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Deena Appel on the Costume Design of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

With Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), costume designer Deena Appel created one of the most iconic screen looks of all time. That is no overstatement; Austin Powers has been copied and homaged and wheeled out every year as a Halloween costume, with very little credit put Appel’s way. It is a rather sad indictment of how the industry works that, despite its importance, especially in a film such as Austin Powers, a costume designer will rarely see any kudos come their way.
Awards? Well, you might have a chance if your film is set in Victorian England or Disney-verse, but other than that not so much. With this in mind, it seems an apt a time as any to celebrate Appel’s incredible achievement with the Austin Powers trilogy, by interviewing the designer herself and publishing a raft of costume sketches from each movie.

Excerpts of this interview, that focused entirely on the original film, were published in January, 2018 issue of Empire magazine. This article will include the full version of that interview. Further articles concentrating on Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) and Austin Powers: Goldmember (2001) will follow concurrently.

So, without further ado, let’s explore how Deena Appel created the retro kitsch world of Austin Powers, how she developed this world as the series grew and her thoughts on being instrumental in the legacy of such an enduringly popular character.

Costume sketch of Austin Powers’ blue velvet jacket and striped drainpipe trousers complete with fabric swatch.

Clothes on Film: How did you become involved with Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery? Where did it all begin?

Deena Appel: I had just finished Now and Then (1995) with the Team Todd – Suzanne and Jennifer producing and Eric McLeod as the production manager. They produced the first Austin Powers along with Demi Moore, who was the star of Now and Then, so they all brought me in to meet the director, Jay Roach. When I first read the script, I was so inspired. I did a ton of research before I even got the job. Mike Myers had worked on the character, a homage to his father and his love of the era, for some time. In the script, he had described Austin in a velvet suit and “frilly cravat” and Dr. Evil in a “Blofeld suit”. That was the launching point. The whole script was described in vivid colour, with Austin more psychedelic and Dr. Evil’s world with accents of red and yellow.

When I met with Jay Roach for the first time, I expressed my confusion and concern about there being so much colour throughout the film. I suggested that Dr. Evil’s world could be completely monochromatic, to counter Austin’s explosion of colour – that way, every time you were in Dr. Evil’s universe, you would be starved for colour and visa versa. Jay was totally sold, and that was how the two worlds were divided from that point on.

Once I was hired, I scoured every 60s fashion & music related book I could find and watched as many films of the era that I could get my hands on.

The opening musical number from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

CoF: The first suit we see Austin wear is not the blue velvet one most commonly associated with him, but a navy and azure striped suit worn with a polka dot shirt and cravat. It seems that in all three films, each single breasted suit Austin wears is made to exactly the same design: four button fastening with a high break and narrow trousers. Can you tell us about how you designed this style of suit?

DA: Mike was a purist when it came to Austin, and very smart to understand the value of an iconic image. He wanted the audience to be able to tune in to any scene or any still image and instantly know you were looking at Austin Powers. He hoped that people would dress up as Austin Powers for Halloween, so he wanted to give them something memorable to attach the character to. That greatly informed all our choices, including his style, his glasses and teeth and hair. It was the most important lesson I learned from Mike. However, he would have been happy to wear the same blue velvet suit for all three films. I thought as an “International Man of Mystery” that Austin should have a fairly extensive wardrobe. By repeating the blue velvet suit from time to time and film to film, as well as keeping the same silhouette and changing the fabrics, we created an instantly recognisable character.

Add to that we had a VERY tiny budget for the first film, and I had all of Austin and Dr. Evil’s suits made at Universal Studios by the incomparable tailoring genius, Tommy Velasco. In order to maximise Austin’s closet and minimise the need for constant fittings, it helped to keep the silhouette and change the fabrics dramatically. The shape of the suit came from research of George Harrison in those days. Harrison was my strongest influence for Austin. He had a formality of dress, with great style and flair, still with a sense of humour.

Costume sketches for the three Carnaby Street models photographed by Austin.

CoF: The opening of International Man of Mystery is a joyous celebration of the Swinging Sixties, right down to the Andre Courrèges style outfits on the women modelling for Austin. Can you tell us about designing for this massive sequence?

DA: There were some key moments that were scripted in the sequence. Austin being discovered and then chased by both men and women, school girls, stopping to snap photos of models along the way and even dancing with a Bobby. From the start, I instigated a very strict code to the colour in Austin’s world, to keep it vivid and not too painful on the eyes. I choose very graphic and clear colours, high contrast patterns and avoided smaller or more muddy tones.

