We Talked to the Designer of the Jimi Hendrix Biopic, Starring André 3000
Focusing on one year in Hendrix's, this long-awaited biopic takes a look at the artist's rise to fame and acclaim, and the demons that haunted him.
With his audacious, vintage-inspired threads, platinum wigs, and love of big, bold patterns all casually mixed with hip-hop streetwear, OutKast’s André 3000 has been holding it down in the style stakes for the best part of two decades. An obvious sartorial successor to Prince, his image has never overshadowed his musical output. In this way, he is strikingly similar to Jimi Hendrix, and so years ago, when there were first rumblings of a Hendrix biopic, André was an obvious choice for the lead role.
In Andre’s day-to-day wardrobe—and any fashion mag you chance upon—the trends of the 60s and early 70s still hold sway today. In terms of vintage clothing, it remains among the most celebrated of eras, a fascinating period in American history from which designers continue to pull inspiration. It was a time where, after the vivacious, post-war youth culture was being altered and reinvented at a fervent rate through music, visual arts, fashion, and political ideologies. Chances are after watching this you’ll be running to the closest secondhand store to grab up a few timely pieces because every character consistently looks so damn fly.
Working on a film like this from such a visually rich historical period is any designer’s dream, so Noisey tracked down the talented costume designer Leonie Prendergast (What Richard Did, Glassland, Dreams of a Life) about working with a living legend while attempting to accurately portray a beloved, deceased one.
Noisey: Before the film started shooting, how did you research fashion for the film?
Leonie: Because it’s only set in a one-year-period (’66-’67), and a very specific date, I just went to magazines, costume references in books, music references, trolled the internet, and just got as many images as possible for a general view of the 60s. And then I started specifically researching Jimi from his time in ’66 and ’67.
What did you do outside of just looking at images?
I’m based and Dublin, the film was actually made in Dublin, and I went to a costume house in London, Carlo Manzi’s, who specializes in men’s and lad’s 60s costumes. A lot of them were original and in beautiful condition. I kind of trolled all of the vintage shops in London and everyone was so generous with information and stories from the 60s.
I met this amazing guy who was a specialist in the 60s man, and I’d been shopping at Brick Lane in London. He was a massive Hendrix fan. So I was just kind of pulling costumes and he was interested in what I was doing, so we started talking. He had all of these amazing books, rare books, and he kind of left them to me. He had original Levi’s 60s jeans that he left to me, and a Purple Haze shirt he used to wear in the 60s himself, so it was incredible.
I’m not surprised that outsiders would want to get involved in a project showcasing such an icon. Were there any others who wanted in?
I met this Irish DJ. Her name is Dandelion. She still dresses in 60s clothes, does her makeup in 60s style, her hair, her whole house has 60s décor. I was looking for a pair of go-go boots. To have original go-go boots from the 60s is really hard to find. I trolled all of the costume houses in Italy, Spain, and the United States and I couldn’t find this particular style of boots or the size I was looking for. I started talking to her about it and she said, “Oh I have two pairs of those at home.” So she brought me to her house and I got all these original, amazing 60s clothes from her. Mary Quant dresses, jackets… I call it costume karma.
Can you talk about Hendrix’s style before he was famous?
I suppose because it’s only a year period and it starts off with Jimi when he’s just finding his feet, he’s playing with different bands, you know, I suppose from a financial point of view, he didn’t have a bunch of money, and therefore he didn’t have a huge wardrobe. So I think that was important to show in the film. Instead of having it like a fashion spread on all the clothes that people remembered him by, it’s supposed to show his character development, and that was crucial from a costume design point of view, to show that it was authentic and that everything that was going on in his life was mirrored by the clothes. John Ridley, the director, said that there was only about five outfits that Jimi is known for that he wished to replicate… they were replicated from scratch.
I found his military jacket to be an especially important piece during the film.
I think it was poignant as well. It shows where he meets Kathy and she introduces him to this amazing time in London in the 60s, and at that time there was a massive emphasis on the new and the modern. Youth culture was massive. I think 40% of the urban population was under 25. There were all of these musical influences from bands at the time like the Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Cream, Pink Floyd. All of these groups had an impact on what people were wearing as well. And there were so many vintage stores around at the time, around Carnaby Street and the King’s Road in Chelsea, and a vintage shop called Granny Takes a Trip, and this is where he saw the jacket, and he got it there. He just loved it.
Hendrix goes to London because he was told that people were more open-minded there about music. Do you think the same goes for fashion?
