Meet the La La Land costume designer

Costume Designer Mary Zophres created an unforgettable look for Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in the award-winning film, and we found out how it all came together

La La Land tells the story of aspiring actress Mia (played by Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a dedicated jazz musician, who are both struggling to make ends meet in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts. Set in modern day Los Angeles, this original musical about everyday life explores the joy and pain of pursuing your dreams.


Swirling Colours

Oscar-nominated costume designer Mary Zophres has an impressively diverse portfolio. Her work spans from the Western landscape of No Country For Old Men to the space explorations of Interstellar.

When designing for La La Land, Mary had to wrap her mind around the immense scope of the film’s costumes. “Mia and Sebastian alone have over 50 costume changes apiece. That’s a lot,” she says. “But I was so motivated by [director] Damien Chazelle’s vision it gave me goosebumps – and that gives you the ability to go on even when you haven’t had any sleep and you’re exhausted.” She and Damien focused intently on colour as a vehicle to emotion. “We started on the first day going through the movie scene by scene talking about the palettes,” she describes. “We talked about how a scene might be neutrals with a yellow accent and another might have the men in dark and the women in colour. Timelessness with a contemporary quality is what we were always after.”


For Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian, Mary emphasised the elegant, with a shot of the offbeat. Nearly all of his clothing was made to order. “His look is not necessarily trendy, but it’s also not necessarily what other men you see walking down the street are wearing. It’s a look you feel he has developed and curated. He’s a guy you don’t see wearing a T-shirt.”

All of Mia’s dance sequence dresses are custom-made, including the striking floral-printed yellow one worn during Duet, the Hollywood Hills number overlooking a beautifully lit Los Angeles. Prior to shooting, Mary studied Emma Stone’s real-life red carpet moments and landed on a canary yellow Atelier Versace gown from a The Amazing Spider-Man 2 promo appearance in 2014.

 “There’s a strong use of colour throughout, as in the classic musicals, but it was just as much about what we found most pleasing for these characters. I’d seen Emma in a canary yellow dress on the red carpet. There are not many people who can wear that colour but she was stunning. So I proposed to Damien: how about a yellow dress for Duet?’”


Visiting the local fabric shop

Mary found the perfect shade of canary in the polyester section of American chain-store Jo-Ann Fabrics. To incorporate the delicate print, Mary recruited ager-dyer Rob Phillips to precisely hand-paint Matisse-inspired florals, adding a couture element to polyester from a fabric store.

“Emma’s just lovely to dress. There are actual ‘a-ha’ moments on many occasions in the fitting room with her because she’s such an amazing canvas,” says the costume designer. “The idea for Mia is that she starts off in a lot of vibrant colours, so there’s a girlishness to her. Then as she becomes more mature and focused on her work, the colour starts to become a little bit more de-saturated, to the point where in her one-woman show she is literally in black and white. Then we see her five years later, and it’s the same girl – just far more sophisticated.”

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Vintage sophistication

Many of Mia’s outfits have a vintage appeal, in keeping with the film’s tone. “Her barista blouse is based on a beautiful shot of Ingrid Bergman from the 1940s,” notes Mary. “There’s also a very, very early screen test that Bergman did where she’s wearing a pink halter dress. Mia wears something similar that we found in a vintage clothing store right in the San Fernando Valley. It’s the kind of dress that you could have worn 50 years ago but equally can wear right now.”

For the big dance numbers, Mary focused not only on form but also on extreme function, with clothing that swings, swirls and looks even more striking amidst high-flying performances. Producer Marc Platt spoke of her talent; “The way her costumes move only accentuates the beauty of the film even more”.

Costume Designer Mary Zophres most recently designed for Hail, Caesar!, which marks her thirteenth collaboration with directing duo Joel and Ethan Coen. She has also been the costume designer on several movies for Steven Spielberg including Catch Me If You Can, which earned her a BAFTA Award nomination for Best Costume Design. Mary is currently nominated for Best Costume Design at the Academy Awards this February.

Make sure to pick up issue 37 where we’re showing you how to make a gorgeous yellow swing dress, peach sundress and a jazz style swagger shirt with fabric and pattern inspiration!

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IMAGE CREDITS Photography Todd Williamson Movie stills: Dale Robinette © Helga Esteb / Shutterstock, Inc.

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