If you haven't been watching Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You then, to quote former New Jersey governor Chris Christie on his GW Bridge scandal in 2014, "Mistakes were made." The show — created, written, co-directed, and executive produced by 32-year-old Coel — centers around her character Arabella, a social media star who has parlayed viral fame into a book deal. Now working on her second novel, Arabella takes a break amidst a deadline to meet up with some of her friends for an impromptu night out. Shots, shots, shots and a few bumps of coke later, Arabella is knocking over drinks and gripping chairs to try and stand up straight. The next morning she rallies to get her draft submitted on time, but something is amiss. There's a cut on her forehead, her phone is smashed and (most worrisome of all) her memory has been wiped of the past few hours. The remaining episodes focus on Arabella trying to piece together the strobe-like memories of a unidenfitiable man raping her, with the help of her friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu).
Lynsey Moore, the show's costume designer, has played an integral role in creating the world in which Arabella and her friends live, one that sees them in high street fashion from the UK and Italy mixed with vintage finds from stores like Beyond Retro, Kathryn Vintage and Rokit. Moore first met Coel working on her first series Chewing Gum, which ran from 2015 to 2017, and was blown away by how fresh and innovative the scripts were. That show, in contrast to I May Destroy You, centered around a precocious 24-year-old on a quest to lose her virginity. "It was so refreshing to see new characters that hadn't been seen on television previously," Moore recalls. "That's what Michaela does, she tells stories we haven't heard before, she is visionary and unafraid to create something new."
Below, a chat with Moore about her work on the series and the important role of storytelling through costume design.
How did you first discover your love for fashion and costume design?
As a child, I was always interested in clothes right from the beginning. My mother says she used to hold baby clothes over the cot and I'd cry if I didn't want to wear them. I insisted on wearing a big velvet floppy hat everywhere as well as many other eccentric pieces. In most photos of me as a little girl I'm wearing clip-on earrings. I studied an art foundation course at the London College of Fashion but fell in love with the costume section of course and continued onto a BA degree in Costume at LCF. After graduating, I started work in the television industry and the rest is history.
What was it about costume design that captured your interest as opposed to fashion design or styling?
I knew from my art foundation that fashion wasn't for me. I found the whole process of pulling inspiration from anywhere far too liberal for my methodical brain. With costume, there's a script, characters and a time period, which suits my way of thinking. I enjoy breaking down a script: working out the number of costumes per character, what that character will be doing in a script, what the mood of the scene is, what color the background is and who else is in that scene with that character. It requires a lot of planning and consideration, which I really relish. I love creating characters and telling stories through clothes. I really enjoy styling too, but for me I just adore designing an entire scene and considering every visual component of it.
Costume design plays such an integral role in this show, in teaching us about the characters, where they are in their lives, and what time and place the show is existing in. As someone with many credits to your resume, how do you articulate the importance of costume design for film and television?
Costume can completely change the tone of a production and can make a show more visually interesting and help capture an audience's attention. It can communicate a character's personality even before they've spoken a word or add color to a setting that needs it. I focus on using costume for storytelling and communicating things about the character's mood for a particular scene. It is amazing how a costume can be designed to completely heighten a certain moment. The power of costume is incredible and it's why I love what I do.
What sort of conversations did you and Michaela have about the costumes leading up to shooting?
Michaela told me how she visualized some of the characters when she was writing the scripts. From there, I went away and created moodboards following her lead and adding ideas of my own. Some characters, like Biagio, Michaela had a very clear idea of how they should be and others were completely up for interpretation. Once we get to the fitting stage, ideas and designs evolve and change and Michaela provides feedback on what she likes. At this point I'm collaborating with the make up designer on every costume to ensure that we create unified looks.
Can you detail your moodboard process? I hear this term a lot and am never really sure how one goes about crafting a moodboard.
Once I have an idea of what a character should look like I need to present this visually to the producers. I spend hours searching for images that convey the style of clothes I think a character would wear, the types of fabric to be used or the color palette. Sometimes, it's clear what I want to design and other times I present various options to be discussed (especially when the actor hasn't been cast and I'm not sure what kind of person I'm designing for).
