The King’s Man – a prequel to 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and 2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle – is set during the turbulent years surrounding WWI. Directed by Matthew Vaughn (and with a budget of $100 million), the story centres on an elite British spy, the Duke Of Oxford (played by Ralph Fiennes), who must stop criminal masterminds from carrying out a plot which would destroy humanity.
Costumer Michele Clapton, who won a BAFTA for her designs on the first series of The Crown, had her work cut out for her in The King’s Man: design an Edwardian era wardrobe which reflects the stiff upper lip of London’s Savile Row, and ensures this impeccable tailoring – starchy and heavy by nature – is flexible enough for an action-based picture.
“The weight of the fabrics in that period were really heavy and they really defined the cut of a suit, unlike today where fabrics are so much lighter and you can move around,” says Clapton in a British accent not dissimilar from Emma Thompson’s. In fact, I’m certain she would have been likened to the actress on more than one occasion.
“We also found a lovely Scottish weavist who would weave back catalogue pieces for small amounts, she would sometimes weave us 12 metres, which was great,” Clapton continues. “The fabrics to us were really key to finding our way into the film. There was such wonderful colours and weaves used at that time and to bring that back to a modern audience, I thought, was really exciting.”
Read on for our interview with the award-winning costumer.
The King’s Man is in cinemas now.
GRAZIA: The Crown was based in the years surrounding WW2. Can you speak about the different types of weaves and fabrics that were available, compared with The King’s Man’s WWI setting?
MICHELE CLAPTON: “WWI was a time when women’s clothing really revolutionised, because obviously they had to be much more active, and had to do men’s roles sometimes – and even more so in WW2. But each time, I think the wars moved women’s clothing forward. The skirts shortened, there were less petticoats. The King’s Man was so menswear heavy – we of course have scenes at the Russian ball, and we also designed servants-wear – but on the whole, it was just the weight of the fabrics. We found some old pattern books and they were incredible, there was so much colour! We’re so used to seeing black and white pictures of that time and so we tend to think that it was dull. And it wasn’t at all! A woman’s silhouette during this time was so immense, they had huge shoulders and these really tight collars, it was a very peculiar time… and disproportionate.”
GRAZIA: Films are renowned for giving the costume department tiny budgets. Was there anything in the movie where you thought, ‘I would have done that differently if I had more money’?
CLAPTON: “As [director] Matthew Vaughn is so passionate about clothing, usually you can go to him and plead your case! [Laughs] You always want more money, but he allowed me a lot longer time leading up to filming to research what I might do. People were also really enthusiastic to work on The King’s Man, because I think they know the quality of it, so we got to work with some amazing people who were generous with their time.”
GRAZIA: How long was the lead-up time to filming?
CLAPTON: “I had about four months. I hadn’t worked with Matthew before and that [costumer-director] relationship is so important, especially to someone like him who is so passionate about clothing. It’s really important to try and understand what they want and to bring ideas to them.”
“It’s a period film, and sometimes those shapes are quite hard to accept initially: the very high collars, the very long jackets. Your eye has become accustomed to it and see how that will work to a modern audience.”
GRAZIA: How involved was director Matthew Vaughn in the costume design process?
CLAPTON: “He has to see pretty much everything you do. He allows you the time to do it, but then he really wants to see it. If he doesn’t lie it, he will tell you he doesn’t like it. But he will also change his mind – if he sees something again, he might be like, ‘I actually do like it’. That’s what I liked about him. He doesn’t just say something and then not change his mind to save face. He will actually go, ‘Actually that is good, I’ve got used to it.’ A costume designer is always difficult because you’re sort of always in the middle: You’re dealing with the actors, and then with the director. That’s’ sometimes the hardest part of the job, the dynamic between the actor, director and you. It’s tricky sometimes.”
GRAZIA: What was Ralph Fiennes like to work with?
CLAPTON: “He loves clothing and loves the way it looks. It’s so important for him to find the character. Most actors are involved with Ralph wants to understand why he’s wearing something. It was a really lovely way of working – it’s a lot. I would fit each outfit, then I would plot it, then I would send him pictures of each fitting and plot notes of where I think it should appear in the story so we had this ebb and flow of emotion. Whenever I design, I don’t say, ‘A suit for that, a suit for this’. It’s a wardrobe of clothes. One day on set, we might go, ‘We know we’re going to do the pinstripe suit, but which tie? What mood do we want to say the character is in? How do we weave in the emotion?’ I love it, I’m a storyteller.”
GRAZIA: How does working on a film like The King’s Man compare to working on a television series like The Crown or Game Of Thrones?
CLAPTON: On The Crown, you have more time to tell the story. It was over 10 episodes – so 10 hours – to tell the story. In a funny way, you had time to develop the character, and you can do it more subtlety. On film, you have such a short time to tell the arc of a story and sometimes you do hundreds of costumes, they are just in shot. On a TV show, you spend more time in one room and [the camera, and thus the audience] walk through all the work. A film is an abbreviated story. It’s a small moment in time, told in detail. This film is epic, I love the scale of it. I think you need to be stronger with your costume choices because you won’t see them for so long and they need to tell the story so much more quickly and succinctly.”
GRAZIA: What was Gemma Arterton like to work with?
CLAPTON: “She was divine. When we first met, we sat down to discuss the character and I showed her moodboards about where we might go with it. We just bonded straight away. The ideas we had just fitted so well with how she saw the character; the structure of these costumes, the silhouettes. She also has this wonderful way of standing which, as a costume designer, is a dream frankly. She just engages and inhabits the costumes she’s given.”
GRAZIA: On any project, things don’t always turn out the way we initially anticipated. Was there a scene or a piece that worked out even better on screen than you imagined?
CLAPTON: A piece I love was a piece we made. An oiled little biker’s jacket that Conrad arrives at Sandhurst in. I loved the fact that it was blood red and pre-empted the story that was about to happen – the desolation, the damage – and I thought it was just the perfect tone. The props department put two little cases on that back of his back and I thought that was perfect. It sort of underscored that he was leaving.”
GRAZIA: Do you have a favourite scene that GRAZIA readers/viewers can look out for?
CLAPTON: “I loved the Russian ball. I love when Rasputan [played by Rhys Ifans] and his two female cohorts walk in and scan around the room. That was a really fun to design for. There was a lot of balls in Russia where they dressed up in traditional Russian headpieces. It was slightly fantastical, which was exactly what happened back then. We made these metal headpieces, and pretty much all of the costumes in the room. It was so satisfying.”
GRAZIA: You should release that entire ballgown line on the runway…
CLAPTON: “We could all wonder around in fantasy Russian costumes. It would be rather fantastic, wouldn’t it? [Laughs]”
The King’s Man is in cinemas now.