What I loved most about the sixties was the absurdity of the fashion. Style was everything. It didn’t matter if you could actually sit down in your dress as long as it was fabulous. I was hugely inspired by Paco Rabanne’s conceptual art as fashion. Plastics replaced fabric, nothing was off limits. Mike was channeling the photo shoot in Blow Up (1966), and I wanted the three models Austin photographed to be as outrageous as possible. It was an incredibly exciting challenge and the ideas flowed freely. I designed more than a dozen fun, silly, extreme, avant-garde costumes and we had to narrow it down to our favourite three. The Tick-Tack-Toe pantsuit, came to me while I was on a massage table. I was working like mad and exhausted, so when I finally was able to relax one night, the ideas flooded in. I sketched the pantsuit as soon as I got up from the table. The feather dress was the simplest of all. Build a shape, cover it with feathers and top it off with a birdcage, complete with a swinging bird built right into the model’s hairdo. Both were built by the amazing Joanne Torngren. Finally, I loved the idea of a completely impractical plastic dress with strategically placed bands encircling a woman’s body. My father, who was a builder at the time, helped me bring that dress to life with a local lucite/plexiglass shop.

CoF: Is the black leather catsuit worn by Mimi Rogers (and later Elizabeth Hurley) in the close of this sequence a nod to Emma Peel in The Avengers TV series?

DA: Yes. That reference was scripted, but it would not have been possible without my other extraordinary collaborator at Universal Studios, dressmaker John Hayles. He is a true artist who understands a woman’s body like no other.

Catsuits worn by Mrs. Kensington and Vanessa. Note the slight differences in style

CoF: Tell us about the blue velvet suit we see Austin wear for the first time at the Electric Psychedelic Swingers Club.

DA: We wanted to establish the MOST iconic images when Austin and Mrs. Kensington enter the club. I was never a fan of blue so finding the perfect shade was a challenge. The final blue I like to think of as peacock, most appropriate for Austin I thought. The lining was a vintage paisley to accentuate the detail that Austin’s suits could have been tailored on Savile Row. If you ever find an Austin suit up for auction you can tell which film it came from by the lining. I needed MANY for Austin Powers 2 where I used a matching teal silk lining and in Austin Powers 3 I found a contemporary paisley silk that was closer to the original. I’m sure the frilly cravat concept is a bit of James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) combined with Mike’s Scottish heritage.

The club was a huge undertaking. Jo Torngren made the Mondrian inspired waitress uniforms for me and countless costumes for the extras in all three films. Fabric was everything. I was constantly shopping vintage fabrics and combing though contemporary upholstery fabrics, which seemed to slant towards a 60’s and 70’s vibe at the time. I always said the fabric knows what it wants to be, so I would buy a few yards of fabric, do a little doodle of a sketch, staple a swatch to it and Jo would bring it to life. She also made almost all of the uniforms in all three films. Dr. Evil’s black & white army, the Moon-base, the submarine and much more.

CoF: How did you go about costuming Vanessa? Presumably as a very late nineties antithesis of Austin?

DA: As I mentioned, we had VERY little money, and time, to pull off the first film. When Liz Hurley was cast, she came to us wanting to use a stylist she’d been working with, Freddy Leiba. Since her character existed outside of Austin’s world, it made sense to have another eye on her “straight” costumes and I would design her costumes that lived in Austin’s world. As it was, I had plenty to keep me busy. Freddy proved to be quite collaborative, so we worked together to be sure we were telling the right story of the character.

Dr. Evil (also played by Mike Myers) in his permenant attire throughout the movie.

CoF: What about your design for Dr. Evil? He seems to be based on Telly Savlas as Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Well, as far as the nehru collar suit and bald head is concerned anyway?

DA: Yes, Dr. Evil’s was scripted as an homage to Blofeld. I wanted it to feel of the period and not bump Austin’s silhouette. Enter the Nehru collar and hidden placket front, which eliminated the buttons. Also, the colour needed to be grey to fit into our strict monochromatic palette.

Adapting the idea of the suit was simple but actually tailoring it was a nightmare. We needed to completely change Mike’s silhouette to help the illusion that the two men were played by different people. That meant giving Mike a barrel chest, which was done with a padded under-suit. Since the suit required coverage to the throat, tailoring that rounded shape with gabardine was a huge challenge for Tommy. If you look closely, I added a slit pocket in the front vertical seam of his suit for Mike to use as a nod to Napoleon. Mike loved the idea but never really used it, so I eliminated it after the first film.

