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'Doctor Strange' costume designer: A good cloak is all in the draping

Oscar-winning British costume designer Alexandra Byrne (“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”) first came to the Marvel world via “Thor” in 2011. She’s worked with a slew of heroes since then, and this year she gave Dr. Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) a certain sartorial power — his Cloak of Levitation. Yet it is her origami-like, sometimes muted clothes populating the fantastical “Doctor Strange” world that lend the movie a kind of realness.

Having many Marvel films now under her designing belt, Byrne knows it’s a true collaboration to create the dramatically dense and sometimes hallucinatory cosmos the characters inhabit. “The world of these films, and why Marvel are so brilliant, is because they have a stable of people who have worked together so much in an amazingly collaborative world,” she says. “Otherwise, it simply wouldn’t work. The fact that everybody recognizes this is why it does work.”      

How many films have you done now for Marvel?

Five. And I have to say I’ve really, really enjoyed it, because when I first did “Thor,” it was such a learning curve. I’d never worked in L.A. before and had never read a comic book. It was as if all my antennae were out and I was just trying to manage it all. In a way, “Doctor Strange” felt like a very good coming together of what I’ve learned on all these Marvel films and what I already knew from doing films like “Elizabeth” and [its sequel] “The Golden Age.” It felt like a good coming together of my slightly bipolar world. 

On first sight, it appears “Doctor Strange’s” world is Asian-influenced: Strange’s blue kimono tunic is just one piece that looks as if it’s folded in origami. Is this your stamp or the book’s?

What I was trying to find is a mystical world that supports the story. For that outfit, I’d found this beautiful Chinese children’s coat made out of 10 layers of indigo fabric. And the way the 10 layers were stitched through and the seams were lined up and the top layer was sort of coated and waxed, I thought: “Oh, so that’s how I can achieve it.” There are clear moments where you feel like you have a breakthrough and then those moments when you think, “Ugh, help!” That was a clear breakthrough moment.

Tell us about the Cloak of Levitation.

What I’d learned from doing the red cloak in “Thor” is that no matter how much you draw it, a cloak, a cape or anything like it is, in the end, the reality of the draping. So it was very much about making prototypes in the workroom, shapes, and how they would hang. We had a small graveyard of red fabric, because you don’t know really how it’s going to behave until you’ve got it a long way down the road.

What about the cloak’s intricate red material?

The cloak itself is a hundred shades of red, there are so many textures and fabrics and shades of material. The original material is a double weave of wool I found at a show in Paris made in Japan, and even the material’s weave has three shades of red in it. The cloak has so many processes. Some of it is frocked with velvet. It’s embroidered. It has various piles in it. Even after it’s all finished, then it goes to my textile department where it’s aged and degraded so it doesn’t look like a new piece of costume plopped on someone; it has a lot more shadow and character in it.  And, yes, Benedict did have a good time wearing it.

Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One looked extraordinary in each of her many costumes. Was she involved in the process?

She was great to work with. She knows clothes inside and out, and she wears them very well. There was the androgyny we wanted that was so important, but also with Tilda, she’s worn every fashion label with every photographer, and what I didn’t want was it to look like Tilda Swinton styled as the Ancient One. So I leaned much more toward a blank-ish canvas. We talked about it together and we came up with the idea that when she first meets Strange she’d literally present as a blank canvas; he had to work out the Ancient One for himself. It was very exciting to work with her; we had a lot of great conversations.

You’ve done both fantasy and heavy period drama — which do you find more demanding?

You know, people don’t give hugely favorable marks for superhero/fantasy films; everyone loves the more period films and dramas, but superhero clothes are, I’d say, more challenging because they can be anything or they can be nothing. You have total control. You’re not drawing on history; you have to create a world of your own doing, of your own mind. The boundary is your imagination rather than history.

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