Warning: Mild spoilers for 'A Simple Favor' below.
The second Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) steps out of her car and saunters into the pouring rain in an absolute fire, three-piece pinstriped suit in "A Simple Favor," you know she's very different from all the other suburban parents at elementary school pick-up — especially seemingly goody-goody mommy vlogger Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick).
The dark comedic thriller, directed by Paul Feig ("Bridesmaids," "Spy") and based on the novel of the same name by Darcey Bell, takes viewers on a suspenseful roller coaster ride of questions, mysteries and more questions — all heightened by a stunning wardrobe courtesy of costume designer Renée Ehrlich Kalfus.
"The idea of menswear came from Blake," says Kalfus — who won a Costume Designers Guild Award last year for the '60s-set Taraji P. Henson-starring "Hidden Figures" — over the phone. "She said, 'I think I should brand myself [as Emily].'" After all, Emily takes names as a high-powered PR maven for a famous fashion designer in "the city," she's married to dreamy (and possibly shady) English professor Sean Nelson (Henry Golding, leading man of "Crazy Rich Asians") and she's definitely hiding something.
To streamline the menswear-inspired concept with more specific suiting inspiration, Kalfus looked no further than the absurdly dapper in real life Feig, who's known for wearing bespoke suits "every day and everywhere." And Emily's collaborative aesthetic was set. (Synergistically, Lively has taken the branding over to her own red carpet appearances to promote the movie — and we're not mad about it.)
"The suiting runs a little against type with having the actress Blake Lively walk in with all those legs," laughs Kalfus. "You kind of want to show everything and instead we establish this men's look, which wound up being very sexy — and she was basically covered."
Emily's refined pantsuits are accentuated by layers of elegant men's watch fobs and clusters of exquisite tie clips and pins, which multiply as the movie progresses and the mysteries compound. "Emily is just kind of over the top," says Kalfus, who scoured collections of Victorian-era jewelry for the adornments. "It was part of her character and part of her shield. The more she put on, the more these garments protected her — and hid her — in a funny way."
Although, her lack of garments tell a different story in a deftly choreographed scene between Emily and Stephanie at the beginning of a reluctant — on the former's part — playdate in the Townsend's ultra modern, glass-enclosed home. As Emily settles in for daily her mid-afternoon gin martini, she quickly reveals that her supremely crisp white shirt is a series of a snap off dickie and faux French cuffs. In an instant, she's exposed in a deep plunge vest and trousers to Stephanie's awkward bewilderment.
"Emily was so intimidating to begin with and then she does this subtle stripping off of the fake shirt to come down to this much more revealed person," explains Kalfus, who also concedes the scene involved a series of quick change costuming tricks, too. "It was really a form of intimidation, as how we saw the scene play out, and of course Anna's character just responds brilliantly. That was for shock value, really."
The costume in the initial meeting also highlights the contrast between hard-edged Emily — in her enigmatic buttoned-up suiting turned sultry femme fatale look — and eager-to-please Stephanie, in her floral Peter Pan-collared shirt and lace-trimmed pink sweater combo. Her bright yellow Brooks Brothers rain parka and cat socks peeking out of chunky rain booties completed the contradictory look.
"In her own way, Stephanie is branding herself as well, as this cheery, DIY, clever, perfect mommy. She outdoes herself," explains Kalfus, who also points out Stephanie's introductory outfit also involves prominent cuffs and a collar as an unintentional contrast to Emily. "But that was just to add adorableness — that wasn't to reveal anything — but in a funny way, it was the same costume technique applied."
Gradually, over copious amounts of afternoon martinis and conversation, the two become friends and one day, after asking Stephanie for "a simple favor," Emily vanishes. As Stephanie searches for her "best friend," as she sees it, and moves closer to Sean, her animal prints, ruffled blouses and admittedly cute denim embark on a frenetic journey, like her character evolution — and, like it or not, influenced by Emily.
At one point, Stephanie sets off on a covert mission to look for clues in her friend's New York City office — and does her best version of Emily in a tweedy blazer, jeans and a family heirloom Hermès scarf, which is viciously mocked by boss Dennis Nylon (or something like a "cut rate Tom Ford," per a nice Stephanie burn). "It's her being smart and her version of fitting into this high fashion world," says Kalfus. "She's always a bit of a chameleon and that's how her arc is and how she changes."
At one point, Stephanie trades in her bright florals for a still playful, but ultimately more sedate navy Alice + Olivia pom pom sweater and Anthropologie floral appliqué skirt, which offered a textural juxtaposition to the Nelson’s sleek — if not cold — and right angle-filled house. "As she gets more involved in this plot, her cleverness manifests and that was a costume that went through a lot of places," says Kalfus, about the outfit choice, for Stephanie's active and fairly stressful, if not bone-chillingly harrowing, day — which also flummoxed the actress herself.
"Anna goes, 'I'm not sure I quite get her,'" laughs the costume designer of Kendrick's puzzlement over the outfit symbolism. "But it's one of my favorites, honestly."
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The two do merge via costume at the height of suspense, when Emily appears in a very off-brand, floral happy housewife dress, which was also used in the movie's main promo image. But it may not be apparent at first glance. The crinoline in the skirting of Emily's ultra-feminine floral dress by Samantha Sung was actually used earlier in the movie on a dress worn by Stephanie when the two were deep in discussion sipping martinis in the Townsend living room.
"It's as if the girls each borrowed each other's clothes at some point. It's just a subliminal subplot in the designer's mind and in the characters' minds," explains Kalfus. "That dress was just Emily, once again, playing this incredible part, in her sort of evil ways, has the most perfect mommy, Stepford wife dress. So it was intentionally a '50s shape for that reason and then dressed up a little bit."
Because of a rapid shoot schedule, costume procurement required some creativity and resourcefulness. Luckily, Lively could call some friends who happen to be big time fashion designers, including Christian Louboutin, who's taken the star on shopping sprees, granted her early access to high security sample sales in New York City and even named a shoe after her.
"We got boxes and boxes [of shoes] and they were just stunning," says Kalfus of the haul, which included one-off samples and a fairly killer pair of studded, stacked heel moto-booties that enjoy some much deserved, lingering camera shots. "Of course, the stilettos in the beginning are these unbelievable snakeskin shoes that were destroyed in the rain and we had to get another pair. It was a little bit heartbreaking."
The limited prep time also meant that Kalfus and her team didn't have the luxury to custom-build any pieces, even if Emily's suiting does look impossibly bespoke and made-to-measure, down to the absolute millimeter. So Lively and Feig reached out to their contacts at Ralph Lauren for Kalfus to raid the womenswear archive.
"Those suits that he keeps in the vintage archives are probably eight to 10 years old, and allowed us to do it, which is very unusual and was really spot on," says the costume designer. She then custom-altered the aforementioned three-piece look, a rakish tuxedo and proper bow-tie — worn to the park playground, no less — and a ridiculously sexy white striped suit, complete with a cummerbund and undone bow-tie, but minus a shirt. Needless to say, Kalfus's styling is impeccable, down to the last tie clip.
"We altered everywhere," she says. "There were a lot of custom alterations, but the suits came to us as they were. We then had to then undo all the alterations, as well, for it to go back into the archives." In "A Simple Favor," not everything is as it seems — even behind the scenes.
Follow Renée Ehrlich Kalfus on Instagram @reneekalfus (she'll be posting looks from the movie!). 'A Simple Favor' opens in theaters on Friday, September 14.