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Interview: Cowboy Bebop Costume Designer Jane Holland

by Jacki Jing,

A large part of what makes the Cowboy Bebop anime such an enduring classic is its distinctive aesthetic style, of which costume design is no doubt a significant component. If Netflix's upcoming live-action adaptation of the anime were to recapture the charm of its predecessor, then what the characters wear is something they cannot afford to mishandle. However, costumes do not work the same way in real life as they may look in animated form, so how does the adaptation account for that while still staying true to the characters' core personalities? Anime News Network reached out to costume designer Jane Holland to find out.

How did you get brought on to work on Netflix's live-action adaptation of the legendary anime Cowboy Bebop?

I live in New Zealand and am part of the film community here who work on international projects. Generally when a production comes to scout, they will meet potential HODs. It's basically an introduction and interview process.

Did you know about the anime before you were hired or did you have to do some deeper research? Break down your whole process – what did you immediately do after getting hired? What research did you do?

I didn't know about the anime. I read the script and really liked the energy and style, and then watched the anime. Immediately, I was hooked in by the aesthetic, but the thing I loved was the quirk and contrast – the surreal slow-motion moments of glass or a rose falling in the middle of some crazy action scene against that stunning soundtrack. To me, the storytelling style is surprising and unexpected and I found the anime seriously cool.

Immediately after getting hired, I consulted the youth in my world who watch anime! And they issued a warning, 'Māmā Holland, don't f*** it up'. I took them seriously. When the trailer came out, the first thing I did was to check in to see if I did ok.

The anime is a wealth of reference. The gritty retro sci-fi world, an Asian sensibility and harvesting of Americana pulsing with music references. It's a great springboard for all kinds of research. My place to start is connecting with the script and characters and building from a place of authenticity. Conscious of the source material and its Japanese origin, my inquiry was a balance between influence, inspiration, and invention. I draw threads – from the script, the character, the showrunner & director, the anime, the influences, the wider world, the actor – bringing them together in the design. It's a process of being open and wide-ranging, then honing in and drilling down, and doing this repeatedly to build complexity and understanding. When I'm ready to draw, I use pencil and paper. With line, I'm thinking about how something is put together, what's the fit, how well does it function, what's the detail on a button, where are the opportunities to add detail and layers of storytelling. I don't colour my drawings because my focus is mechanics, and colour in costume is alive – it's tied to texture and fall and play with light. I use swatches to experience colour.

In Jazz, Bebop is a movement about freedom of expression and escaping restraint – breaking conventions and improvisation. I applied this to every design and to the background world-building. Embracing the mashup world of the anime, when does dissonance zing? What's the Bebop twist? For me, this is the place of resonance – of individuality, of diversity, of the Japanese concepts of kintsugi and wabi-sabi – and the excitement at the heart of my design process.

I have infused a few of my own quirks such as trophy buckles inspired by a character's story or the bites taken out of the Cowboy hats that pepper the series because the way the brims are drawn in the anime looked like a bite to me. I planted tiger motifs as a tribute to Spike's story about the tiger-striped cat. It's not about being a slave to the anime, it's about living in the spirit of it.

Were there certain influences or inspirations from famous designers that you incorporated into this project?

  • tailoring with a twist – Yohji Yamamoto, Junya Watanabe, Commes Des Garcon.
  • sophisticated utilitarian clean lines – Martin Margiela, Demeulemeester
  • irreverence: Viviene Westwood, vintage Gaultier
  • inspiration – Mowalola Ogunlesi, Barbara Sanchez-Kane
  • fusion – Horisaki, T-Kimono

We manufactured most of the costumes in our workroom so I was always looking for inspiration. I also looked at street style, music references & movements and pivotal fashion changes responding to social change. It was about embracing the concept and applying it to our Bebop world.

There was a lot of scrutiny over Faye's costume (which was pretty revealing in the anime) – how did you approach Faye's outfit, and how did you reach your decision/design? How did you react to the big online reaction to Faye's outfit on the Netflix show? Is there anything you want to say to fans about it?

Daniella blows me away. She's smart and funny and opinionated and bursts energy and radiance on-screen as Faye Valentine.

It's interesting… because Spike's suit isn't literally the same as the anime. Jet isn't identical to the anime. Their costumes have had to be adapted and interpreted for real live humans, and subjected to vigorous consideration of how they function as a signature costume in the action and demands of filming. In the design of Faye, I considered the same things – live human and function.

There wasn't so far to travel with Spike and Jet, but it's easy to see the limitations of sticking literally to Faye.

