I was definitely out of my comfort zone.” It is the biggest costume budget she has ever worked with, and Disney was extremely generous.
Beavan getting the Cruella gig isn’t totally counterintuitive: she is one of the most important costume designers working in film and television today.
“In fact, I think we gave money back because I hate waste,” she says. She repeats that, in whatever job she is doing, it’s all about serving the director’s vision. “It can’t just be any old ad hoc thing that Jenny Beavan wants to do,” she tuts. “It has got to be within the storytelling.” Thus we follow Cruella as she rises from impoverished beginnings to becoming a pickpocket, to a cleaner in the much-loved London department store Liberty, and then meets the Baroness. The clips I see show Stone in showstoppers — a red Charles James-style gown that explodes into something more avant-garde; another that, with a flourish, reveals a gigantic train of hand-sewn petals. Beavan calls these Cruella’s “photobomb” moments, and you wonder if they’re not half-devised to become the next big memes.
Anyway, Beavan created 80 costumes, pretty much all tailor-made, for the two Emmas alone: the inspiration for the antiheroine was designers such as Vivienne Westwood and BodyMap and the German punk-pop singer Nina Hagen, whereas for the Baroness the keynotes are 1960s Dior and Balenciaga. Beavan naturally raves about both actresses: Stone is “such a sport”, she coos, while Thompson is an old friend: “She always was a really properly paid-up member of the human race.” They’ve already done a lot together, but “this was such fun, because I don’t think we’d ever done anything with quite so many showstopper looks. We were so looking forward to each fitting, and she’d squeak with pleasure. It’s kind of what you want.” She gets stroppy stars only very rarely, she insists: “Often it’s because they’re nervous and clothes are very easy to take it out on.”
The film also seems to be a love letter to the London of the past, particularly the 1970s, which was very much Beavan’s milieu. She sighs nostalgically about day trips to Liberty: “It’s where I used to buy Tana Lawn to make my funny blouses that I never finished. I always got bored!” But beyond the clothes, she says, it reminded her of her entire childhood, as the daughter of two classical musicians. “Our house in Putney, stuffed with friends and relatives and people with caravans outside. I mean, it was a very bohemian upbringing.” In fact she was a theater nut and studied set design, but through an old friend she ended up working with Merchant Ivory and they encouraged her to zero in on costume.
She had her own notorious personal costume moment when she won her Bafta and Oscar in 2016, weeks apart, for her work on Mad Max: Fury Road, attending each time in a biker jacket and jeans and comfy shoes, all from M&S, and all customized with paint and crystals. It was meant as kind of a “little homage” to the film’s own rugged, apocalypse-biker aesthetic, but that got slightly lost en route. It was at the Baftas that Fry dubbed her a “bag lady” and caused such an uproar on Twitter that he quit it for a while, but Beavan, an old friend, repeats that the outrage was misplaced. Meanwhile, at the Oscars, a video of the Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu giving her a bemused once-over went viral. “I remember, as I passed, he sort of looked at me and I thought, ‘Whatever’,” says Beavan. “It didn’t bother me, but my God, my profile went up. I mean, it was extraordinary — I was recognized in the street. People stopped me at New Cross station!”
She is a bit queasy about it having all been rebranded as a feminist moment, though. “I’m so ‘pre’ all that” — she means feminism — “I never saw it as making a statement. I was more interested in doing something that was a bit of fun for the film.” She insists she certainly had no intention of being disrespectful to the Academy, but then in the same breath says, “I mean, I don’t see why, if you’re in full glitter and eight-inch heels, that’s more respectful to the Academy.”
Quite. The question just remains: what if she gets nominated for Cruella? Brace yourselves. “I thought, oof, if I ever get nominated again, I shall really think about what to wear,” she chuckles. “In order to really upset them next time!”
Louis Wise is a freelance journalist covering culture