Justin Cook chats with The Gentlemen costume designer Michael Wilkinson about the new Guy Ritchie film, Batman and more…
There’s a scene right at the beginning of Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen where Matthew McConaughey’s Michael Pearson exchanges words with Jeremy Strong’s Matthew Berger at a formal dining event. The two rival drug magnates are sniffing each other out, when the conversation quickly turns toward their elegant attire. Berger drops the line, “I believe a sense of ownership is vital in every aspect of life, perhaps never more so then when it comes to wardrobe.”
The scene is a tad unconventional, as rarely is costuming in film acknowledged by the film itself; but at the same time, rarely is costuming this slick, this stylish, this sublime. In The Gentlemen, wardrobe isn’t just some element that floats to the background or blends in with character: it demands to be noticed. The film’s aesthetic is only further enhanced by its costuming; in fact, in a lot of ways, it even centers around it.
The man to thank for the best-dressed ensemble of 2020 is Oscar-nominated costume designer Michael Wilkinson. His list of credits includes TRON: Legacy, American Hustle and Noah, but it’s perhaps his longtime collaboration with director Zack Snyder that he’s best known for. It’s a partnership that led him right into the DCEU in 2013 with Man of Steel, where he subsequently worked on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, designing looks for some of the world’s most iconic superheroes.
If you weren’t looking closely, you would think that Wilkinson had been working with Ritchie for years too, based on the ease with which his style aligns with the director’s, but the two have only begun working with each other quite recently. 2019’s Aladdin marked their first (and only other) collaboration together, a movie that shares little in common with Ritchie’s return to the rollicking crime movies that once defined his career, except for an emphasis on attire.
The Gentlemen is now available on home video platforms, including 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital, so, fortunately, you can see all of the film’s fashionable delights for yourself. In conjunction with the release from Universal Studios Home Entertainment, Wilkinson was gracious enough to give us some of his time to ask a few questions about his work on the film.
First off, you collaborated with Guy Ritchie on two projects that came out within the past year, both The Gentlemen and Aladdin. What was it like tackling such wildly different productions with wildly different costuming requirements, yet the same creative force driving both films?
I always welcome variety in my job, and I couldn’t have asked for two more varied projects than Aladdin and The Gentlemen. The two films required a very different tone. With Aladdin, we pushed the vibrancy to make the story really jump off the screen. When you’re dealing with musical numbers, dance sequences and magical carpets, the creative choices can be bold. The scale of the shoot was epic: big crews, healthy resources and loads of extras. The Gentlemen has a more nuanced tone. Guy’s brief to me was to create characters that sum up the vibe of modern quintessential British style, in its many guises. We have characters from different parts of society, but Guy wanted to make sure that we showed that everyone absolutely cared about their look. We had drug lords, nouveau riche mafia bosses (both new school and old school), street gangs, council estate boys, but everyone put their look together with pride and wore it with 200% commitment.
We ended up making a lot of bespoke pieces because we wanted to create a very specific, original look. We combined the custom-made pieces with clothes that we sourced and altered — bought online, from boutiques and from fashion houses. I like to really mix things up to create a fresh look, so I added in some vintage elements from specialized vintage dealers and from costume rental houses in London.
How did your dynamic with Guy Ritchie on The Gentlemen differ from your working with other directors?
Guy is very involved with the costume choices because all of these characters are very close to his heart. He created them, and they are drawn from people he’s met or researched. Of all the directors that I have worked with, Guy actually has the most subtle understanding of the language of clothes — he can tell if a wool suiting has 5 percent or 20 percent cashmere! Some directors are after complexity and epic scale, but Guy was after a single strong memorable look for each of the characters; simple elements for each costume that would define them and differentiate them from each other. I watched all of Guy’s earlier films again for research, but although The Gentlemen is part of this legacy, we wanted to create something special and different for this new film.