It wasn't so much about not being revealing (Her shorts are, in fact, very short. Her top has a zip which sits pretty low – the red outfit in the trailer is hardly demure), it was about not being gratuitous. I was looking for the 2021 version of Faye for a signature costume that worked for who she is and what she needs to do. She has a leather jacket because it's a functional garment that will stand the rigours of her job – a bounty hunter. She wears combat boots for the same reason with a thigh high extension that embraces the design lines of the anime.

I wanted Daniella to be able to bring her Faye without me inflicting a costume that would lock her into one facet of the character and inhibit her practically – so, with the anime as a springboard, and drilling down into character, I went for a street cool and sassy interpretation of the design lines of the anime. The design is… well… It's designed by a woman, made by predominantly women for a woman to wear and it functions for an action show.

We tried various permutations of the Faye outfit including a one-piece, yellow two-piece and black two-piece in different fabrics. Inspired by the stocking line in the anime, I started with awesome Rick Owens thigh-high boots and tried heels and boots in black and white. We landed where we did because it was grounded and believable in the context of character and action. I tried to make everything count – for example, the caps of the poppers on her costume are engraved with a labyrinth denoting her lost identity, and the abstract print down the back of the leggings relates to the song ‘My Funny Valentine’ – the name of the anime episode when Faye was cryogenically frozen.

To the fans I would say … you know as well as I do, there's way more to Faye than a skimpy costume. For me, and I hope for you too, the spirit of Faye Valentine is alive and well in the series.

Can you talk about what went into planning the costumes for the main characters? What came easy to you and what were the biggest challenges?

When John Cho first put on the blue suit with the perfect flip in the collar where the lapel disappears, and the pants pocket positioned to give just the right angle in the elbow for his character stance, I had a moment of uplift… Here was Spike right in front of me!

The Spike suit encompasses everything about Bebop's cacophonic creative symphony – a screamingly blue, single lapel, boxy, fitted suit embodying effortless style and cool that has to stand out from yet belong to a retro sci-fi world and span the distance between cool louche guy in the street, and a high kicking action hero filming in Auckland's humidity and persistent rain and retaining the truth of the anime while drilling down into the depths and complexities of a live character… That suit has a lot of work to do!

I found my way in by looking at Japanese designers and tailoring that comes from aesthetic rather than convention and some Korean designers who reference Hanbok in contemporary tailoring. Really, it was about working out authentic style and proportions – finding solid ground behind the Bebop twist. I met John Cho very early on when I was in LA and we talked conceptually. This laid the groundwork, so that when he arrived in NZ, the costume made sense and the details – like the buttons and trophy buckle (depicting a water motif referencing the anime's fluid-like water analogy of his fight style) resonated. I printed his jacket lining with falling roses drawn with the same hand that features in some of Julia's costuming not because we are ever likely to see the lining, but because Spike has a broken heart and this is something of Julia wrapped around him.

Conceptually Jet is straightforward. The detail of his utilitarian overalls references vintage military workwear. It's an aged and customised standard issue garment, with the faded emblem on the back, and sleeves ripped. There are some meaningful details reflecting Jet's love for jazz – like the metal fastenings engraved with piano keys and a serial number on the robotic arm #: DG19450622CPNY inspired by the album, "Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker: Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945". The robotic arm was our biggest challenge. To have something convincingly mechanical function over a human arm, comfortable to wear every day, allowing full arm, hand, and grip movement, and robust enough to withstand the rigors of filming. We made it in-house using techniques we use to make armour and infusing solid-looking flexible plates into fabric to stretch at the bend points.

For Vicious, I conceptually headed to the Northern hemisphere – and landed with the Antwerp 6. There's a theatricality to this character that I rooted in high-end utilitarian tailoring inspired by Ann Demeulemeester and Martin Margiela. I wanted Alex to feel something powerful, meticulous, and exacting in the costume so there's a formality about it. For example, an angled pocket is mirrored right through the layers – coat, through waistcoat to shirt. His accessories are made by our in-house jeweller with handmade buttons, chains & tassel on his coat and waistcoat. Inspired by the bird that accompanies him in the anime, the Cormorant is his motif – depicted in graphic deco style with open wings on his trophy buckle and on one of his rings.

The world of Cowboy Bebop is this hybrid of old western and sci-fi and it looks like the show has a vintage-esque feel. What did the director tell you in regards to what he wanted from the costumes? And was your vision?

