Why You Won't Be Seeing Cliché Spy Costumes in 'Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation'

"If you put somebody in an all-in-one cat-woman rubber suit, you know they’re going to be going into action," says costume designer Joanna Johnston.
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"If you put somebody in an all-in-one cat-woman rubber suit, you know they’re going to be going into action," says costume designer Joanna Johnston.
Will he earn miles for that? Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation." Photo: Christian Black/Paramount Pictures

Will he earn miles for that? Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation." Photo: Christian Black/Paramount Pictures

Tom Cruise and his "Mission: Impossible" franchise return Friday with the sixth installment of the long-running film series, "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation."

This time, Cruise's nattily-outfitted super spy, Ethan Hunt, is on assignment to save the Impossible Missions Force alongside his team, which now includes a possibly duplicitous former agent Ilsa Faust, played by Rebecca Ferguson. (You might recognize the Swedish actress from the movie trailer, which shows her kicking major bad guy ass — all while wearing a one-shouldered chartreuse gown that looks more at home on a red carpet than in a mixed martial arts fight.)

The film opens with an action-packed sequence, showing the incredibly spry 53-year-old Cruise in a dapper suit while dangling off the side of an ascending plane. Though the film's action takes center stage, make sure to pay attention to the brilliant costumes designed by Oscar-winner Joanna Johnston.

Thank goodness this dress has a high slit. Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust. Photo: Keith Hamshere/Paramount Pictures

Thank goodness this dress has a high slit. Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust. Photo: Keith Hamshere/Paramount Pictures

This isn't Johnston's first time working with the star and producer of the "Mission: Impossible" empire. She also designed costumes for "Valkyrie," "War of the Worlds" and the 1992 romance "Far and Away," in which Cruise starred with then-wife Nicole Kidman. Beyond her Cruise films, the veteran costume designer has worked on a wide range of contemporary and period movies, including "Saving Private Ryan," "Castaway," and "Lincoln," for which she earned an Oscar nomination.

While finishing up her latest project, Johnston took some time out to chat with Fashionista about the CIA-level mastery behind the "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" costumes.

What was your inspiration for Rebecca Ferguson’s chartreuse gown that we see in the trailer?

I wanted something which was a combination of classic and modern at the same time. The dress has to be able to let her do a whole load of action. For the audience it looks like it's the same dress — it is the same dress — but we made many different repeats of the dress to accommodate a whole load of things that Rebecca had to do and for the action in the story — for instance, when Ethan and her drop down on the outside of the Vienna Opera House on a rope. The version of the dress I did for that stunt had a fuller skirt so it would balloon out more with the air. We made about eight all together I think.

Tom Cruise wanted a nod to old-fashioned romance, so that was the reason that I went down this avenue of classical and contemporary. And I wanted a color, which would really stand out in all the situations and be strong and sexy and light all at the same time.

At least Ilsa didn't lose her Choos. Photo: David James/Paramount Pictures

At least Ilsa didn't lose her Choos. Photo: David James/Paramount Pictures

What are some of Ferguson's other costume highlights?

In this scene in Morocco, Ethan comes to find her and she’s in this very cool villa wearing a silk satin champagne-colored blouse and nice big loose pants I made her. The way her hair was done, it was sort of a Lauren Bacall nod to that era. It wouldn’t date so much — hopefully that things in the film don’t look a bit of old-fashioned in a few years' time. 

I like when you put women in something and they can do all this action stuff, but they’re not dressed for action. They’re dressed for looking good and doing the action is by the by. It’s unexpected, I suppose. If you put somebody in an all-in-one cat-woman rubber suit, you know they’re going to be going into action. Tom Cruise — it’s his film, he’s a producer as well as acting — and he was very keen on this idea, as well.

Tom Cruise is famous for doing his own stunts. I just read in Entertainment Weekly that he wore an off-the-rack suit during that crazy airplane scene.

Oh, that’s not true. It was a bespoke suit that was made in-house by my tailor Michael Sloan and it was absolutely beautiful. The difficulty was I’ve never made a suit and sent it off in the air, 5,000 feet up at great speed. I put Chris, Tom's stunt man in an off-the-rack suit — that’s probably where it got muddled — and he went up ahead. It was just to test it and that suit came back in a slightly less condition than it was when it started out [laughs]. So my tailor and I, we went and we literally started overlocking all the seams and binding and over-securing everything and Tom went up and obviously I was terrified the whole time. He disappeared off into the sky and about 25 minutes later, he came back down again and happy as Larry and the suit was completely perfect. He might have come back in his underwear or something.

[The suit] was my idea — I thought that we’d do a nod to "North by Northwest," Cary Grant, and have a verygood-looking gray suit with a white shirt. And he ends up doing this insane stunt in a suit rather than looking like he’s dressed for action, again, so it’s juxtaposition the whole time.

Tom Cruise hanging off an airplane in a bespoke suit. As one does. Photo: Bo Bridges/Paramount Pictures

Tom Cruise hanging off an airplane in a bespoke suit. As one does. Photo: Bo Bridges/Paramount Pictures

In the trailer, he’s wearing a printed shirt that perfectly billows out when he rides the motorcycle. Tell me more about that piece.

Normally we would have done kind of a leather jacket thing. But again, we wanted him to look vulnerable, so we did what I call a bad shirt. It wasn’t particularly of good taste — it was actually solid polyester. I found the fabric in East London and we made up many, many shirts and they also had their own curves and different things.

Cruise's intentionally terrible shirt. Photo: Bo Bridges/Paramount Pictures

Cruise's intentionally terrible shirt. Photo: Bo Bridges/Paramount Pictures

How different is your design process for a contemporary action film like this, versus a period piece like "Lincoln"?

It’s like a cooking program. Because you’re always doing these funny nuances and mixes and different ingredients to give each film a certain identity. And that’s what I like doing. I like giving each film its own character and all the different parts within. 

In the end, I think, the people tend to have more comments about the costumes in contemporary films because I suppose they can relate to them more. They look and go, 'I know those jeans' and, 'Yeah, that jacket.' The one brand which worked incredibly well for me on this film was John Varvatos. They’ve got some good looks going.

For Rebecca Ferguson's Ilse Faust, were most of her clothes custom?

Most of her clothes were custom. She’s got a Burberry coat that she wears at one point. But most of it was made just because of the requirements. It’s difficult with fashion because we’re filming nearly a year ahead — so the fashion [brands don't have] multiples yet, they’ve only got samples. By the time the film comes out, you either have old stock, or you’ve only got singles.

So what are you working on right now?

I’ve just finished "The BFG" with Steven Spielberg based on the book "The BFG" by Roald Dahl. It’s been nice because I did "Man from U.N.C.L.E." with Warner Brothers and then I did "Mission" with Paramount and "The BFG" with Disney and they’ve all been different projects. Even though "Man from U.N.C.L.E." and "Mission" are both with spies. So I’m quite keen on spies at the moment. 

They're fun to dress, right?

Yeah. Also spies in film, they always look cool. They always look sexy. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.