From Haute Couture to Hot Rods: 'The Last Jedi' Costume Designer on His Inspiration

Costume designer Michael Kaplan on wardrobing the most stylish 'Star Wars' film yet.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a sweeping plot- and character-packed film, as much about spirituality as special effects battles. It also happens to be a gorgeous costume picture thanks to veteran designer Michael Kaplan, who used everything from haute couture to hot rods as references.

Kaplan’s very first film was the original Blade Runner in 1983, which has influenced fashion designers for decades, and he’s worked with J.J. Abrams on several more films in the sci-fi genre, including Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

But Last Jedi may be the best of them all, the most stylish of all the Star Wars films, with so much to look at, from Princess Leia’s metallic tweed cape to a cosmic casino scene with 200 extras, each with a custom look. I chatted with Kaplan about his work on the film, which to me, felt like the first Star Wars to be made with women in mind.

“I do feel the film coming out right now with what’s going on in the news is appropriate,” says Kaplan. “There’s wonderful strong women in this film, much more than we’ve seen ever before in a Star Wars film. And I think it’s reflecting what’s going on.”

I really felt the feminine vibe throughout this film — from Leia (Carrie Fisher) in charge to the much more stylized clothing and so much jewelry!

In Episode 7, that wasn’t really appropriate. When JJ. Abrams directed, his take on Princess Leia was much about practicality where she’s wearing her jumpsuit. Coming onto Episode 8, the script had more humor, more color, more flamboyant locations, and Rian Johnson’s take on Princess Leia was totally different, so suddenly there was the opportunity to do a lot more.

I really love the fact I had the opportunity to create Canto Bight. I was questioning it, because it seemed more like something when you read the script that would be in a James Bond movie — to think of a casino filled with beautiful wealthy people in Star Wars was something that hadn’t been done before, and it was daunting. There were so many characters, we had like 200 extras we had to dress for the scene. I’d say I used the majority of the time on the film doing that. We had a millinery department, we had a jewelry department, people making gloves and hats and wigs, so it was a bit like MGM in the 1930s. And for security reasons, we don’t farm things out very much, everything had to be at one place, so it was at the studio, and to have that opportunity that only Star Wars budgetarily would allow was incredible.

What are the color palettes and style codes for the First Order, or the dark side, versus the Resistance?

The rebels are decidedly earth-tone and knit fabrics and warmer colors and rough, and olives and wools, and some sweaters, much more affable and attainable. The First Order feels more hard-edged and synthetic and black and impervious, and very arch.

What I noticed straight off from the first scene with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), the First Order leader, was his very stylized, tailored black-on-black look with high-waist trousers. It had a very 1940s uniform feel, but also felt futuristic.

It’s not just Hux, his costume is unique to him, but there are other costumes that are similar. Besides World War II uniforms, because I didn’t want to copy Nazi uniforms, I thought a lot about the silhouettes of Thierry Mugler in the '80s and '90s. He’s a brilliant designer. I love his tailoring, I love the sharp lines and the severe silhouettes with heroic-looking shoulders, so that was something that also came into Hux’s design. And also the simplicity of the dark grays and blacks together, and the simplicity of just a beautiful silver belt buckle.

Leia wears this masculine-meets-feminine metallic tweed cape that’s incredibly beautiful.

It was and there were two looks for her: one was a coat and she also wore a cape for the latter part of the film. She was very happy with them, and they were much more of a regal look than she had in Episode 7, because that’s what Rian wanted. One of my references was Queen Elizabeth wearing a military cape in a photograph I found, and I love the way the collar frames her face. We also added a lot of jewelry.  

I love the earrings, I was getting an Angela Merkel power earring vibe.

They were really interesting how they were made, they went into the ear themselves and covered the lobe, they were not clip-ons or anything like that; they wound around the ear. Her one ring she wore in Episode 7, but the other jewelry was all newly designed for this film.

One of the film’s most feminine looks was a draped, cape-back jersey gown worn by Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). 

I thought when I read the script that Holdo would be wearing a uniform, so I did some uniform designs and showed them to Rian and he said, "Oh no, no, no, no. She’s flirting with Oscar Isaacs’ character, I don’t want her to be in a uniform, I want her to be unique and almost balletic." He said, "I’d like to see her body and her body language, and her silhouette, and have her be more feminine." So I started thinking about feminine balletic design, and something kind of Greek, which made me start thinking about jersey, and then I started thinking about Madame Gres. So that’s where that came from.

I feel like women are going to want that gown!

The color, people asked me, "what color is it? Is it purple, no, is it brown, no!" I always wondered what color puce was, and it’s puce!

Rey’s (Daisy Ridley's) look seems to stay pretty faithful to what it was in the last film. She’s still a would-be Jedi, coming into her power.

Well, she starts the film in what she ended Episode 7 in, then she has a backpack and we learn she’s brought some ponchos and things for the inclement weather on the island where she finds Luke Skywalker. Then, as she starts training, we see her shedding things and becoming more warrior-like in a very simplistic silhouette, so she’s shed her ponchos and her vest and she’s down to basics, and we see her form and silhouette fighting with the light saber.

It’s almost like she has soft armor with the sleeve detail and peplum jacket.

Yes, it does.

We meet a new villain, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), and his gold trench robe is extraordinary — was it an actual garment or CG?

It was CG, but I learned early on that you do not just tell them what you want. If you make the actual garment, it will stay faithful to what your design is. So we made the actual garment, then we realized we needed the actual garment because when he gets cut in half, that’s not CG, it’s the actual garment getting cut in half on the throne. But the design of it is basically his loungewear. He wears these beautiful little velvet mules. Someone said he’s like a Hugh Hefner character, which I kind of like. He’s wearing a very rough Star Wars kind of fabric that’s very nubby and textured and then we had it gold-leafed. I love that when he gets sliced in half, his arm and hand is still grasping the throne even when his body falls away. It’s creepy!

I loved his red guards, too — they were so old Hollywood, Cecil B DeMille epic.

I wanted it to be that way. I loved those costumes. To do a drawing of something I want is one thing, but to have the mechanics worked out by my team and made to work on these stuntmen where they needed full range of motion and vision with a helmet that seems to have no eyes, that we did with a series of little tiny slits, that was another. I was really thrilled that design could be the actual costume that was worn and worked for the stuntmen. My mood board for that was a series of red muscle cars from the 1970s with all their vents, that was the starting point.

The Canto Bight casino scene, how much fun was that?

All I knew was Rian wanted it to be black and white, so that was starting point. So of course, I looked at Truman Capote’s famous black-and-white ball, and started looking at my favorite heroines from the past. I knew there would be a lot of creatures requiring fancy dress. We designed tuxedos that didn’t look like tuxedos but with men’s tunics. Everybody was unique, which was so challenging since there were 200 extras. I also chose all the extras, working very closely with hair and makeup. But there were so many more that weren’t seen on the film. Rian said, I had to cut it because the film was so long, and every time I cut a second out of it, I said, "Michael’s going to kill me!"