The showrunner, Andre Nemec, is very engaged and collaborative. Our biggest challenge was finding grounding and authenticity – working out our dance with the anime. Once I had a solid place to anchor, I was able to extrapolate, explore and break free.The vintage-esque feel is a response to the retro gritty world of the anime. I used musical references or social movements to define an era and tone for different characters and worlds, and then worked to find opposition – I was always looking to find the Bebop twist – inspired by, rather than dutifully recreating a period.

Worldbuilding also involved the two directors, Michael Kattleman and Alex Garcia Marquez, and production designers, Grant Major and Gary McKay. The sharing of ideas and bouncing off one another is really important for a cohesive vision.

How did you get into costume design and what have been the ups and downs of this career?

I studied English and Drama alongside a science degree at university and found my way to a film set through drama. Having grown up making things and drawing, as soon as I saw what was going on behind the scenes, I knew it was the place for me. Costume is the synthesis of my interests – storytelling, character, identity along with innovation and precision in craft. Jane Campion's The Piano was pivotal. As Costume Standby (Key Costumer), it really opened my eyes to the power of design in character and story. From there I went to the Australian Film Television and Radio School to study design. I've gravitated towards projects requiring original design, world-building and manufacture and have had the good fortune to work on a wide diversity of projects in scale and scope.

To do good work, you have to connect – I'm invested. The creative process and moment a character comes together is fulfilling on every project. So many highlights and I'm always learning. I just worked with my partner and kids on a local low-budget Maori supernatural drama – magic. I love cultural specificity and the experience of working in an authentic way. Technical challenges are always fun – like an army on horseback wearing intricate armour that has to be light and flexible and glint like metal in the moonlight. Anthony Hopkins transforming into Burt Munroe before me [in The World's Fastest Indian] is a moment I treasure. Cowboy Bebop, for sure is a highlight – it's not like anything I've seen before.

The ‘downs’... I guess I carry frustration about the recognition of the Costume Department. We are a highly trained and qualified department and represent the lived-in diversity of what many productions these days aspire to be on screen. There is still work to do behind the scenes in terms of pay parity, value, and visibility. As a woman I am generally a minority, and sometimes the only one at the decision-making table during production. I always thought the film industry was progressive because of the stories we tell and collaborative way of working, but when you start to agitate for change in pay, and highlight the difficulty marginalised people have speaking up, you realise that it's no different to any other power structure. Finally things are starting to shift, but we're not there yet.

Compared to your other projects, how was working on Cowboy Bebop different than past projects?

Every project is challenging for different reasons – and I wouldn't have it any other way. Challenge is an agitation that pushes the creative somewhere unexpected.

The relentlessness of a series is always grueling. In a film, you have crazy busy times and lulls when you can take a breath. A series like Cowboy Bebop is a high-speed train. With a high content of original design, and every background costume put together, the stamina and energy to keep going and constantly generate fresh ideas is considerable. At the same time, the momentum is energising and the scope and scale inspiring.

I've designed projects based on books or graphic novels, but have discovered anime is different because the characters are ‘live’ – moving and dimensional. While the anime means that fans may hold my choices to account and scrutiny, the legacy is something extraordinary to be entrusted with and I'm excited that the fanbase is engaged. I always look for an authentic way to work, and for opportunities to push the creative boundaries. Having such refreshingly unique material as a springboard has been freeing rather than restrictive and enabled layers and depth.

What's your favorite piece you created that you think fans will really get a kick out of?

I can't pick a favourite – it's such a cool show. I have high job satisfaction!

Maybe for fans: the 3 Amigos: Carlos, Jobin and Antonio or the Endangered Ganymede Sea Rat masks with wiggly tails. For me: Trophy buckles with a story behind them: Spike, Vicious, Asimov, Tanaka, Ana, Julia, and more.

What was the hardest piece to put together?

All signature costumes have to work hard over the course of a season so there's a lot to consider and a lot of problem solving. Jet's arm is probably the most challenging single costume item with many individually sculpted and articulated moulded pieces under pressure from constant use. The hand particularly required maintenance. It's the kind of thing that you need to test drive to problem solve, but things happen so quickly on a series, and there are so many multiples, you have to be preemptive and try to think of everything upfront.

What do you want fans to experience when they see your costumes on their favorite characters?

I'd like them to feel the craft and thought and care that we put into every costume. I guess it would be amazing if their experience was like mine when I first saw the anime – that they're experiencing something surprising, unexpected, and seriously cool.

Cowboy Bebop releases on Netflix on November 19

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