For costume designer Keri Langerman, the intrepid Vox Lux was an “incredibly interesting” project to take on, that could be “incredibly intimidating” in equal part. Defying categorization by genre and not easily captured in a log line, the Neon drama follows Celeste (Raffey Cassidy, and later, Natalie Portman), an ordinary teenager who survives a school shooting in 1999. From this moment, she is never the same, going on to become a pop star whose anthems dominate the airwaves, reshaping tragedy and trauma into artistic expression for the masses.
With its younger and older versions of Celeste, the film pointedly critiques the world of today, setting up an expanded timeline, and playing with form throughout to chart one uniquely talented woman’s metamorphosis. Prior to Vox, Langerman had never worked with it visionary director, Brady Corbet, at least in this context. For her, the extent of Corbet’s confidence, and his willingness to experiment, could be daunting, as she learned to work in new ways. “There were definitely points throughout the film where I questioned my ability to keep up with Brady, because he’s, in my mind, a genius,” she says. “I was in a constant state of making sure whatever I was putting forth was the absolute best version, because that’s what he was doing.”
Starting out on the project with total commitment, the costume designer avoided looking at any one pop star as an exact model for Celeste, turning to unusual sources for inspiration. Finding her ultimate test in Celeste’s stage performance that closes the film, Langerman got creative throughout the entire process, sourcing just the right fashions for a cast that included Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Christopher Abbott, and Cassidy, in dual roles. For Portman, an advocate for animal rights, she sought out vegan-friendly clothing, and in doing so, considered changing her process forever.
How did you come to work on Vox Lux?
I had seen that the film had gotten green lit, and my agent had told me about it because I had worked with Brady as an actor. I’d also designed one of his wife’s movies 4 or 5 years ago, but I didn’t want to use any preexisting relationships to try to award myself a job. So, I submitted what I thought would be a design proposal through my agency, and within a few hours of receiving it, Brady texted me, “You’re crazy, you should have just emailed this to me. It’s amazing; let’s work together.” There were some other people in the mix perhaps, but in the end it just clicked. We were speaking each other’s language. I knew I wanted to do this film based on Brady. I’d seen Childhood of a Leader, I love his wife Mona [Fastvold], and I loved his work as an actor, and the synopsis, so I was all in. And then when I read the script, it blew my mind. The way he writes, you can absolutely feel the aesthetic, the amount of direction and emotion, and all these things that are so tangible.
When I’d finished reading the script, I redesigned a design board and sent it to him, and the project stopped and started quite a bit. But we just kept working together throughout the year until production came up. We had a lot of time to ruminate over things, so that when the time came to go into pre-pro with just four weeks, he and I already had an understanding of where we wanted to go.
What did your design proposal entail?
I had a lot of focus on both Act One and Act Two. It was a very obvious thing that Act Two was going to be every costume designer’s dream of the big stage performance. It had a lot of drama to it, but I wanted to make sure that I was focusing on both [parts], with the same amount of excitement and attention to detail. I think I made 50 different versions of [this conceptual layout] by the time we went to share boards with the production crew. But for the first one, I tried to take his script and block it out every 10 to 15 pages, with mood boards that recapped what the script was doing, so he could see the design in a timeline.
It was a lot of historical references. Of course, I researched school shootings, and pop stars, and all that stuff. But I knew looking at too many actual pop stars, it would be super easy to let them influence the way I was going to dress Celeste. I wanted her to feel like her own person, specific to this film and the world that he was building, not a replica of someone who is out there right now performing music.
What kinds of materials proved most useful in getting to the essence of this character?
For this, I really tried not to look at people, but I looked at a lot at architecture. Brady has this futuristic sci-fi aesthetic in this film, and I wanted to look at architecture that mirrored that thing. So with Celeste, [and] her cape, I think I was looking at the new World Trade Center, at the sharp points. I wanted to make sure that I was getting inspiration from things that were not necessarily stage costumes, so that I could really feel like the process was going to be pure, and that the product would be original in that way.
Of course, I did look at people, too. I wanted to mainly make sure I was looking at that for structural inspiration, but I did look at some pop icons from mostly the late ’70s, early ’80s, and I tried to focus on pop stars in the very beginning of their careers. I think that’s a really interesting time: They don’t have a lot of money, they don’t have stylists; they don’t have people curating their every look.From the get-go, Brady and I knew that this was not going to be a movie where we wanted fashion speaking louder than the character, or a perfect, polished image that we were going to put forth. I really felt like Debbie Harry, David Bowie, Kim Gordon, this type of aesthetic…If we could roll these people into one person, and look at them in the early stages of their career, and how they chose to dress themselves, there was really something there.
Could you elaborate on the visual arc you constructed for Celeste over the course of the film?
I always wanted to make sure that Act One Celeste and Act Two Celeste felt like the same person, and I think a big part of her style journey was her neck coverings. When I read the script, I knew we were going to have to be covering that, and I wanted to use that as something that could evolve throughout her age and career, but then also be distinct enough that we can look at an image from different points in time, and know it’s the same character.