What is so striking about this show, among many things, is how much it all feels of a world. And yet, each character has a very unique style. How did you go about world-building while also wanting nuance in how each character exists and looks in this world?
Thank you for noticing. That was something that I felt very passionate about from the start, I wanted to create a world for Arabella to exist in. I treat each character no matter how small the part may be as a separate entity. I consider their personality, what they're doing, what their style may be, who they're interacting with etc. I also try to push myself to think outside of the box and stray from the obvious stereotype costume e.g put a business woman in a shirt and trousers. Instead I always think, what could I do that's different? What are women actually wearing to work these days? I try to present something fresh. With 115 characters on the show it was very difficult to keep all the characters looking different but my amazing assistant, Rosie Lack, and I somehow managed to do it and it was this level of detail that kept the show looking consistent and thus created a world.
Did you have a main source you shopped from for the show, or were looks pulled together from all over? If the latter, where did you cop these looks from? There's a vintage-y vibe throughout Coel's wardrobe in particular that I love.
Looks were sourced from everywhere, including my own wardrobe. I spent many a day trawling through vintage shops on Brick Lane and Portobello market looking for cool finds. Rokit and Beyond Retro are always a go to place for me. Many pieces were found online from places such as ASOS and EBay, but the majority was bought from the British high street. I also have a huge stock of clothes which I supply to all my jobs. My costumes are always an amalgamation of clothing found from everywhere. When I have something in my mind, I'll find it, wherever it may be. It's like the ultimate treasure hunt.
Do you have a character you most enjoyed costuming?
It has to be Arabella. She wears so much vintage, which is my favorite thing to source, plus the variety of looks she experiments with during the series meant it was always a creative process. Some characters you nail in the first fitting and you know how they'll look for the whole series give or take a different blouse or skirt etc. With Arabella, she constantly evolves as she embarks on her journey of healing. Her looks also required consideration and planning to make sure her costumes always reflected the right state of mind for Arabella at that point in the story. I love using costume for storytelling and Arabella's wardrobe certainly does that.
Can we talk about Kwame's block color teddy coat? We must. I'm obsessed. Where did you find it?
It was from an online shop called Boohoo. I saw a jacket similar in Urban Outfitters the year before and I knew I wanted it for Kwame. I searched high and low for it through ebay and Depop to no avail. I was shopping for the show in the height of the British summer, when coats are scarce in the shops and even difficult to find online. I struggled to find anything until I found this coat in the womenswear section of the website and breathed a sigh of relief.
Can you pick a specific look from a character and detail your thinking behind it, from conception to execution, and what you wanted said look to convey?
Arabella's outfit for the writer's summit in episode five was a challenging costume to design. It's a professional event that Arabella feels she would smarten up for, but she's about to out publicly Zain for rape. Lots of consideration and deliberation as to what Arabella should wear in this significant moment. It was a decision for Arabella to wear cardigans for all the major events in the series. For this reason, it felt appropriate that she would also wear a cardigan for this scene when she takes down her perpetrator. With this in mind, I picked khaki green trousers and black stacked boots that both felt militant and powerful. The bright red vest top signals alarm to the audience but the cardigan and lipstick were deliberately feminine, which helped to misdirect the audience as to what she was about to do and made the outcome more shocking. The aztec cardigan is vintage and an unusual design. It's not what you'd expect someone to wear at this moment, which is the intention: Arabella never does what's expected. I added shoulder pads to the cardigan to create a more authoritative silhouette standing at the lectern. Arabella is trying to present a professional demeanour and one of strength: statement prints and shoulder pads are Arabella's idea of power dressing.
What was your reaction to watching the show for the first time?
I'm always nervous to watch a show I've designed as I'm highly critical of my work and find it very difficult to enjoy. However, I was really pleased with how the show looks. It's everything that I wanted to be and obviously the content of the show is incredible. Michaela is mesmerizing and the story being told is so important. The show is unlike any other and that's such an achievement for all of us involved.
Welcome to "Wear Me Out," a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.
Photos courtesy of HBO and Lynsey Moore