Cruella: Creating Disney’s most transgressive villainess

Emma Stone as Cruella in Disney’s live-action ‘Cruella.’
Laurie Sparham / Disney Enterprises Inc.

By Luz Lancheros, MWN

Cruella, until now, has been considered as a “vile” woman (her last name says a lot), sick of fur and fashion. But in the new film, which will be released on May 28, fashion becomes part of her rebellious spirit, especially in an era where this is an absolute aesthetic statement: the punk London of the 70s. Estella de Vil (Emma Stone) is a designer full of ambition who faces a system that discards her and ends up rebelling through dresses. Her great enemy is Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), who represents a sophisticated and elitist establishment that will turn her into the villain we all know.

Metro interviewed Jenny Beavan, winner of two Oscars (the last one for the fabulous “Mad Max”), who recreated rebellious London and gave her signature look to a villain that surely, like “Maleficent,” will turn into a trend revolution throughout this year.

How did you start working on “Cruella” and what was the most challenging part of this experience? 

The challenge was huge because, of course, it’s Cruella. Obviously, it’s a huge undertaking, I had little time and it’s not like a Jane Austen story where everyone looks the same. Here every outfit spoke and looked different because I had to tell how this character enjoys clothes in a very individual way. It was a lot of fun to design for her and the Baroness (Emma Thompson) because you tell what they will become. It was all hugely challenging, even though I had a great and talented team to help me execute each look.

But it was more fun to design for villains, because they are strong characters and you tell what they are going to become. All the designs were challenging because we were trying to show Cruella’s story arc. 

I had five cutters, all with different skills. And I’m sure they all cursed me from time to time because of what I was asking them to do. But everyone put in their ideas. They were the ones who wanted to risk doing things with the dresses, like the red one that looks like a twisted tree. There were other hard works. For example, it took a lot of effort to make the dress when she rides the motorcycle, or when she is in the garbage truck and the dress with the red petal skirt.

Behind the scenes of Disney’s live-action ‘Cruella.’Laurie Sparham / Disney Enterprises Inc.

What were your references? Yes, it’s the 70s. But I can see great ladies of British fashion like Isabella Blow, Daphne Guinness, Vivienne Westwood.

We thought about doing this film two, three years ago and I thought about McQueen, Nina Hagen, etc. And I went to a lot of vintage stores remembering my own past in the 70s, how I would go to Portobello vintage market and put bits and pieces together. In fact, the military was very popular at the time, as you wore it with jeans and ruffled skirts.

The film combined my own experience with clever executors. In the 1970s I didn’t have a lot of money, I was working in theater, but I remember how people dressed and the influences that were around me. Also, I looked at the magazines of the time. Vogue is now online and it helped me to create the Baroness’s dresses as well. And for “Cruella,” there were many references as well. Obviously, I thought of Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano-type looks and other people who were doing interesting things. We combined all this and put the 50s, 60s and then the 70s focused on another kind of freedom. That’s where I found my way to dress her.

Cruella also relies a lot on performance as a fashion statement. What was it like to create those looks with those inputs in mind? 

She absolutely contrasts with what the Baroness puts on. It’s her antithesis and in a way, you see her punk element. Obviously, she used ethical, recycled and reused military and vintage pieces. And that’s part of her spirit. With some of the costumes, we had to do print work, make the fabric. Jenna Weaving, our wonderful textile designer, gave it a slight touch of graffiti. Although it was a bit tricky, of course, because of the location issue sometimes, as we shot some scenes by the Thames, at night. There was bad weather. For her ride on top of the car, for example, we had to throw away a lot of beautiful fabrics for the skirt, we needed something sumptuous, but that would give it movement. And this piece was made by hand, every flower on that skirt… The material is called organza.

What was the inspiration for the Baroness? 

High fashion from the 50s, Dior, Balenciaga. Emma Thompson has a great figure and she enjoyed wearing clothes like that. Everything had to be quite sculpted, rigid, figurative. She’s the complete opposite of Cruella, who breaks away from the establishment.

Did you take anything from what Glenn Close showed in the previous two films? 

No, because it’s an origin film. And the other two take us to 10, 20 years later, because it’s already the 90s. Also, Cruella seems to be defined by black and white, although a little bit of red comes in. And the Dalmatians are an important part. I just looked at Jasper and Horace in the animation and felt there was something charming about how they were drawn. So I introduced some of that. But I wanted to create a character that could eventually become Glenn Close.

Was this film more challenging than “Mad Max” in terms of costume construction?

No, it was “Mad Max.” It was way out of my comfort zone, because after I did a lot of Victorian England period dramas, it opened up a whole new career for me. People were amazed at how I was able to reinterpret a post-apocalyptic world. With “Cruella,” our problem was time, we only had 16 weeks, but I had an amazing crew, and somehow we pulled it off.

How was the fitting with Emma? 

We went to her house in Los Angeles, I took about ten suitcases of pieces of clothing that might be fun or appropriate and we figured out how to use them. We put them in her kitchen. We didn’t use a lot of the actual vintage pieces, but they were an inspiration. There was a red dress and we bought another very inexpensive one at a store in Beverly Hills to see what would work with her and she looked splendid. But in the story, this dress was created from one of the Baroness’s dresses that I saw at the Artist Vintage store in Portobello. And it had the dichotomy of being black and white, so I thought: red for Cruella is very appropriate. She deconstructs it, in a way, and Gordian Wallace, after we cut it into strips, put the pieces together.