For Christopher Hargadon, who designed costumes for The Umbrella Academy, the “diverse and eccentric personalities” present within the show were the key factor, that made it an instant draw. Based on a comic book series created by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, the Netflix superhero series occupied a stylistic space all its own, replete with characters and visual details that captured the mind.
First and foremost, there were the seven members of “The Umbrella Academy,” themselves, who had been adopted by an eccentric billionaire at an early age, and trained to save the world. Each crime fighter in the makeshift family had his or her own specific skill, and a similarly distinct look to go with it. Perhaps most memorably, there was Tom Hopper’s Luther, an astronaut with super strength, and the upper body of an ape.
In The Umbrella Academy, though, some of the more fascinating characters to design were those in the supporting cast. Looked after as children by a robotic nanny and a talking chimpanzee, the heroes of The Umbrella Academy run into time-traveling assassins and other dangerous types in their journeys as adults.
Setting out on his Season 1 design process, Hargadon’s objective was simple to summarize and much more challenging to execute—to deftly translate the story for the small screen, making changes where necessary, while preserving those qualities that made the comics special.
Could you expand on your initial thoughts when you were approached for The Umbrella Academy and read the comic books?
Well, actually, as soon as I heard the name, I got excited. I don’t know why; I just liked the sound of it. I’m a little bit past the target audience age of the graphic novels, but when I actually explored them, I thought they were brilliant. The storylines were dark and quirky, and twisted and hilarious, and the illustrations were superb. It was just a beautiful meeting of creative minds.
What was described to you up front, in terms of an overarching vision for the show?
Initially, we were told that we would be following the feeling of the novels, but we wouldn’t be doing it verbatim. Gerard Way was always involved, but then as we progressed, I was dialoguing with him, and met with both him and Gabriel Bá. There’s certain things I couldn’t do that were in the novels, just because something that’s drawn on a piece of paper isn’t necessarily transferable identically to an actual human. Like Grace, the mother, for instance—things like that obviously had to be thought out and developed.
What I really tried to respect and carry forth in what we did was the vibe of it—the slightly dark, and definitely offbeat feeling of the whole storyline. That was really supported by the script and by the actors, who brought forth their own flavor to each character. But it really was an evolution.
Were the comics particularly informative, in developing the looks of certain characters?
[Sir Reginald] Hargreeves, I did start off the show with his coloration. I think in the comics, he was quite rough and ready. Probably, the eccentricity and the craziness of the character was brought forth by Colm Feore, but I sort of refined him a little bit. Because we don’t really know much about him, and we don’t know where he comes from, but we know he’s got this wild past, and [is] very eccentric and varied, I wanted to bring in historical elements, and integrate those into the type of costuming that was portrayed in the novel.
Obviously, I didn’t follow through with Grace identically, although the silhouette of Grace was a bit on the ‘50s line. But that came from Steve Blackman, the showrunner. He said, “She’s basically been created by Hargreeves to nurture the children, because he’s not a nurturing person, and not really interested in children.” We decided we’d make her the archetypal, perfect ‘50s housewife, à la June Cleaver. So, it’s pearls, and basically, neat as a pin. Then, I just kind of whacked her out a bit by using foam to make her garments stand out rigidly, and create odd shadows as she walked around.
The women weren’t quite so clearly defined to me in the novels. We had to sort of work on them, because they were so different. Ellen Page came into the production feeling that [Vanya] could be an androgynous type of person, so that was basically my dictum, as far as her look went. She has a romance with a man, but basically, she wanted this person to be gender non-specific, in a way. That was actually one of the most interesting dressings of a leading lady I’ve ever done. I think ultimately, what it did was, it brought your attention to Ellen’s face and her expressions, which I thought was wonderful. And really, it wasn’t until the end when she had to wear the tux, as The White Violin, so there was actually a definitive stylistic element to her character that was quite defined.
Then, Allison was a movie star, but she was in all these kinds of domestic-type settings. We had one sort of red carpet scene initially, in the first episode, and then all the rest of it was at the house with the other siblings. I wanted her to evolve from the Golden Age, and that Lana Tuner, Dorothy Dandridge, glamor-type vibe, but it was in a modern-day setting, and a domestic setting. Basically, it was just kind of casual wear that had a bit of flare to it.
Luther must have been an interesting character to dress. What inspired the look of the spacesuit he wears, in his time on the moon?
Luther was one example [where] we couldn’t quite do the same thing as in the novels. Because I think he’s basically in some kind of space diaper, and a breathing tank, or something like that. When he went to the moon, we evolved this cosmonaut-style spacesuit that almost looked like something out of a ‘30s movie, just for the feeling of it. I liked the coloration, and the antique kind of look about it.
This character is also enormous, with an ape-like physiology. Were sartorial tricks key, in supporting the illusion of Luther’s size?