For The Gentlemen’s costume design, how did you find that balance between realism, in terms of making the wardrobe look like something these characters would reasonably wear, and also giving the costumes a sleekness and individuality that make them larger than life?
The characters and situations in The Gentlemen have an irreverent, heightened quality to them that echoes the tone of Guy’s earlier films, but with this new film, there’s an updated feel. The film is set today, but it feels like a slightly stylized version of the world we know, where each character has an iconic, memorable look, definitely a little larger than life. We had fun with the costume choices. Guy didn’t want anything boring or obvious, but it was important not to go overboard, and to find a relatable grounding for each character. With each costume, I would put a lot of thought into that balance. I’m a Libran, so I am constantly seeking out equilibrium in my work!
There are certainly movies where perhaps the greatest compliment you can give to the wardrobing is that it’s not overt and compliments the character in a non-noticeable way, but this is not one of those movies. The costuming is stylish and flashy and demands to be acknowledged. How do you go about designing costumes that are meant to grab attention and even inspire a sort of awe/marvelment?
Although all films require a different costume solution, if I had to choose something that would typify my work, the enduring personal costume design approach that goes from film to film, I would say that it is this acknowledgment of the need for the costumes to be compelling, to inspire some awe, but at the same time just be unquestionable “right” or appropriate. I believe the energy between these two forces creates the best costumes. This is true both of huge, high-concept superhero films and realistic contemporary films.
There are so many incredible looks in this film. Which were the most fun to create and what was the inspiration behind those looks?
Well, we wanted to create an original, very specific look for Matthew’s character, so we decided to make all of his suits ourselves using our amazing tailor. His costumes show a modern take on classic English tailoring — extremely high quality but with a younger, less constrictive vibe. Matthew wears his suits like a second skin. His character is absolutely at ease with his status. I chose luxurious fabrics for the suits to exemplify classic English tailoring (window pane checks, Prince of Wales checks, etc), woven from beautiful wools, cashmeres and silks.
Hugh Grant’s character modeled himself on the great film directors of the 1970s, but interpreted with a lecherous, creepy vibe that Hugh loved! The key was finding the right pair of glasses. We chose a classic pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers but added lens that had an unsettling shade of grayish-purple. We made a leather jacket for him and distressed it so that it looked like he lived in it and paired it with high-neck sweaters and crocodile-skin boots.
We designed and manufactured all of the fabrics for the tracksuits for Colin Farrell and his crew. We based them on classic English suiting fabrics, which we then enlarged, made more vibrant and printed onto a modern quilted technical fabric. We wanted to show how different groups of people have interpreted this classic “Englishness” — in this case, a more modern update for streetwear and casual sportswear. Colin’s frames were a one-off original from the early 80s that we sourced from a vintage eyewear specialist. We wanted to show that his character had an innate sense of style: bold and idiosyncratic.
Michelle’s character Rosalind wore luxury labels with a throw-away aplomb.
Her character would have grown up in a very different context to her current one, but we wanted to show that she was very much at ease with her ascent. She has a solid grasp of the nuances of fashion and dressed fearlessly and effortlessly. Her style is classic English with a modern, dramatic impact. Black and white, strong shoulders, graphic stripes and bold silhouettes; pearls, boots, fur, cashmere and sharp tailoring.
Of course, you’re known for your work in the DCEU on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. Have you seen the images of Robert Pattinson’s batsuit for the upcoming Matt Reeves adaptation and if so, can you give me your thoughts on the costume?
I actually haven’t seen it yet. I’m happy to give the new team space while they come up with the look. I’ll enjoy it on the big screen with a bucket of popcorn. It’s always so interesting to see how different creative teams interpret the same characters. I remember Frank Miller once described it as like Europe during the Renaissance when different artists interpreted the figure of Christ in so many different ways – now in the 21st century we reinterpret our superheroes instead.
The Gentlemen is now available on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD, as well as Digital from Universal Studios Home Entertainment!