No spoilers beyond what is established in the trailer.
When Nicolas Winding Refn's newest film, "The Neon Demon," premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, viewers reportedly responded with boos and heckles. Needless to say, the polarizing psychological horror film is mesmerizing at many points and straight-up disturbing at others. Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a beautiful young runaway (or orphan, it's creepily unclear) new to Los Angeles, who quickly signs to a modeling agency and enters a world obsessed with beauty and its consumption. She befriends a makeup artist named Ruby, played by Jena Malone, who introduces her to established models Sarah and Gigi, played by Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote. New in town and bursting with youth, Fanning's character hypnotizes everyone and she finds herself transformed forever by the experience.
In order to bring the high-gloss modeling world to screen, Refn enlisted costume designer Erin Benach, who also worked with him on "Drive" in 2011. "We needed to develop a world where these very high fashion moments would be truly high fashion," says Benach. "It's easy to get your hands on clothing all over the world, but not necessarily editorial-style high fashion clothes. That was one of our initial goals: How [were] we going to set the bar as high as possible for that with our limited budget and funds?" To that end, Benach reached out to designers about potential collaborations. Armani, a brand she's worked with in the past, lent Fanning's opening look in the film: a metallic blue strapless Emporio Armani top and matching skirt. "They are great collaborators of mine and we were looking through their archives for pieces as far back as 1980," says Benach. "That was a 2015 collection piece."
For Jesse's major looks, Benach coordinated with the production designer and cinematographer to determine which color palettes would best serve each particular scene's setting and lighting. "I knew I wanted something that was head-to-toe fully clothed and had a large silhouette and enveloped Elle, let's say for the runway piece," says Benach about Jesse's show debut. The resulting dark, sparkly full gown is custom Giles. For another scene in which Jesse borrows a dress from the closet of an opulent mansion, Benach purchased an ethereal seafoam green gown. "We were trying to figure out what was something that looked like it would be living in that house," she says.
But even before Benach started reaching out to designers, she was inspired by Saint Laurent's glamorous, grungey spring 2015 campaign — an image of which was actually banned in the UK. "I thought it was so rocker and so different from everything else that was coming out on the runway at the time," says Benach. "I had this idea that Elle [would transform] into something like that ad campaign. There was just this '70s glam, but with a hard edge, that I thought was awesome. It doesn't feel like a straight-up runway piece, it feels more like clothing." Benach then worked backwards to find Jesse's initial more innocent character — one more partial to wearing long or loose-fitting Ulla Johnson dresses. But Saint Laurent didn't just serve as inspiration: Jesse changes into a sexy, glittery spring 2015 halter top from the label after the runway show.
Jena Malone's Ruby wears some Saint Laurent spring 2015 separates too, though as a non-model of the group, her look is more uniform and grown up: skirts, bodysuits, a vintage Armani blazer. "She's a proper high-end makeup artist and luckily for me that was very easy to nail as far as the style goes, because I work with makeup artists all the time," says Benach. Meanwhile, Heathcote's surgery-obsessed Gigi is focused on perfection, so Benach "never wanted to be that casual with her" and avoided the off-duty model tropes to which Lee's Sarah was more partial, wearing brands such as A.L.C.
"You think models in their everyday wear are very high fashion, but they're not," says Benach, who added that she wanted to emphasize the casual trend in a realistic way. "The scenes of [models] waiting [for a casting] in their underwear was straight from one of our actors, Abbey." Indeed, having started her career as a high-fashion model, Lee provided a useful reality check for Benach. "I even showed her fitting photos and said: would it make sense if she was hanging around in this? And would it make sense that they'd be waiting in their underwear?"
Perhaps the most high-fashion part of "The Neon Demon" is a Steven Klein-esque photoshoot at the end of the film — a scene that was actually written after Benach found the conceptual pieces the models wear on set. "We found [designer] Marina Hoermanseder and she had this sculptural [collection]... it has such an intense quality as far as the human female form, because it's all pre-shaped to the female body, it's all sculpted," says Benach, who showed it to Refn without necessarily having a place for it in the film. "And then a few weeks later, that scene was written in."
In a movie about the power of beauty, and how it can shape and constrain us, these glossy exoskeleton pieces mimic an exaggerated female body — a smart costume choice in a frightening film about our society's dangerous hunger for all things superficial.
"The Neon Demon" hits theaters Friday. See the trailer below.