Pardon my very simple, if not nearly monosyllabic, review of the Margot Robbie-starring “Birds of Prey:” It’s a badass, fun and super hot (but never male-gaze-y) ride. The same can also be said for the thrilling costumes by Erin Benach, who’s previously covered high-concept style (“Neon Demon,” “Drive”), character-driven historical drama (“Loving“) and a retelling of an Old Hollywood classic (“A Star is Born,” starring another red carpet icon Lady Gaga).
Of course, the wardrobes in “Birds of Prey” serve to support the joyride of a story and the irresistible characters, from the titular character’s technicolor fringe to Cassandra Cain’s sporty, cool-kid gear. But it’s clear that fashion played an influential part in the film both on-screen and behind-the-scenes.
“I looked to street and current fashion because it seemed right for this film,” Benach says over the phone. “I don’t always do that, but I really felt it was a fun way to connect fans to these characters.” (Plus, what’s more relatable to viewers than a breakup with a toxic — in Harley Quinn’s case, literal and figurative — partner?)
The Joker-free movie centers on a recently-emancipated Harley trying to rediscover herself and find a vocational calling, which may or may not be legit. She crosses paths with an equally tough and determined group of women — each with their own distinctive styles, sartorial and combat-wise — who’ve run afoul of Gotham City underworld boss, Roman Sionis (a scenery-masticating Ewan McGregor preening in the jauntiest suits). Oh, and, Harley is never ever getting back with Joker again.
“She really means it. There was just a feeling of female camaraderie, and that was the vibe of movie: the girl gang,” says Benach. “It’s coming from a place of fun, liberation, freedom and party — and Harley has to be a leader.”
The girl-gang principle ruled behind the camera, too, with co-producer Robbie, scriptwriter Christina Hodson and director Cathy Yan, the second woman after “Wonder Woman“‘s Patty Jenkins (and first Asian American woman) to lead a DC movie.
Below, Benach takes us through the diverse characters in “Birds of Prey” and their compelling costumes.
Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie)
During her requisite post-breakup bender at Roman’s nightclub, Harley says she needs to “find new identity; a new me.” But, she needs to stay true to herself — and the original source material. So Benach updated Harley’s costumes with a mix of new and longstanding “motifs” and colors.
In a too-quick montage, Harley burns off steam as a roller derby bruiser. Benach incorporates her signature red and black palette and stars, but updated the look with flames blazing up the side panels. The costume designer compiled a mood board of “cool ’70s-inspired” roller girl- and car racing-themed fashion editorials, including one of Cat McNeil in a wide-belted racing leotard from the April 2015 issue of Vogue Mexico, one featuring Luna Bijl in the March 2017 edition of Vogue Paris and the BB Dakota holiday 2015 lookbook.
Harley’s plastic raincoat (top) — with an explosion of banger-ready streamers and fringe — highlights another theme: shredded yellow and black police “caution” tape. “I saw crime scenes everywhere Harley went, from the path of destruction that she leaves — or maybe even encounters,” explains Benach. “She doesn’t care about police caution tape and things that are establishment.”
Benach envisioned a “crafty” Harley raiding Gotham’s version of Party City then “DIY”-ing herself a “party jacket.”
“There was this inner child to Harley Quinn that we loved and loved to tap into,” the costume designer says. “When Margot first told me about Harley, she said, ‘You know, Harley can just walk down the street, stick her hand into the window of a store and take whatever she likes. We kind of thought about it in that way.”
Repping Harley’s pink and teal palette, Benach custom-built the coat, along with the personalized slouchy graphic tee, striped denim cut-offs with suspenders and velvet sports bra. But, her white booties, with a wedge heel (above) — ideal for hand-to-hand combat and shooting up Gotham PD HQ with her beanbag and confetti-packed “Fun Gun” — are by Isabel Marant.
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Benach also custom-built all of Harley’s jewelry, which led to the debut of her line, Billie Valentine, which features pieces inspired by and officially seen in “Birds of Prey.”
“I love how jewelry gives an extra layer of the character and one more connection in understanding who she is,” she says of Harley’s layered charms, which include Harlequin diamond shapes, a female empowerment symbol, a dog bone personalized with “Bruce” (the name of her pet hyena) and meds. “Because she’s popping pills,” says Benach.
For the climactic battle with Roman and every thug in Gotham City, Harley dons a full-body jumpsuit, as oppose to impractical teeny hot pants. (See: “Suicide Squad”). As she wisely says, “Gotta protect the girls.”
