the wes anderson style: an interview with milena canonero

A deserving winner of countless awards this season, The Grand Budapest Hotel has been recognised for their outstanding costumes by the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, SAG Awards and Costume Designers Guild to name but a few.

Ahead of the Academy Awards we are sharing an exclusive interview with Costume Designer Milena Canonero from the pages of The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel on the work that goes into creating a whimsical, Wes Anderson wardrobe.

The Grand Budapest Hotel published by Abrams Books
The Grand Budapest Hotel published by Abrams Books

Milena Canonero grew up in Genoa, Italy, before moving to England to finish her studies.  Canonero’s film career started with Stanley Kubrick when she designed the costumes for three of his films: A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975, for which she won the first of her three Academy Awards), and The Shining (1980). She has worked with Alan Parker (Midnight Express, 1978), Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire, 1981, for which she won her second Oscar), Francis Ford Coppola (The Cotton Club, 1984; The Godfather: Part III, 1990), Sydney Pollock (Out of Africa, 1985), Louis Malle (Damage, 1992), Warren Beatty (Dick Tracy, 1990; Bulworth, 1998), Julie Taymor (Titus, 1999), Roman Polanski (Carnage, 2011), and Manoel de Oliveira (Belle toujours, 2006). Her work with Sofia Coppola on Marie Antoinette (2006) brought Canonero her third Oscar. She has collaborated with Wes Anderson on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).


Matt Zoller Seitz: Were you familiar with Wes Anderson’s films before you started work on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou? What did you think of his movies as visual statements? 

Milena Canonero: I had seen his movies and how his work had evolved into a sophisticated, highly personal cinematic style. Wes is not only a film director, but an author. Like a great painter’s, his work is very identifiable, and unique to him. His visionary world is very inspiring; I completely submerge myself into it.

What is it like to work with him on a day-to-day level?

Wes is particular about details, and so am I. He is very specific, and yet he also leaves you a lot of space. He wants input and ideas. The “look” of the characters, when not specified in the script, evolved over the course of much discussion. I have continuous exchanges with Wes via e-mail, his favourite medium lately, but he is also very available in person, even when he’s under the pressure of a film shoot. I work closely with the production designer and the cinematography, so that everything comes together as a whole—especially in the overall colour palette of the movie. Colours have their own music, and Wes cares a lot that they are the right notes.

How did Wes describe the world of this film to you? Did he have any specific or general suggestions for how he wanted the clothes to look?

He told me he wanted to set the movie in an invented northern European Teutonic country, sometime in the 1930s, and for the opening sequence in the 1960s, he wanted Eastern European tones. Most of the story would take place in a luxurious mountain hotel resort and the surrounding area. Of course, this being a Wes Anderson movie, the title had nothing to do with the city of Budapest. Therefore, the look could be inventive, with historical innuendos, but at the same time accurate. This story is told through memories and therefore we could develop the look that was able to freeze the image in your mind. Wes’s references of Austrian and German writers, artists of the pre–Second World War period, were a good guideline, but also I looked at the work of August Sander, a great German photographer of the thirties, as well as at old movies and other sources. Of course, during the creative process, the final look of each character evolved. For instance, at the beginning, Ralph Fiennes’s character, M. Gustave, was supposed to be quite blond, with hair like the dyed blond hair of the very old ladies he goes to bed with. But then it seemed more suitable that he would have more realistic auburn hair, with golden highlights.

Production sketches by The Grand Budapest Hotel costume department. Early treatment of Dmitri.
























Were the clothes entirely original, or did you use some vintage items?

We made most of the clothes in our workshop in Görlitz. Some were made at Theaterkunst in Berlin, and all of the uniforms were made at Krzysztof’s costume workshop, Hero Collection, in Poland. I also rented and bought vintage clothes for the extras in the crowd scenes. One of the vintage shops we used in Berlin is called Mimi. Great shop.

How do you work out ideas for costumes before they’re sewn? Do you draw rough versions of them in a sketchbook and then have somebody do more elaborate illustrations when the ideas have settled a bit?

