A jet-black lacquer slowly spills over Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” until the whole film is fully engulfed by fear. The Italian director’s latest project, a remake of the cult classic from horror master Dario Argento, takes us to a dance school in frosty post-war Berlin; one that lures young women into the grasp of a cunning coven of witches who condemn their victims to hell. Much like the original, it’s a stylish and dramatic horror movie about the brutal sacrifice of purity and innocence.
His audacity attracted one of the most stunning, almost entirely women-based ensemble casts of the year. Dakota Johnson and Academy Award-winner Tilda Swinton – two actors he worked with for his 2015 drama “A Bigger Splash” – occupy the two central roles as student Susie Bannon and formidable dance teacher Madame Blanc respectively.
It seems a surprising choice of subject matter for Guadagnino to tackle just a year after the release of his Oscar-winning love story “Call Me by Your Name,” which propelled him to international fame. While that might have been a relative crowd-pleaser, “Suspiria” sets out to divide its audience by throwing blood, saliva and guts against the wall.
Giulia Piersanti, a costume designer and freelance knitwear designer for brands like Celine and Balenciaga, followed Guadagnino from the sun loungers of Northern Italy into the fiery pits of hell for “Suspiria.” In an email interview, she broke down how she dressed the coven at the heart of the film.
CNN: You’ve said you like working on the costume creation for film because it gives you the ability to create a world from A to Z. In the case of “Suspiria,” what was point A?
Giulia Piersanti: I meant that in my work as a fashion designer, I work mainly on knitwear. On the other hand, costume design lets me create every aspect of a wardrobe.
In many ways, the fashion of the film is key to the creation of its eerie and foreboding atmosphere. How did symbolism play into the garments you created for characters?
I started to research witchcraft and symbolisms, I found myself more interested elsewhere, in the works by artists I admire like Louise Bourgeois and Rebecca Horn, who used the woman’s body as a tool. With humor and irony, I used the archetypes of the female body in a series of graphic prints I had printed on different blouses and dresses; used real human hair to make the sabbath’s ceremonial costumes; and (used) bondage ropes for the Volk dance (the dancers’ debut performance).
With period films, there’s a tendency to work with tropes or trends of that era to create a sense of familiarity. Do you feel it’s important to dive much deeper than these simple concepts?
When making a period piece, I find safety in being just enough “era-accurate,” but I stay away from the disillusion of showing stereotypes and trends, especially for the character’s in some of Luca’s films we worked on.
From a social point of view, trends are followed (as much) by higher classes, as it is not chic, and intellectuals opt for individuality of expression. Coming from a background as a fashion designer, it’s easy for me to reinterpret an era and to balance what is still common in our wardrobes today from the language of that specific period; to give just the right amount of “era” to let the viewer know where in time we are without overdoing it and distracting them … This gives the chance to concentrate on other aspects of costumes that interest me (and the viewer) more, such as the narrative of these characters.
Many of the costumes you created for the film were actual costumes for dancers, rather than everyday garments for characters. How do those processes differ?
Costumes in dance answer to movement and rhythm and this opens new perspectives to how you look at them. The red knotted-rope costumes, and the effect of dripping blood created by the weight of the dangling ropes, gives a sense of anxiety and dread in anticipation of the terror that is to come later.
Which of the film’s characters was the most gratifying for you to design for?
All of them of course! But I especially enjoy Madame Blanc in her minimalist choices. I admire women who create a uniform as if their life and their art entwine … I find this is common with many of the artist I admire for sense of style.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.