Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
As fans of Nicolas Winding Refn’s famously violent, vibrant films like Drive and Pusher can attest, the Danish director’s work is as much about style as it is substance. And with his latest effort The Neon Demon, in theaters today, Refn and his go-to costume designer Erin Benach had the opportunity to weave fashion into every frame like never before.
The controversial movie stars Elle Fanning as Jesse, a stunning teen who moves to Los Angeles with dreams of making it big in the modeling world. Photographers, designers, and makeup artists alike are instantly entranced by her fresh-faced beauty — while catwalk veterans Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee, an actual seasoned model) want to eat her alive. What ensues — without giving too much away — is a gorgeous, glittering, and gory look at just how vicious the modeling world can be.
Racked hopped on the phone with Benach to discuss how the film’s high-fashion looks came together — and on a limited budget, to boot. “We knew from the start that we needed to find clothing that could carry a story on its own,” the costume designer says. “Not only to show Jesse’s evolution as a character, but also to depict the world we wanted to depict, which is sort of this alternate reality.”
That surrealist quality is evident from the film’s very first frame, in which Jesse appears drenched in blood, draped across a fancy sofa in an electric blue Emporio Armani top and skirt set from the brand’s spring 2015 collection. Benach, who was granted full access to the Armani archives before shooting began, says that the movie’s crew wound up basing the entire scene around that look, from the couch’s subtly metallic fabric to the bold blue and pink lighting. The opposite was true of the embellished Giles gown Jesse wears for her runway debut midway through the film, which was chosen partly because “it had shine and sparkle that we knew would be great for the lighting in that scene,” according to Benach. “It reflected all these points of light beautifully. And it didn’t show her skin, which is what we wanted. We wanted her to be fully covered, to be enveloped by that dress.”
Eventually, Jesse emerges from her Giles cocoon a full-fledged, hard-edged supermodel, and trades her sweet peasant tops and girly maxidresses for glitzier fare. “For that, I was inspired by Hedi Slimane’s spring 2015 collection for Saint Laurent,” Benach explains. “He’d done this rocker, ‘70s line and I knew that was where I wanted Jesse to end up in terms of her look.” To that end, she called in a handful of pieces from that collection — including a plunging gold halter top Jesse wears with skintight leather pants and Christian Louboutin stilettos — which proved difficult, since multiple magazines were calling in those same looks for shoots at the time. “We worked around their schedules, and basically spent all our budget on overnight shipping,” Benach says. “There were some hairy moments when we were running to pick things up straight off a plane, praying certain brands wouldn’t hate us afterwards.”
In addition to working with single samples for limited periods of time, Benach and her team also had to plan carefully to avoid ruining any borrowed couture with those buckets of blood. “Luckily, we knew exactly which scenes were going to be [gory] before we started, so I never let any of our one-off pieces get into a sticky situation,” she remembers. “Since that opening Armani look was from the current collection, we bought more than one so we had extras if we needed them. For a [violent] scene in a bathroom that happens later on, I went wholesale shopping in downtown LA and bought 16 of the same white dress. But the last look Elle wears — that one was hard. We knew it had to be an important piece, but we also knew it was going to get ruined.” The team finally found the winning dress — a pale green, Grecian-style gown — at a department store, and purchased three backups.
When it came to ensuring that The Neon Demon depicted an accurate (if dramatically heightened) version of the modeling industry, Benach also leaned on the real-life expertise of Fanning’s co-star, Abbey Lee. “She was like my fairy godmother,” Benach says. “I’d constantly ask her, ‘Hey, does it make sense that the models would be waiting around in bras and underwear during a fitting?’ ‘Does this seem like a model-goes-to-lunch look?’ She was an invaluable resource for me, and so wonderful to bounce ideas back and forth with.”
Lee also features heavily in the movie’s final scene, in which she and Heathcote’s characters wear a pair of molded leather bustiers and skirts for a futuristic poolside photo shoot — pieces Benach originally pulled not knowing whether they’d even make the film’s final cut. “Those were from Marina Hoermanseder, who does these really amazing sculptural garments,” she notes. “I showed them to Nicolas and said, ‘We have to figure out a way to use these.’ That end scene was written in afterwards.” As for whether those constricting, cage-like clothes informed the movie’s equally uncomfortable finale? “I don’t know the answer to that — but I’d venture to say, probably!” she laughs.