INTERVIEW: ‘The Umbrella Academy’ Costume Designer Christopher Hargadon
Costume designer Christopher Hargadon has worked on films including Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, ExistenZ and Johnny Mnemonic and TV shows including The X Files and Hemlock Grove. He has now been Emmy-nominated for his work on Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy, which saw the Hargreaves siblings flung into early 60s Dallas, only to discover that their father may or may not be embroiled in the Kennedy assassination.
We discussed the influence of the graphic novels, The Handler’s fabulous hats, what it’s like to fit Robert Sheehan for costumes and tried to get a few hints for Season 3…
Before the first season, how much were you influenced by the graphic novels and did you use them as a jumping-off point for the initial concepts for the costumes?
I was very inspired by the graphic novels but I wasn’t really familiar with them previously. It’s funny because when I was called initially, just hearing “The Umbrella Academy,” I got a huge rush, sometimes you just feel a project immediately and with that one, I definitely had that feeling. And then when I did read the novels, the whole approach with the visuals that Gabriel Ba created and the crazy storyline with these anti-superheroes…they were written twenty-something years ago, before all these Marvel films came out and everything, it was quite an original concept, I really loved them. I wasn’t given a direction to follow the novels, but I really wanted to honour them, as I respect Gabriel and Gerard Way so much and loved their work. So I did try to reflect things through the characterisations.
The casting was to a large degree, quite different from the characters in the novels, but with Diego I did try to introduce the striped sweater and with Hargreaves I kept the same colours – grey and tan, that’s how he started off in the first season. Everybody has evolved from there, they’ve all kept their individual quirkiness but they all started off, I hope, with a feeling of the initial departure point of the novels. With Five, I did try and do a black and white suit, but it was far too stark within the context of the other characters. So I experimented with less aggressive tones and that’s how I ended up with the school uniform, obviously following the template of a British school uniform, still with a bit of colour, there’s a bit of burgundy in there. But I was really hoping that people would recognise the novels, it’s almost like creating something biographical – you want to show some of the authenticity of the original story, so I hope I did.
With the transition from Season 1 to Season 2, you mainly had to factor in that it was nearly all set in the 1960s – how did you view this challenge? Was it exciting or daunting?
I love doing period, so I was happy. When you work on a series, it’s really wonderful if there are changes from one season to the next, I don’t want to say that I get bored quickly, but…I can get bored quickly, so having a whole different world, for me was a really good thing. Also, because of the nature of the story and the type of characters – Klaus (Robert Sheehan), Lila (Ritu Arya) and certainly The Handler (Kate Walsh) were not genuine Sixties so I tried to blend them in as best I could. Klaus and Lila had more of a late-60s feel and into the 70s and The Handler is just all over the map, being the time-travelling psychotic freak that she is and a fashionista on top of it! It was great, I was really happy to have that change, it gave me an opportunity to change all the colours too – getting more into the yellows, blues and greens. Luther (Tom Hopper) was very happy to get out of the earth tones and into blues, so everyone was very happy to make the shift.
So The Handler, as you say, her style has remained pretty consistent, but she does get some great outfits in Season 2. I think my favourite is in Episode 7 when she wears a purple captain’s outfit with gold epaulettes. Do you have a favourite outfit for The Handler from Season 2?
The collaboration with Kate Walsh was really one of the nicest I’ve ever had. She is very understanding and aware of fashion and period, silhouette and colour and all those kinds of things. We had a long discussion before, when they were casting her, it was a quick turnaround and they said “Kate wants to talk to the costume designer so it’s all resting on you, whether she takes the job or not!” But we had a really great connection immediately and that just continued on through the whole thing.
I did love that one, because I love militaristic fashion on women throughout time and the shaping of it was so odd and everything. I also love the persimmon – the orangey one in Episode 2 with the enormous hat, it sort of had a wasp tail at the back – it’s a classic Kate/The Handler silhouette, with a wasp waist. But all of them were quite unique and we turned them around so quickly. She’d fly into town, she’d be filming usually the next day and we always wanted to make them as perfect for her as possible, so we’d be busy bees the day before shooting to get these things camera-ready. I pretty much loved all of her outfits, I would have loved to make more! I had more fabric that I was ready to throw on the mannequin, but maybe some other time…
You also mentioned Klaus who obviously has some of the best outfits on the whole show. His cult leader get-ups feel quite “Beatles in India” inspired, were there any specific influences for him or was it taken from lots of different sources?
Well in the opening of the season, he was scripted as wearing a sherwarni, which is a South-East Asian type of dress jacket which is long, it goes down to the knees. I went and bought a few, they’re very beautiful with embroidery and beautiful fabric and everything, but they’re far too stiff and Klaus is very fluid in his movement, so as soon as I saw what a real sherwani looked like, I thought I did need to do a riff on one. So that’s when I started to play around with different fabrics.