On the other two movies I did with Wes, The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, I applied traditional sketching methods to design the look of the characters. On this one, our illustrators used both Photoshop and traditional sketching to incorporate Wes’s and my own ideas. With Photoshop we could get very close to the actors’ likenesses, and then easily do variations and send them to Wes via e-mail. The actors were very pleased because they could relate easily to how their character would look. Having worked on two of Wes’s other movies, I had already worked with some of his “ensemble” actors and it was interesting to change them again to these other characters. Wes had decided that all the men in the movie would have moustaches or beards, save for Jopling and the nasty sergeant in the train. I loved this idea, and it is curious that hardly anyone notices this detail—but it gives a style to the men’s looks.

Production sketches by The Grand Budapest Hotel costume department

What are some of the materials that you used most often when designing the costumes for this film? Were there particular materials that you considered “workhorse” materials—ones that you perhaps used more often than others?

The purple and mauve facecloth, which is a very densely woven wool used for military uniforms. I wanted to avoid being too classical and using typical subdued colours for the hotel uniforms. I showed Wes the purple and mauve facecloth from an old swatch book from a company called Hainsworth in London. Wes was immediately taken by those colours, which worked beautifully with the set. Then the nightmare began, because I could not find the volume of fabric in that shade anymore, and time wasn’t on our side! But just in the nick of time, we discovered a German company, Mehler, who came to our rescue with an identical fabric, as well as so many of the other great colours that I needed for the movie.

What influences did you bring to bear on the hotel staff’s uniforms?

I used the cut and style of real uniforms of that period, and also many photos of high-end luxury hotel staff.

Can you describe the look of Ralph Fiennes’s character, M. Gustave? What did you hope to convey about the character based on his clothing?

M. Gustave, from the top of his hair to the tip of his shoes, had to give us a sense of perfection and control. He had to be able to move with elegance and freedom. Even when the world he knows collapses, he still maintains his sense of style. This is not at all difficult when you’re working with an accomplished actor like Ralph. It was delicious to watch him perform, and he is a great person to work with.

Production sketches by The Grand Budapest Hotel’s costume department, a mix of illustration and Photoshop
Production sketches by The Grand Budapest Hotel costume department

What are Tilda Swinton’s clothes made of?

Silk velvet, for both the dress and the coat. Then I had it hand-painted with design patterns inspired by the paintings of Gustav Klimt. Tilda’s character, Madame D., is eighty-four years old. We had to age her, and a great team from London did that beautifully. Wes described her as a great eccentric beauty and an art collector, belonging outside the fashion of her present time. Therefore I designed the clothes in a retro style, like that of the early twenties. Wes liked that. She just went for this look with incredible ease and so much humour. Fendi, with whom we had a relationship, contributed by making Madame D.’s muff for us, as well as the black diamond mink fur trimmings on her cape and hat. Fendi also made the gray Astrakhan fur overcoat I designed for Edward Norton, and they gave us all the furs I wanted for the movie. Nowadays, movies need the generous input of patrons from the fashion world to help with our costume budgets.

Production sketches by The Grand Budapest Hotel Costume Department Production sketch of Madame D.


Can you tell me a little bit about the look of Willem Dafoe’s character, the assassin Jopling?

The design of Jopling’s leather coat was based on the coats of 1930s military dispatch riders. Our tailor made the toile, and we sent it to Prada, who generously manufactured the coat for us. When we got it back from them, we lined it with a red super-fine wool, and constructed the inside of the front lapel to contain the weapons arsenal as Wes had described it in his script. We made gauntlets gloves, but these were never used, as Wes liked to see the beautiful knuckle-dusters that Waris Ahluwalia had designed and made especially for us, with a skeleton head for each finger. Waris, an actor who has appeared in several of Wes’s movies and here plays one of the concierges, is also a terrific jeweller.

How would you describe the director’s own sense of style, as he appears in daily life?

The Wes Anderson style.

Images and Text from The Grand Budapest Hotel © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.