I wanted Dr. Evil to have a leisure shoe and Hush Puppies were doing the perfect shoe, in light grey suede with a white sole. Hush Puppies later worked with me to build the same classic slip-on in silver leather for Dr. Evil and Mini Me in Austin Powers 2.

Dr. Evil in sketch form complete with ‘Napoleon pocket’.

CoF: It’s interesting that when costume designer Jany Termime chose to reprise this look for Blofeld in Spectre she used a nehru collar suit, like yours’, and not the more famous representation of Blofeld – Donald Pleasance’s mao collar suit in You Only Live Twice (1967). Feels kind of ironic that your look for Dr. Evil is perhaps even more synonymous with Blofeld than the actual screen incarnations.

DA: Funny. If you put them all side by side, they are all slightly different. But in the end, Dr. Evil was actually closer to Dr. No than Blofeld.

CoF: Tell us about casual Austin, i.e. the first time we see him not in a full suit. It seems like you virtually always used one of his suit jackets in the ‘downtime ensembles’. Was this to create a sense of continuity? That Austin clearly has an actual wardrobe of these looks and puts them together?

‘Casual Austin’, as you put it, did utilise the same tailored silhouettes, but it gave me a chance to add to his overall style with striped pants, polka dot shirts and kerchiefs at the neck. The shirts were all made by the famous Anto Custom Shirtmaker in Beverly Hills.

CoF: Just so we’re sure, Austin always wears the black Chelsea boots with every outfit, doesn’t he?

DA: YES! The first pair were vintage, but by the third I had Clint Bryant make us a brand new pair.

Austin’s striped double-breasted velvet suit worn at the casino in Las Vegas.

CoF: How involved was Mike Myers with Austin’s costuming?

DA: Mike was involved in the initial conceptual work, but he mostly left the costume decisions throughout to Jay and myself.

CoF: How about costuming Scott Evil (Seth Green)? In the first film he is leaning toward grunge. How far did you want to take his look in regards to making it a sub-culture of the time?

DA: We wanted Scott to be a kid that existed in the real world, in real time, so it was important that his clothes be shopped and not built. He was a rebellious and feisty kid, so I felt he might tend to shop a thrift store, layered look. We did make the Kurt Cobain T-shirt for him.

The Fembots’ boudoir and gun turret costumes.

CoF: The first double breasted suit we see Austin wear is at the casino in Las Vegas. It’s absolutely a late sixties cut suit. Where did you find inspiration for this?

DA: When you start with blue velvet, how do you dress it up from there? I felt that the double breasted silhouette was a way to maintain a familiar shape, but to make the suit a little more special to go with Vanessa’s gown. Again, inspiration from George Harrison and copious amount of research.

CoF: And how did the Fembots’ outfits come about? They seem very Paco Rabanne / Barbarella inspired.

DA: The Fembots, conceptually, were inspired by the Italian film Danger: Diabolik (1968). There was definitely something in the air at that time that was influenced by Paco Rabanne, who had a hand in Barbarella as you know. All of the sci-fi of the day lent itself so beautifully to the 60’s aesthetic.

The Fembots’ literal ‘bullet bra’ in action.

CoF: Was the point of the grommets in these outfits to facilitate the gun turrets that pop out (presumably on a dummy in close up)?

DA: Yes, the grommets were a way of disguising the gun barrels that would come out of a dummy bust in close up. There were in fact tiny sparks in one of the actor’s bras that allowed the last spark and some smoke to come out to complete the effect live.

I also had this notion that when Dr. Evil created the Fembots, he never quite got the hands right, so he always had them wear gloves. That’s never mentioned in the script or the film; it was a character idea I wanted to pursue while I was developing their look.

Two of the rejected Fembot designs.

CoF: What was the concept behind Austin and Vanessa’s ‘disguises’ for breaking into Dr. Evil’s headquarters? Austin looks like he’s in prep for Mike Myers’ later movie The Love Guru and Vanessa is a cliche American tourist with pink cowboy hat and gold Lurex handbag. It’s great fun.