Honestly with him, I don’t refer to anything specific because I understand what Robert likes to wear and I’m lucky that he can wear virtually anything. I just amass things that appeal to me, we have a fitting and throw it all against the wall and see what sticks. We have to laugh, he puts things on that he really likes and begins to move in fittings. My fitting photos of Robert are unlike any others that I’ve ever taken because he’s dancing and twirling, has his arms out and he’s on the ground, he’s just very animated if he likes something.
Allison and Ray have more early 60s styling. In Episode 6, there’s a “Pretty Woman” style sequence where Ray tries on lots of different suits in the store. How did you prepare for this scene because it involves outfitting an entire clothing store, not just one character?
Well I wanted things to have flair and colour for him because it was a scene that was fun, I loved the music on the show and I knew there would be some great music while they were doing this whole sequence. So I amassed quite a collection of suits from the 60s for this particular season. Ray (Yusuf Gatewood) is almost like a model, he’s very lean so clothes sit nicely on him. So I used anything in his size that had a little bit of sharkskin or texture in the fabric, there was a blue one, a nice subtle red one with some black flecking in it. I found that I couldn’t really distinguish, once I saw the sequence, because it happened so quickly, but I tried to keep it visually up so it would be fun to watch.
And with Allison’s dresses and suits – you mentioned that you got to use some yellow for her and she also had some tailored suits that were in the Jackie O style – what influences did you use for her styling?
Some actors I’ll be fitting them and I’ll look at them and say “you are perfect for the 50s or the 40s” and Emmy I feel is quite perfect for, I would have initially said 40s, or even 50s, but with the 60s, she walked into so many things. We did do a fair bit of building for her, as we did with all of the characters because of the stunts or flying coffee or whatever was in the scene (we had to have multiples), so often we built from scratch. But it was astounding to me how many things she literally walked into and they were perfect as is.
When Allison goes to the jail to visit Ray, Emmy wanted her to have something dignified and more formal so she wears a suit. I would prepare the racks and then she would just come in and look through them and pull out the things that she liked, but we had so many extra things in her closet as well that we never actually put on camera. It was really serendipitous that she happened to suit this period so well. But she had to keep it in character, Allison was working at a hair salon, they weren’t wealthy people, but they had taste and flair but it wasn’t high end fashion.
With Sissy (Marin Ireland), the housewife character who Vanya (Elliott Page) forms a strong bond with, what kind of feel were you going for with her? She is more of a rural character, whereas the rest are city-based in Dallas, so what kind of inspirations and palettes did you draw for her?
The thing I love about this show is that the characters are all so distinct, so it’s very easy to keep them from overlapping with each other. With Sissy, she had the combination of being a rural housewife but also a bird in a gilded cage. Her husband is a good man but his idea of the perfect housewife is someone who dresses pretty and not necessarily practically. In my first fitting with Marin, I think the first thing she appears in is a poodle blouse and a flared turquoise skirt and she was like “I don’t think I really understand, why would she be in the country and wearing this?”
And I told her that she has an arc, I had boards and drawings to explain what the arc would be. It starts off and she’s kind of a possessed woman, she’s under a male-dominated household and as the season evolves, she unfolds as a person, becomes more in touch with who she really is. We eventually see her wearing trousers, she’s practical and in comfortable clothes, more user-friendly things for living in the country. Not wearing high heels in the middle of the day in the kitchen.
With Diego (David Castaneda), I love that he wears black fairly consistently, but when the siblings all go to dinner with their Dad, he wears an orange button-down shirt, so even though he despises his Dad, he makes a bit of an effort. When it’s a group scene with all of the siblings, how much do you have to consider what everyone is wearing and balance their outfits against each other?
Yeah you do that pretty much in anything, it’s sort of what a costume designer does, or I do. I don’t think I’ve ever put everyone in the same colour in a scene, unless there’s a request for it. I think I’m very colour-based, my outlook on the world starts with colour. Within the context of the group, I always want to have an array and a balance of different colours. I think by this point it’s almost subconscious, I don’t actually think much about it anymore, if something’s out of place, then I’ll notice it. When I started out, I was much more aware of that, but it’s interesting that you point it out. Do I still do that? I think I do!
There’s going to be a Season 3 – can you tell me anything about it?
We’ve almost finished it. It’s completely different again. Netflix have let out some hints, there’s an entire other family, which follows the novels as well. There’s an entire other family called the Sparrows that is raised in a different timeline by Hargreaves and they’re very different from the The Umbrella Academy. It’s been a challenge because we did it in Covid, with hardly any stores open, everything was closed for quite a long time, 4-5 months, so that was very challenging and interesting. But I really enjoyed the different characters and the casting again is really brilliant so I’m excited to see how it all looks put together. It was a big ensemble this year.
Seasons 1-2 of The Umbrella Academy are available on Netflix now.