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Stylish new movies to see this holiday season: 'Black Swan'

December 18, 2010 |  8:01 am

Blackswan It’s difficult to imagine a film so well-suited to the talents of Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the Los Angeles-based designers behind the blockbuster fashion label Rodarte. “Black Swan,” Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller set in a New York professional ballet company, is a tale of good and evil, and dark and light, the same themes that have informed so many Rodarte collections.

The film centers on the rivalry between veteran dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) and newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis). Nina is chosen to lead a production of “Swan Lake,” which traditionally calls for playing both the white and black swans. But it is Lily who exhibits the sensuality needed to pull off the role of the black swan; she forces Nina to confront her limitations and get to know her dark side.

I talked to Laura Mulleavy recently about her first film gig. 

How did you get involved in this project?
This secret script was going around L.A. with no name attached to it. It was about dueling ballerinas, and everyone kept mentioning it to us and saying we’d be perfect to do the costumes for the film. Of course that’s out of my mind in two seconds, then we saw Natalie (Portman) and she said we’d be great for it. We met Darren in Brooklyn in August and brought our research and we all got along. So by September, we started working together.

Rodarteblackswan What kind of research did you do?
I read a lot of essays about what different ballets signified, how the costumes changed over the years and how dancers were treated in the time when Degas was painting them. One of the best essays I read was by Marianne Moore about Anna Pavlova and the dying swan. We also did a lot of visual research. We’re really good at finding rare photo books. No single library has a whole selection, so we’ll go to the libraries in L.A., Glendale, even Pasadena. You have to do book research, because often one thought leads to the next.

What was the over-arching idea for the dance costumes?
They had to play with the duality of a world that is very beautiful and very brutal too. 
Darren had the film concept, but he gave us creative freedom. And it just so happens that the things we found interesting about ballet, he responded to as well. We did sketches, talked about them, then did new versions. Each costume was kind of like a character itself.

How many costumes did you make?
Three versions of the black swan, three versions of the white swan and two versions of the maiden that opens the film. We also did the white gown, the gray practice tutu and the knitwear.

Tell me about the black swan.
She’s this broken mechanical bird. To make her more seductive than the delicate white swan, we wanted to use metal in her costume. So we used burnt copper on her crown in the shape of talons and stalagtites. The comb in the back makes her look dangerous. 

Did you look at real birds for inspiration?
No, but we have looked at collections of bids in the past. And I was obsessing over feathers. On the white swan tutu, I wanted to simulate the idea of wings but make them soft and not too kitschy. It became about how to use feathers in a delicate way. 

What kind of technique is involved in making tutus?
It’s a couture art and a dying art. Tutus are treated like prized posessions by ballerinas, and every one is archived and saved.  For the film, we had to take some license. The audience doesn’t usually see the straps and mesh that hold up a dancer's tutu. We had to make them look good from close up, but also worked for performing. For example, we had to make a strapless tutu. It was beautiful, but tricky.

Rodartespring2010 You also designed the knitwear in the film, right?
Yes, the scarf Nina wore and arm warmers and leg warmers. They related back to the top layers of the tutus. The gray tutu was covered in cheese cloth, the white one covered in angora and the black one covered in net.

You are also responsible for the stunning white gown Nina wears to the party when she is introduced as the new prima ballerina, and in a key scene with her mother later that night. The back of that dress was quite unusual.
The back is a central focus point in the film. Dancers like to show the bones in their backs and the camera follows the back of Nina’s head a lot. The scene required Nina’s mother to take her out of her dress. So we had to think of a reason you would take someone out of a gown. The fastenings were the reason. The bodice of the dress comes up in rounded points, and two straps converge and open up on the lower back. Then there is silk tulle creating a sheer bandage that weaves through the straps. There are hooks that come undone on either side.

What was the big takeaway from the experience?
What’s so interesting is the will and dedication ballerinas have, and the psychology of it. I’ve always been a fan because of the beauty. But the will to defy gravity is mind-boggling. 

Have you been asked to design costumes for other ballets?
Yes. Benjamin Millepied choregoraphed the film and we had a lot of back-and-forth. I felt like we earned his respect. We worked on a ballet he did that came out in October at the Dutch National Ballet. 

Had you been approached with a lot of scripts before this one?
This was the first feature film we were asked to work on, and it was the right match for us. We’re completely open to doing another one. This was an opportunity of a lifetime.

Were there similarities in designing costumes for a film and designing clothing for the runway?
There are huge similarities. For our collections, we always make choices based on an overall story. But we didn’t want to create fashion for this film. We wanted the costumes to be realistic and modern. 

-- Booth Moore

Top photo: Natalie Portman in the black swan costume designed by Rodarte's Laura and Kate Mulleavy. Credit: Niko Tavernise / Associated Press / Fox Searchlight

Middle photo: Natalie Portman, center, and designers Kate Mulleavy, left, and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte at a screening of "Black Swan" in Los Angeles. Credit: Matt Sayles / Associated Press

Bottom photo: A look from Rodarte's spring/summer 2010 runway collection. Credit: Jonas Gustavsson and Peter Stigter / For The Times