They dressed Britney Spears in an epic wardrobe of embellished crop tops and low-rise pants from 1999 to 2004. Earlier this year, they received a Costume Designers Guild Award nomination for outfitting Matthew McConaughey in western garb and Jared Leto in thrift store dresses and heels in the Oscar-winning drama “Dallas Buyers Club.” Soon, Kurt Swanson and Bart Mueller, who make up New York-based costume design team Kurt & Bart, will have another major credit under their belts for the final two installments of Lionsgate’s “The Hunger Games” film franchise: “Mockingjay Part 1” hits theaters on Friday, and Part 2 is due out next year.
Kurt & Bart succeed award-winning costume designers Trish Summerville, who created the dramatic high-fashion looks for “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (set in the opulent Capitol) but who exited the franchise to work on David Fincher’s movie adaptation of the Gillian Flynn book “Gone Girl,” and Judianna Makovsky, who was the costume designer for the original film “The Hunger Games.”
While Kurt & Bart’s names may not be instantly recognizable, their work is certainly memorable. The self-taught fashion designers chalk up much of their education to nights out in the New York City club scene in the late 1980s. After creating the now-defunct street fashion line Design Asylum and working with musicians including David Bowie, Courtney Love, Pink and Spears — their connection to “The Hunger Games” director Francis Lawrence, who directed the pop star’s 2001 music video “I’m A Slave 4 U” — the costume design duo focused on film. When a mutual friend reintroduced them to Lawrence, they had one weekend to read the books and prepare a presentation that won them the “Hunger Games” job.
The film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ third novel in “The Hunger Games” trilogy, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” depicts a revolution against the wealthy Capitol by rebels in the ruins of District 13 in the fictional nation Panem. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) agrees to be the Mockingjay, a symbol of rebellion that rallies the fighters. We recently had a chance to chat by phone with the costume designers about their latest gig, which was no small task; the project involved dressing not only the the principal actors, but 10,000 extras as well.
What was your approach to designing that pivotal piece, the Mockingjay costume?
Swanson: It was really interesting for us to design through Cinna’s eyes [heroine Katniss Everdeen’s stylist, who secretly designed her Mockingjay costume]. He was known for all those fantastical gowns, made for the Capitol audience, but the Mockingjay was something that Cinna knew would become a symbol for the districts and had to be very tactical, because ultimately Katniss was going to fight in it. So we designed it to be modular and flexible. The wings are magnetic, so easily removable. The chest plate was inspired by beautiful asymmetrical breastplates worn in Japanese kyudo archery, and the combat jacket underneath it has nylon webbing detailing that crisscrosses at the small point of the waist to really cinch it and create this amazing silhouette. Jen has a tiny waist but we made it even tinier. And we didn’t want the outfit to be all black, so a subtle iridescent blackish-blue sheen was molded into the [material] of the wings and breast plate and her gloves to signify the color of the mythical Mockingjay.
Mueller: We let function lead the design. Jen was shooting the bows so often and the strings were hitting her forearm, so we also built an arm guard into the costume on her shooting arm.
This film has a very uniform look that is in synch with the whole “normcore” vibe in fashion.
Mueller: Yes. Francis said, “When they come to District 13, they get a footlocker. Figure out what’s in that footlocker.” There was a standard issue for civilians. Men and women each got a shirt, pants, a sweater, a Henley, a coverall or shirt dress, depending on where they worked, and boots. Our designs focused on the little things — pleating, pockets, closures. World War II was inspirational. In austere times, when fabric was scarce, there were rules about the length of a pant, how full a skirt could be, so you weren’t wasting resources. The people of District 13 were putting all of their resources towards their cause, so the spare clothes reflect that, but historical references make them a bit romantic.
Swanson: The high-waisted trousers reference those worn by women in World War II. Even though they are utilitarian and boyish, that high waist creates a beautiful form.
Was the anonymous atmosphere of “Mockingjay,” compared to with the opulent Capitol setting of prior films, a challenge?
Swanson: To take all of these characters that everyone has gotten to know and love and associate with a certain style, strip them down, and plop them into this world where they are all given the same five pieces of clothing was really interesting for us — not only to design that clothing, but also to figure out how each character would wear it and still remain individual. Haymitch [Woody Harrelson] chooses to wear his shirt and pants with a knit cap and throw a sweater on and make the whole thing feel very slouchy.
Mueller: Like Haymitch, Katniss is never exactly buttoned up. Her collar is open, or her sleeves are rolled up. She’s always a bit against the norm. But President Coin [Julianne Moore] is always very buttoned up and pressed. To see them in the same clothes actually accentuates their differences.
Swanson: One of my favorite outfits was taking two extra-large men’s shirts and buttoning them together, using the plackets, to create an oversize, four-sleeved dress that Effie [Elizabeth Banks] belted and wore with her fabulous architectural [Zaha Hadid for United Nude] shoes. And she accessorized her standard issue with [statement] jewelry by Alexis Bittar.
Mueller: Since Effie didn’t have her wigs, we figured out 50 ways to tie the standard kerchief — printed with a graphic map of the District 13 complex that production designer Philip Messina came up with — into a head wrap.
I did notice some swank looks on Peeta [Josh Hutcherson], Caesar [Stanley Tucci] and President Snow [Donald Sutherland] in the Capitol scenes.
Mueller: Caesar’s [floral-print suit] look was probably the most flamboyant thing we got to design in the film. And Peeta’s white-on-white look was a combination of fashion pieces [by Maison Martin Margiela and London fashion brand Unconditional], but we actually made his collar out of paper, an update on the paper collars men wore in the 19th century. And I love President Snow because he’s so absolutely evil and so impeccably dressed.
Swanson: After doing miles of cotton twill and canvas for District 13, it was great to break into some beautiful, luxurious fabrics for Snow. We designed silk brocade dressing gowns and wool-cashmere jackets for him. And Donald really knows clothes. At one fitting, I barely got a coat on him, and he looked in the mirror for a split second and said, “The hems are off.” One side was a slight bit longer than the other one. It was incredible. He could almost feel it…. These actors really know their characters and have a lot of input into what they wear and how they wear it.