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Holiday Sneaks

It's a Case of Evil Is as Evil Dresses

To create the outlandish outfits worn by Cruella De Vil, costume designer Anthony Powell took inspiration from . . . nuns?

November 12, 2000|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | Michael Quintanilla is a Times staff writer

Anthony Powell couldn't resist the idea--not after he heard that Cruella De Vil was a reformed woman, no longer dazzled by Dalmatian puppy pelts.

"I truly thought no one would like the costume because it was so over the top," said Powell, costumer for Walt Disney Pictures' "102 Dalmatians" about the outlandish get-up he created for Cruella's release from prison. You see, since the first movie, Cruella--portrayed by Glenn Close--has been in the slammer serving time for her evil ways. In one of the sequel's opening scenes, she is sprung for good behavior, having been brainwashed into the ever-so-kindhearted and politically correct "Ella," who loathes fur and loves small animals.

But she's still crazy about clothes, and as she walks away from the prison gates, she's a fashion maven dressed like a nouveau nun. From the top of her beach umbrella-sized wimple to the hem of a sweeping, floor-length, white, kimono-sleeved, holier-than-thou coat over a backless gown, "Sister Ella" emerges.

Talk about a change of habit.

Talk about wit and irony.

Talk to Powell, and he'll tell you he "absolutely loved doing that costume," one of 16, compared with the six he created for the original "101 Dalmatians."

"Cruella is showing everyone she has changed, and for me, as a designer, doing a couture version of a nun was the most extreme thing to do," he said in a recent telephone interview from his London home.

Powell, who last year was made a Royal Designer for Industry--the U.K.'s highest design honor--never imagined that director Kevin Lima would go for the outfit. "But Kevin's got a great sense of humor, and he totally grasped what I had done," Powell said of the director, whose background in animation--drawing from scratch much like a costumer works--was a plus.

Lima, who most recently directed Disney's animated feature "Tarzan," howled when he saw Powell's nun-influenced design and other creations that included details such as buttons fashioned from faux dog biscuits stamped with the brand name "Woofo," and inventive substitute fur coats, one made of plastic bubble wrap, black garbage bags and House of De Vil shopping bags.

"We laughed every day," Lima said. "Anthony, in a way, is an amazing director because he has to look deep into these characters and visualize them. And he doesn't just perceive what they wear, but also who they are and how to create layers of characters based on their clothing, which is what we did with Cruella."

Cruella goes through three character arcs: politically correct Ella; Ella showing signs of the old Cruella; and finally, Cruella turned back into her wicked old self. Her clothes made the same transformations. The wardrobe for each change "is among the most important attributes in telling Cruella's story," Lima said.

*

Powell, who earlier this year received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Costume Designers Guild of Hollywood, and also has a Tony Award ("School for Scandal") and three Academy Awards ("Tess," "Death on the Nile" and "Travels With My Aunt"), said the task was a no-brainer because he surrounded himself with other skilled garment makers such as Barbara Metera. Metera, a good friend, and her staff of seamstresses sewed Close's garments based on Powell designs, which called for elaborate--and costly--beading, jewels, ostrich feathers and other embroideries often used in couture.

"With the sequel, Disney gave me total freedom to create--and Glenn's clothes were not cheap," Powell said. He says he couldn't remember the price tag for the wardrobes of the principal characters "because nobody ever told me, 'You can't do this or you can't do that because that might be too expensive.' "

Whenever he could, he cut corners "because Disney was so nice to me." For instance, one scene called for all of London, including the people on the street, to be splattered in Dalmatian spots. "There were hundreds of people in that scene, and all I kept thinking was: 'This is going to be so expensive to do.' "

Powell and his staff purchased every white or cream-colored shirt, coat, trousers, dress, gown, raincoat and shoes from every thrift store they could find, "for next to nothing." Then he had every garment and shoe screen-printed in spots.

But it was creating the clothes for Close that got Powell's creative juices going. He also created the actress' wardrobe for Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard," which won Powell a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for costume design.

"Glenn is a dream for a costumer," he said. "She'll also try anything," including high heels, "which she hates."

Powell said Close squeezed her feet into 4-inch-high stilettos and her body into a corset that took her waist down to 22 inches "because everything about Cruella is extreme, even her figure."

She got to keep a set of the clothes, he said. "It's in her contract," he added, noting that Close has spoken to him about displaying her costumes in a museum or using the collection to raise money for charities.

Powell recalled a conversation with Close when she was first approached to play Cruella. " 'Do you think I should do it?' " Powell recalls her asking him.

Of course, he told her.

"I said, 'When in our entire careers have we been given carte blanche to completely go over the top? Wouldn't that be fun?' Little did we know that we'd be given a chance to do it again."

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