DA: This was one of those scenes that maximised the ridiculous. Austin is completely clueless in the modern world so it’s an example of just how bad his judgement could be when it came to “blending in” as an “average” tourist. The scene continues from ridiculous to even MORE ridiculous, when they followed two very different size/shaped scientists into the bathroom to steal their uniforms and then exit in perfectly fitting clothes.

Austin and Vanessa’s hilarious tourist ‘disguises’ for breaking into Dr. Evil’s secret headquarters.

CoF: It must have been unusual for you to be creating costume changes sometimes based on no discernible reason? As in when Austin and Vanessa suddenly change into the silver Babarella-like Eurospy outfits after being captured by Dr. Evil.

DA: That was another unscripted character concept that I proposed. In Dr. No, if I’m remembering correctly, the villain has his captives change clothes. Bond ends up in a Nehru jacket and Ursula Andress in a Chinese brocade that was popular in the 60s. I loved the idea that Dr. Evil wouldn’t be able to stand Austin and Vanessa in their common street clothes, so he would have them changed into something more Evil-appropriate before they are escorted into Dr. Evil’s lair. With that concept in mind, it was fabulous to be free to design the most striking, sexy silver leather combo for the pair. Dr. Evil’s inspiration is also from the 60’s, so that informed his captive’s attire too.

Vanessa and Austin uber-camp Eurospy attire.

CoF: Where did the inspiration for these outfits come from? I love the little sixties touches like a ring pull zip on the breast pocket.

DA: Vanessa’s silver leather dress was one of many ideas I worked through in sketch form, with my illustrator Michele Michel, after becoming fully immersed in mountains of period research. The influence needed to be 60’s, but I didn’t have to be a slave to an authentic 60’s silhouette because this part of the film was contemporary. An authentic 60’s version of this dress, for example, would have had an A-line silhouette and not have been as form fitting. John Hayles built the dress for me and I had Liz’s boots made to match by the amazing Clint Bryant. For Austin, whenever I broke away from his iconic silhouette, I tried to reference the most explicitly 60’s shapes for men that didn’t exist in modern dress, but even more fun to do that in silver leather.

CoF: Austin’s spy logo is essentially the Mars gender symbol or ‘male symbol’. Did you try to include this on everything you could that wasn’t part of his ‘civvy’ wardrobe, so his dressing gown, wetsuit in Goldmember, etc?

DA: This once again speaks to Mike’s idea of branding an iconic image so I chose to use it wherever and whenever it made sense. I LOVED incorporating it into the wetsuits, thanks for noticing, which was just me having fun, showing how custom a world he lived in.

Austin and Vanessa’s ‘Evil appropriate’ outfits in sketch form.

CoF: Now, was this male symbol modified in any way? It looks to be pointing slightly more ‘north’ than usual…

DA: You’re exactly right. I was shopping on Melrose Ave. and happened on these male symbol necklace charms on classic silver ball chain. I had the holes filled and re-drilled to the 2:00 position, certainly a phallic suggestion, something that would appeal to Austin. In later films, I had them remade in multiples with tiny ones for Mini Me.

Austin’s iconic logo, the ‘male symbol’, represented on many of his uniform costumes throughout the series.

CoF: What about Vanessa’s fashion shoot during the credits. Were these vintage pieces? Also, did you know they would be featured during the credits? It appears that a lot of work went into styling these ensembles.

DA: Freddy Leiba and I both worked on this extravagant scene. It was enormous and originally IN the film and not just a credit sequence. We wanted to do so much and the producers were worried we couldn’t pull it off in the short time allotted to shoot it. Liz was completely game to move like lightening to get through the costume and hair changes as fast as possible.

The black and white checkerboard was vintage and if I recall correctly, Freddy had the matching helmet made. I believe the brown with yellow stripe was Fendi, the pale pink organza rose coat was contemporary and the white dress under it was the same style as her Vegas night-on-the-town silk dress that Freddy had made, based on a familiar dress for Liz. I designed the tonal peacock silk striped bubble dress with matching feather headdress, the clear plastic mini dress with strategically placed vinyl dots – based on a 60s reference I honestly can’t recall, the half black and white shorts, and the one sleeve, long red wool dress I had made as a modified idea of something I came across in my research.

With Thanks to Deena Appel.

All sketches by Michele Michel.

Part 2 and 3 of Deena’s interview concentrating on Austin Powers sequels The Spy Who Shagged Me and Goldmember to follow soon.

© 2018, Lord Christopher Laverty.