“She’s pulling on her armor,” says Benach, adding that it was the most challenging costume she designed for the movie. “It was taking this idea of a utilitarian jumpsuit — and knowing it would be good for stunts and protecting her legs — and Harley-ifying it.” For the whimsical, fun house-ready element, she looked to Jeremy Scott‘s “playful” runway shows as an influence. “I also wanted it to be hot and fun and still fit in Harley’s world,” she adds.
Benach found an etcher in New York who, after trying out about “50 samples,” successfully translated Harley’s diamond Harlequin pattern onto two-toned gleaming gold leather. Her team then made approximately 20 multiples for stunt artists and doubles for the nail-biter sequence, also involving a motorcycle/car chase and a pair of roller-skates.
Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell)
For the songstress with a sick right hook, Benach translated Black Canary’s blue and gold from the comics onto her big-screen wardrobe.
We first see Black Canary’s fishnet signature carried over from the comics in a strappy, asymmetrical mesh gown (above) that Benach imagined Canary designed herself. Staying true to her palette, she changes into a denim vest and liquid-metal disco pants to lend Harley an assist, which leads to her involuntary promotion from Roman’s nightclub performer to driver-slash-enforcer.
Dressing for the job, Black Canary changes her uniform to an ultra-chic, inky-blue ’70s-style pantsuit with luminous gold silk lining. “High-waisted, wide-leg, a narrow shoulder, but a longer jacket with a really strong lapel,” explains Benach, who landed on a satin brocade fabric that almost comes alive on screen as the movie progresses.
“Of course, there wasn’t enough of it to go around for [Black Canary] and her stunt team, but I couldn’t give it up,” says Benach. “My whole team was just like, ‘Erin, pick another fabric!'” As a fix, the costume designer had the brocade pattern printed onto a stretch material for the doubles. “I’m glad we didn’t give it up because you do get the subtle print, the texture and the depth. If it was just satin, it wouldn’t have made as much sense.”
Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez)
Detective Renee Montoya has a lock on all the Jerry Orbach on “Law & Order” one-liners and actual police work, even though her male boss takes all the credit. Her outfits illustrate her zero-f*cks mindset, including the throwback souvenir-style T-shirt, grabbed from the lost and found in a pinch. (It reads, “I shaved my balls for this.”)
But don’t underestimate Montoya’s all-business navy button-down and law enforcement officer black trousers — like her Gotham PD bros do her investigative skills.
“I dare you to find another detective in that kind of get-up,” says Benach. “[The pants by Seize sur Vingt] are still high-waisted and still have a nipped-in ankle. She still had a high boot. We were still playing in our fashion world, even though she’s playing the straight cop. We needed her to balance out the world with this realism.”
Benach did custom build Montoya’s shirt-turned-jacket — or what she calls “a shacket” — along the very non-Montoya bustier (“you’ve gotta be kidding me”) that she pulls out of Harley’s trunk.
Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)
“She was my sporty girl,” says Benach of the tracksuit aesthetic for the deadly cross-bow master, Huntress. Again, the costume designer looked to throwback fashion editorials to translate the diagonal stripes from the comics into colorful, ’90s-style windbreakers for the pre-Huntress flashback training scenes.
“She’s always seen in the comics in a hood and a cape; very shrouded from people because of what her superhero talent is,” explains Benach. “So I wanted her to definitely go into the shadows and be dark, but fit her color palette of black and purple because I wanted her to also pop.”
As the socially awkward assassin fulfills her lifelong mission (and workshops her super-anti-hero name), her sportswear-inspired silhouette evolves, too.
“It goes into another tracksuit style [and then] into the leather pants, when she’s arrived as Huntress. She’s found a place,” adds Benach. “But next level, so she’s got the high-waisted black leather pants and that bodice top, which has a samurai vibe to it.”
Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco)
Street-smart Cassandra Cain pretty much steals the scenes — and everything around her. She’s a sticky-fingered petty thief whose pickpocketing spree kicks off the action after she pilfers a coveted gem from Roman’s creepy sidekick Victor Zsasz (a bleached-blond Chris Messina).
“Cassandra had to be able to stash the stuff that she steals on the street. So we wanted something baggy. She would be like, ‘I’ll take that off your table and stick it in my jacket or in my fake cap,'” explains Benach.
The oversize shape and orange lining of the teen’s custom-built windbreaker serve a function: to stash her loot snatched on-the-go. But Cass’s aesthetic has the most significant and authentic fashion inspiration, gleaned from Benach actually embedding herself in the research process.
“I looked to street culture, like, ‘what kids are wearing today?'” explains Benach. “I went to a school and talked [to the students] and was just checking out teenagers’ clothing. Just vibing out on it — like, ‘yeah, yeah yeah, I like that’ — and soaking it in.”