Oh, for sure. Tom Hopper, himself, is quite lean—very fit and muscular, but he has a very lean waist. We built a muscle suit for him, which he had to wear pretty much all the time—unless there was a flashback, before his cataclysmic accident. Then, we built the clothes over the prosthetic, and there were certain parameters we had to follow.
We had to layer him, because just a single layer often didn’t hide the prosthesis that much, blending from the actual body suit into the neck. It also evolved, because initially, the one that we had made was just too massive. I think we had to take it down by about a third; it was all kind of an ongoing thing. I think that moving forward, we want to refine it even further. We ran into time blockages and had to get things out the door, so we did the best we could. But it’s always a bit of a challenge when you have a person wearing an undersuit. Pretty much anything we put on top of that thing, when he was wearing it, made him look massive. We also bumped up his height. He’s 6’ 4”, and I think we added about an inch and a half to his height with his footwear.
Robert Sheehan’s Klaus has idiosyncratic tastes, when it comes to his clothing, and is perhaps the flashiest dresser in The Umbrella Academy. How did his look come together?
In the books, he’s dressed always in black, and floats around. We weren’t going to be levitating him, and Steve Blackman didn’t really want him to be dressed all in black. I tend to agree, because I usually save black very specifically—[in the case of this series], for The Handler. I don’t tend to gravitate towards black in a story, unless it’s very specific and necessary. Then when it does appear, it’s got a real impact.
Part of this evolved with Robert Sheehan, actually, when I was speaking with him. Because he’s got kind of a wonderful body to dress. He actually admitted that in his own life, he often wears women’s clothes because they fit him better, and that was kind of great for me, because we had this plan of having sort of a fluid character. I was shopping men’s wear and ladies’ wear, fully planning on having him slightly on the feminine side of dress—or eccentric feminine side—and then having him dress full-on masculine. Once we got going, I think everybody loved the vibe that he was putting off, and how he was behaving in the clothes, and wanted me to dress him that way throughout the entire season.
We really just played; he had the most fun, wild closet. We shopped vintage. One of the things he wore initially was a skirt—an Edwardian theatrical piece from a Shakespeare company that was probably about 50 years old. It kind of disintegrated as he was wearing it. But we just played in his fittings, and as far as he was concerned, the wackier [clothing] the better.
Among the series’ most memorable characters are Hazel and Cha-Cha, time-traveling assassins who are dressed to kill, with aReservoir Dogskind of feel. What inspired your looks for Cameron Britton and Mary J. Blige?
In the novels, again, they’re dressed entirely in black, and I didn’t want to do that in [this] environment. We actually see people dressed similarly to them in the 1950-vibe commission headquarters; all the worker bees there are in sort of a blue gray, and then the odd navy suit would walk in the background, one of the assassins checking in before they go out on their next assignment.
They had to be in the same type of costume. With [Blige], I had a few silhouettes. I tried her on a longer jacket that actually went right down to her knee, with a couple of different silhouettes of trousers, and I did the bustier vest as well. Things that we ended up with were really the things that suited her better; the longer jacket wasn’t as nice as one that was shorter. We ended up with the bustier, just to lend some shape and femininity, and to give a bit of edge, we put some hardware on [the costume] that had a tiny vibe of steampunk. I thought she really came together well, because it was very quick. I loved the wig. I just thought it made her almost unrecognizable, and showed her eyes off in a very interesting way.
Then, Cameron with his suit, I mean, he’s such a big guy. We just basically built a suit that had a sort of ‘50s feel to it, with suspenders and that type of thing—just something that would fit him. I ended up settling on navy, because the navy wool actually had felt striping through it. If you looked at it, it wasn’t a flat, navy suit. It had some relief, and some other colors going on in there. Even if it doesn’t read on camera, I think it adds a dimension to the outfit that, on some subliminal level, might come across.
Are there specific designs, or aspects to your work on The Umbrella Academy, that you’re particularly proud of?
I just really like the look of it as a whole; I was very pleased with how it all came together. I had such affection for all the characters. Some of the ones, I did a lot of building for. I really enjoyed the evolution with Kate [Walsh] and The Handler; that happened over a few trials and error. It started with me finding this netting fabric in New York, and wanting to use it for something. Then, when she came along, I thought, “Okay, well this is it.” She actually wanted to do the ‘50s housewife—to sort of play opposite to expectations—but unfortunately, Grace already had that spot taken. We did do a riff on the ‘50s, but it was a completely S&M kind of take on it, which was a lot more fun. I think she played that brilliantly. Hargreeves, too, was great. But I really enjoyed all of them, actually. They just inhabited the clothes so well. When they came into fittings, I always felt like I believed them, and that was really the greatest satisfaction I had, that I felt like they felt right in their costumes.