Star Wars: The Force Awakens Costume Design

By Joe Kucharski - December 17, 2015

Michael Kaplan is one of the top costume designers working in film today. He is an incredibly versatile designer, having designed such iconic sci-fi films as Blade Runner, for which he won a BAFTA, as well as Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, but also masters the historic and modern beautifully with such credits as Pearl Harbor, Clue, Fight Club, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Christmas Vacation. He also almost single-handedly set the 1980s off-the-shoulder-sweater trend with his costume design for Flashdance. It is no wonder that he was trusted with designing the costumes for one of the most anticipated films of the decade, and the responsibility of shaping one of the most famous franchises in film history! Michael shares with us some exciting insight into his process on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and some great details about textiles and technology.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

Tyranny of Style: Can you talk to us about the inspiration and thought process that went into designing Rey? 

Michael Kaplan: “When I began designing Rey’s costume (the first costume I decided to tackle) no actress had yet been cast. I like when this happens, in that I am not influenced by body type, familiarity with the actor’s previous work, etc. and this enables me to deal with the character totally objectively. Of course I had already read the script, which is always my initial road map in discovering a character. I knew that Rey lived and worked in an oppressively hot and dusty desert climate. I knew her life as a scavenger required a certain agility. I knew she was poor. I knew she drove a speeder. By taking all of these ‘clues’ I was able to build a believable character from the inside out.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015 Photo Credit: GameZone

 Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

 

Every garment she wears has a reason or purpose; nothing is superfluous. For example, the gauze fabric she wears crossed on her body can be wrapped around her face in sand storms. Her head wrap keeps her hair out of her face while working, and keeps the dust out of her hair- it’s actually a tunic, with the sleeves tied around her head. This tunic can be worn on chilly desert nights.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

Rey wears a pair of goggles to protect her eyes from the intense sun and dust kicked up while riding the speeder. At close inspection it becomes evident that the goggles are home crafted and the lenses are old Stormtrooper eyes she must have scavenged from spaceship wreckage. If noticed, this touch gives information about the character’s ingenuity; if not, they still look good. Rey’s color palette just seemed appropriate for her environment.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

T/S: I am fascinated by how you went about updating elements, but staying true to the source material. Can you talk to us about how you found that balance with the Rebels and the New Order?

MK: “Episode VII follows THE RETURN OF THE JEDI. It’s the same world, we just haven’t been there in a while. I saw that my job was to revisit that world (albeit 30 years later), not to fix it, make it better or reinvent it. When I began working on the military uniforms (Rebels and New Order) I did want to make a clear distinction between the 2 forces. When I initially saw STAR WARS, I recall being confused as to which camp I was in. I did this by creating two diverse color palates; The Rebels in earthier tones, rusts, ochre, olive drab, sienna brown.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015 Photo Credit: GameZone

 Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

The New Order in black, charcoal grey, teal blue, and of course white for all the Stormtroopers, Snowtroopers and Flame Troopers. The Rebel fabrics were rumpled woolens, felted wool, cotton duck and twill, all very softly tailored. The New Order fabrics are polished wools and synthetics, some with shine, their tailoring, hard edged with strong heroic silhouettes (think 1980’s Thierry Mugler).”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

 

T/S: Your design for the First Order Stormtroopers is just phenomenal. Where did you start in searching for ideas to update such an iconic costume in film history?

MK: “The original Stormtroopers are amazing and have come to be some of the most iconic costumes in the franchise. It was important to update them to show that 30 years had passed, but more important not to lose their recognizable appearance. This was something that both JJ and myself felt strongly and had many discussions about. In addition to updating the design of the Stormtroopers it was necessary to update them for strength and comfort.

 Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

The originals were vacuum-formed in thin plastic. They were brittle and cracked easily. The new script was calling for a lot of action and stunt work that would require tougher armor. The suits were molded out of polyurethane, much stronger and in ‘certain areas’ more flexible for comfort. They look and perform a lot more solidly, which was important for today’s more sophisticated moviegoers. “

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

 

T/S: How did you go about adapting the First Order Stormtrooper design for the other trooper variations?

MK: “I wanted the Flametroopers  and Snowtroopers to have slits through which they looked out, inspired by some Inuit eye covers I saw at The Pitt-Rivers Museum of Natural History at Oxford. Of course, STAR WARS was immense, and I relied heavily on my brilliant concept artists who were constantly solving design issues. There were many beautiful designs that we were all coming up with, but my constant concern was that they all ‘belong’ in the STAR WARS universe. This required a great deal of editing.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015 Photo Credit: GameZone

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015 Photo Credit: GameZone

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

T/S: What was the inspiration behind designing the incredible Captain Phasma costume?

MK: “While prepping a film, I often go to museums for inspiration. London is an amazing place to do this. I love The Wallace Collection and would spend hours roaming their armor collections looking at unique and interesting forms. Before going there, I had had an image in my mind of a suit of silver armor, inspired by the forms of the Storm Troopers. I described the image to Dermot Power, one of our concept artists, and asked if he would have a go at it. The result was an amazing illustration.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

There was no spot in the movie for this shining armor, but I loved looking at it. I hung it on the wall in our design room. One day Kathy Kennedy and JJ came in for a meeting. She stared at the sketch and pointed; ‘WHAT IS THAT!?!’ JJ loved it too and created the role of Captain Phasma. In a moment of brilliance, (one of many) he hired Gwendolyn Christie for the part. The armor is actually silver plated.”

 Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

T/S: Kylo Ren is by far one of the most striking costumes of the film. Can you talk to us about the overall process for designing this costume?

MK: “Kylo Ren was probably the hardest character to conquer. Throughout the years there have been so many superheroes created. It is difficult to come up with a design that doesn’t, in some way, feel derivative. My team and I worked very closely with JJ trying to find a way to show Kylo’s admiration of Darth Vader; emulating without imitating. JJ also wanted the mask to have a quality that, perhaps on a billboard would be ‘wondrous’ to a child. We liked the reflective curving lines on the mask; they feel very 1970’s, the decade during which, all this began.

 Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

All of Kylo's garments have strong textures for interest. The hood fabric has a foiled finish for sheen; because he’s in all shades of black, I was worried about losing definition in dark lighting situations. His sleeves were made of heavy canvas, which was dyed and intentionally unevenly pleated, then waxed. I love the resulting patina.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Costume Design by Michael Kaplan ©Lucasfilm 2015

T/S: I am blown away by the absolutely impeccable tailoring of General Hux. Can you tell us about the inspiration for his costume? 

MK: “Yes, we have an excellent tailor working with us who was able to get the extreme silhouettes I was after. I loved the idea of him sometimes stylishly donning his greatcoat on his shoulders, like a cape.”

A huge thanks to Michael Kaplan for taking time out of his incredibly busy schedule to share his process with us. And I don’t think any of you need any prodding to go see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in theatres this weekend!

Check out the incredible "The Art of Star Wars The Force Awakens" book with detailed process images and details.