I think that it’s something where music influences fashion and fashion influences music. As I said, because it was so dynamic at the time, and there was a huge Italian influence from the 50s with Mod style, it was really a kind of hub of “anything goes.” You could kind of just express yourself. It all came from what was happening at that time in history. Because Jimi was ultimately an artist in every sense of the word, he kind of soaked up his surroundings and the environment that he was in, so you know, all of that world that he was living in in London. I suppose it felt really free to him, and that’s what London represented at the time.
Hendrix and André are both style icons in their own right. What was it like working with Andre, and how was he involved in the costume process?
He had done so much work, you know, learning how to play the guitar backwards and such, but he had also done so much work physically. He was on a special diet, doing yoga, really looking after himself. So he was exactly the size of Hendrix at that time, which obviously really helps when you’re trying to get someone to look like someone else as closely as possible. It was just an absolute joy every day.
Because a lot of clothes were made for him, he understands the process and how long things take, and he had a lot of respect for everyone at the costume department and the level of attention they were going through. From an actor’s point as well, it really helped him to get into the character.
It was just amazing. You’d see the toile—which is when you make up the shape of the jacket—for example, as a calico and then to get the shape, but then see the actual fabric you’re going to use, and then adding on the shirt and the jewelry and seeing him come to life was just magical. He has a real understanding of clothes and fabrics and how you move in them, because there’s a lot of scene’s in which he’s performing, so we needed to make sure he was able to do his lunges, you know.
Speaking of his performances, did you dress him differently onstage than off?
A lot of the time, from the performance point of view, he wore performance pieces that were for impact. During the day, I chose the more toned down clothes that he wore at the time. The jacket he wears when he plays the Beatles’ song and starts Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, he didn’t actually wear that jacket then but it was such a great, iconic piece so we put it on him while he was on stage. It was actually originally created by Chris Jagger, Mick Jagger’s brother.
How familiar were you with André from his OutKast days?
It’s funny actually. When I saw the “Hey Ya!” video I was like, who is this man? It’s genius. The video, the song… my four loves in life are music, people, horse racing, and fashion. So when I saw the video, I knew I had to dress this man on stage.
What about dressing the women in the film?
My female icons of the time from a fashion point of view would be the likes of Jane Birkin, Twiggy, and Edie Sedgwick. I love that style myself. Imogen (Poots), Hayley (Atwell), and Ruth (Negga) all wore 60s clothes, but it was different for each. I suppose when everyone thinks of the 60s, it’s your box dresses, miniskirts, turtlenecks, go-go boots, and kitten heels, so those were sort of your standard shapes. For example, Linda, who plays Linda Keith, she was a model at the time. It’s almost like what I suppose your modern day models would wear now—like your Kate Mosses—what they would wear during the daytime in the 60s. Imogen’s coats were quite monochromatic and a lot of creams and whites, and they were quite understated and streamlined.
Hayley, who plays Kathy (Etchingham), she in the film kind of represents the culture and the optimism that was happening in London at the time. That was reflected in her, and her clothes, and you know, each color as well. The film starts in color, and then it becomes sort of monochromatic in London. And that’s where he meets Linda first, so her clothes were kind of sanctioned then and she was monochromatic.
Then Ruth, who plays Ida, she was quite demure and innocent, and then she almost starts mimicking Hendrix’s clothes as well from being around him. Everything that happened in the 60s with clothes, you know, each character represented something different. It was great from a costume point of view. I always say it’s character first, so it’s character driven, and the clothes kind of come after that.
This doesn’t directly have anything to do with your job, but I’m curious about what it was like to work on a movie that balanced the idolization of a man with showcasing his demons.
You know, at the beginning when you take on a job like this it’s so exciting and then it’s really nerve-wracking as well, because there’s so much information out there, and Hendrix has so many fans, and you just really, really hope you’re going to do it justice, and that you are going to be making this as authentic and as real as possible.
I guess the thing is no one really knows someone. Even your best friends. So to be working with someone who’s not here anymore, and you read so many different stories, I suppose you can only do the best you can. I think that’s how everyone felt, and there was a real sensitivity to it, and sincerity as well. Everyone involved had a genuine love of Hendrix. [We] wanted to show him just as he had been at the top of his game, and they just wanted to tell this small part of his life so that it was a very optimistic film and I really think they achieved that. Everyone was really passionate about it, and everyone is really proud of having been a part of it.
Jimi: All Is By My Side in movie theaters today.
Follow Mathias on Twitter - @lil_nervous