Keri Langerman talks Elizabeth ruffs, Debbie Harry, and how hunting down vegan-leather leggings is harder than you might think
Brady Corbet’s dark new film Vox Lux traces the story of pop star Celeste, whose music career is born out of a tremendous act of violence. Having survived a high school shooting, the young student writes a song about the tragedy, which brings about a stratospheric rise to fame. Cut to 20 years later, and Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) is an international superstar – hooked on drink and drugs, and seemingly teetering on the edge of a breakdown – preparing for a huge comeback tour. At the same time, gunmen halfway around the world carry out another act of terror, wearing masks that may or may not be inspired by one of Celeste’s music videos.
When it came to giving Celeste a look worthy of a megawatt star, Corbet turned to costume designer Keri Langerman. In line with her troubled beginnings, Langerman dressed Celeste in a lot of black, accentuated with dramatic glam rock-inspired accessories – including, notably, at one point, a jewelled face mask.
Given Celeste covers her neck at all times, owing to injuries sustained during the earlier high school shooting, the character presented some interesting limitations. Wary of leaning into what she calls ‘the dying fad’ of chokers, Langerman instead experimented with jewellery, ruffled collars, and, perhaps most evocatively, a simple piece of fabric, tied just-so. “There's this image of Debbie Harry where she's wearing a piece of fabric tied around her neck, and it’s so effortless and cool,” Langerman says of her inspiration.
“You would hope you could just walk to a store and buy snakeskin, skintight, vegan-leather leggings, but, unsurprisingly, they just don’t exist” – Keri Langerman
Because Portman is vegan, all of Celeste’s costumes had to be completely animal-free, meaning rock mainstays of leather trousers and dramatic fur-trimmed jackets had to be swapped out for faux materials – which, according to the costume designer, are surprisingly hard to make work on film.
As for the Vox Lux’s non-rockstar roles, Langerman nailed those, too. In the role of Celeste’s longtime manager, who shepherds her to stardom, Jude Law wears tracksuits exclusively, which serve to capture the character’s slightly rakish qualities. “Jude is such an amazing looking man, you could put something very casual on him and he would end up looking amazing, like he’s ready to go to a party,” Langerman says. “But he was drawn to the track pants. He was very open to not looking great.”
Ahead of the film’s US release this weekend, here Langerman pulls back the curtain on how some of Celeste’s most iconic looks came together, and what it took to build a totally original pop star from the ground up.
GIVING CELESTE HER SIGNATURE MASK
“We always envisioned a three-step evolution of this face-covering. The first mask appeared in her music video, and gave her her signature ‘Celeste’ look. The second mask was a kind of trickled-down version of the first, which looked more mass-produced by the gunmen at the beach in a key scene. The third version of the mask was more of a treatment for her face, which she wore in another video shoot. With this one, the make-up department affixed the silver foil to her face, so it’s like the mask has actually become a part of her now. When you actually look at her costume, most of her body is covered. It felt right for where that character’s at in that stage of her life.”
CELESTE’S OFF-DUTY LOOK
“Brady and I were talking about how we wanted Celeste’s first present-day look to be jeans, a white t-shirt, and a leather jacket, because every 70s or 80s pop star I looked at had worn that outfit at one point in their career. But what’s the Celeste twist? We were like, ‘What if her shirt said something silly on it?’ Debbie Harry has that iconic t-shirt where it's the mask with the X on it, or Britney Spears early in her career had these t-shirts with sayings on them. And Brady was like, ‘What if it said... Fast?’ And I was like, ‘What does that mean, Brady?’ And he's like, ‘Nothing, it's totally nonsensical.” There are a lot of in-jokes in the movie. Those kind of things that could mean something, but also don't mean anything.”
THE PRESS CONFERENCE
“I’d been looking at a bunch of oil paintings of Queen Elizabeth and various women throughout history. With the ruffle-neck situation, I wanted to make sure that every time we covered her neck, it wasn't just with a piece of jewellery, it was somehow part of the garment. So we built that in our office. Then I had Lillian Shalom build the buckle from vegan leather. I wanted to add some gold hints and glimmers to make sure that they picked up the right colours in the room. With a really fashion-y look like that, it’s always a balancing act. I tend to shy away from fashion, because it’s a helpful tool but it rarely translates well on-camera. It’s this balance between wanting her look to appear strong and powerful and iconic, but not overdone.”
CELESTE’S PRE-PERFORMANCE LOOK
“The jacket was from Blank NYC. There was this colour purple, really saturated and shiny, that I kept seeing over and over in references from the late 70s, and I so badly wanted to mimic it, but they didn’t have anything like that. Instead, we took one of their rose gold ones, one of their silver ones, and one of their gold ones, and painted each of them purple. In the end I think it was the silver undertone that gave us the best match for that. And there’s a pair of blue leggings we made completely from scratch. You would hope you could just walk to a store and buy snakeskin, skintight, vegan-leather leggings, but, unsurprisingly, they just don’t exist. So you run to the Garment District, buy the fabric, and figure out how to make it work.”
THE FINAL PERFORMANCE
“New York designer LaQuan Smith was behind the bodysuit. He worked around all these crazy perimeters we had: no money, no time, needs to be vegan. The cape we made ourselves in-house. That was my Everest. I originally wanted the big train on it to be the same length as Princess Diana's wedding dress. But once we actually marked out the 25-foot-length I was like, ‘Oh, this is not a good idea.’ So we trimmed that down. We made five different versions of the cape before we actually started construction, and then two weeks before it went on camera I struck the whole thing and started up on a totally different idea. The more I looked at it, the more the idea of a traditional cape felt antiquated to me. I was like, “How can we make this feel original and unique and fresh? We need sleeves!”