We decided pretty early on that it wasn’t going to look like jewelry in the traditional sense; I wanted it to feel a bit medical or practical, in a way that showed that it was something that she was using to close herself off, and protect herself from the outside world. It was something that a lot of the design for her character was centered on, and it’s the cut of her shirts, and jackets, and her stage costume as well. I tried to make sure that I wasn’t just doing a bunch of necklaces; that we would do clothing that would come up high, and chokers, or metal, or different materials, so that it felt like a natural choice.
In Vox Lux, Raffey Cassidy plays dual roles—as young Celeste, and later, as the pop star’s daughter, Albertine. How did you work through the challenge of visually differentiating an actress for dual roles?
Obviously, I was aware that it was the same person, but I tried to approach it first like they were two different actors, so that I could make sure I could see each actor in their truest light. Then, after designing both characters, pretending like they were going to be played by two completely different people, it was more technical. “Oh, let’s make the pant legs skinnier here.” In Act One, she’s got more of a flared bootleg ’90s cut, and then in Act Two, it’s a very skinny, straight leg jean. So it was things like that, where you have to be specific and period-correct, complementing the body. I knew with Act Two, we were going to be able to see her neck, and all these things that we never saw in Act One. So, I felt like it was going to do the job itself, and all I had to do was make sure to be aware of, and pay attention to that, and not get in the way of that character too much.
How much of your wardrobe for this film was sourced? When you sourced, what resources did you turn to?
Most everything was sourced, except for Natalie’s stage costume, and her backup dancer costumes. A lot of her costumes were sourced and tweaked because we didn’t want to use animal products on Natalie. For the purple leather jacket, we bought a vegan-friendly jacket, and we had to paint a couple different versions of it, to get it that purple that I wanted. Because we couldn’t just go into a store and buy a purple, vegan leather jacket that was going to work on camera, in the exact shade that we needed it to.
The same with her stage costume, and the backup dancers. I had designed this costume over and over, trying to figure out where the perfect place was to build something that was both iconic and simple, intricate and sophisticated. Once we figured out that it was going to be a catsuit, my anxiety came with not knowing if I was going to be able to pull that off, technically, so we hired LaQuan Smith, an incredible fashion designer. I showed him my sketches, and said, “I know you are your own fashion designer, but can you help me with this? Because I know that you can do this silhouette.”
[Because we were] doing an independent film, we didn’t have a full-time tailor, or any of those things. We were scrapping around, and I knew that this was a place where I needed someone who knew how to do something like this, and had done it a million times over. Because we had one shot. A lot of times, we’ll get to build a muslin, and we’ll get to fit it, but the first one we built was the one she ended up wearing. We had to alter it a lot, but we got one chance at it, and that was it.
The vegan things that I did end up getting for her were from Blank NYC. The jackets were from Blank, and the jeans were from R13. I had a lot of great people who wanted to be involved, and I’m very wary of product placement relationships, because I think a lot of times they can feel maybe not as genuine as a designer would like them to be. But I think it was challenging also because [given] the synopsis of the film, a lot of people didn’t know if they wanted to be involved. It was a risk; this is a completely original story, with an interesting log line, so it was about finding the right people.
For Jude Law, actually, I got an amazing amount of support. I knew from the beginning that we wanted to do a monochromatic look for him, and we tried on a couple different things. His jacket came from Valstar, which was made in Italy and feels like butter. They actually gifted that to us for free, which is super rare these days, and my gratitude was beyond words. It saved our budget, saved the film. Then, his pants, we had made in Italy, as well. I just really love Italian tailoring for men, and they were from Eidos. His gray turtleneck, we got as well from the UK, from a company called Enlist, so we had those items, and because he wore that outfit for days and days, we had two of them, so we could switch them out. All of Jude’s Act One stuff was sourced from thrift stores. I had never worked with Jude, so I wasn’t sure how he was going to feel about wearing $2 jeans, but he loved it—which was a relief, because you have your vision, the director has their vision, and you just don’t know until you meet the actor how they’re going to feel about that.
Then, Raffey and Stacy, a lot of those were just sourcing. Definitely Act One was all about thrift store shopping. I made sure to go Long Island thrift stores, to find ’90s, ’80s clothing. The characters are from Long Island, so it just wasn’t going to work for me to go into some thrift store in New York City, or upstate New York. I wanted to do what I could to again, get these pieces from a place of authenticity.
To your knowledge, does Portman always ask for vegan-friendly clothing in her projects? She recently narrated and produced a documentary called Eating Animals, examining our dietary choices and the consequences therein, so her concern and love for animals is clear.
I’m not sure about her other films, but we had a conversation about a week before she came to New York to do her fitting, and she had just brought it up, in a very casual manner. “Is it possible if we could just not use animal products for my costumes?” And I said, “Absolutely.” I worked with Rooney Mara on a project, and had done that with her, and it’s something that I’m fully behind. It actually makes me wonder if I could do this with more, if not every project, because it is a senseless use of an animal, when you can get a cinematic, stunning movie without that. I really admired that she had her morals, and she wanted to stick to them, but it wasn’t something that she felt she needed to impose on people in an aggressive way. It just felt really natural, and when she asked, it was super easy, and we did it. I don’t think it was any harder; it was just a different way of doing costumes.