Warning: Spoilers through of 'I May Destroy You' episode 9, airing Monday, Aug. 3 on HBO, below.
While watching "I May Destroy You," you shouldn't — and won't want to — turn away for even for a second. Just in case you miss any moment of sharp, searing dialogue by writer, co-director and star Michaela Coel, crucial texts and emoji replies rapidly scrolling down the side of the screen, quick meaningful glance or the tiniest, but all-telling wince from the talented leads. Coel's series frankly and honestly delves into surviving sexual assault, processing trauma and finding self-empowerment in a way never seen on television. (Not to mention, Coel's behind-the-scenes power moves, as she shared in her inspiring and eye-opening New York magazine cover story interview by Vulture master-profiler E. Alex Jung.)
The same exacting level of thought and detail went also into the story-telling costumes by Lynsey Moore. The Londoner previously worked with now-executive producer on her BAFTA-winning comedy Chewing Gum, on which Coel was denied the credit. "She asked for me to do this one, which was very exciting because I knew it was going to be amazing," says Moore, on a call.
During an "I May Destroy You" virtual Q&A during "ATX TV ... From the Couch" in June, Coel shared that she encouraged an open forum for Moore and hair and makeup designer Bethany Swan to share ideas. "What are your thoughts?" said Coel, explaining her process. "Then we collaborate from there because it empowers everybody. I wanted everybody to be part of the DNA that makes this baby. Our baby."
Of course, the collaboration started with Coel's script, which centers on her character, Arabella Essiedu, an East Londoner working on the followup to her debut book, "Chronicles of a Fed Up Millennial." While pulling an all-nighter, Arabella meets friends for drinks and is drugged and sexually assaulted by a stranger — an experience based off Coel's. The 12-episodes span the course of a year, as Arabella works through her trauma her own way and tries to find herself professionally, along with her best friends, fitness instructor and Grindr enthusiast Kwame (drama schoolmate and friend Paapa Essiedu) and aspiring actress Terry (Weruche Opia), who go through struggles of their own.
"It was always scripted that she would have pink hair," says Moore, about the starting point in crafting Arabella's signature look. She and Coel discussed and decided that a person who wears an ombré bubble gum-hued wig would place emphasis on their style and appearance.
"We decided that Arabella visually needed to look edgy and quite punk-y in places," adds Moore. "She does make bold statements, so she should have statement pieces in her wardrobe." Moore and Swan also worked together closely on coordinating the leads' wigs, headwear and outfits to accurately portray the integral role that hair plays in Black identity, self-expression and day-to-day life.
Even though Arabella is a "Twitter-famous" author and social media influencer, her look doesn't reference any Insta-famous personalities. "I didn't want her to feel too current," says Moore, who avoided very on-trend fashion favored by influencers, which can quickly feel dated. "It felt like Arabella wasn't really like that, as well. She's her own person. She wants to totally own her own individuality. She wants to be creative in how she wears the trend."
For Arabella's core look, Coel and Moore referenced the '90s, and especially girl groups, like Eternal and TLC. "The high-waisted jeans and the shirts and the cinched-in belted waist," says Moore, who thrifted from the local charity shops — similar to our Goodwill — plus scoured vintage stores, like Beyond Retro and Rokit, plus Portobello Market and eBay sellers. She then mixed in current pieces from high street stores that millennial creatives would frequent, like Arabella's pleated, high-waisted Zara jeans in cream and light blue.
"It was more about how Arabella wears it, that effortless way," says Moore. "It looks like she's just thrown on a T-shirt or shirt and jeans, but it's all very consciously styled, which is always timeless." (Along with Swan for hair and makeup details, Moore and assistant costume designer Rosie Lack are meticulous with wardrobe credits and fun behind-the-scenes tidbits on Instagram. But warning for spoilers through the finale.)
Moore's mood board for Arabella also appropriately featured statement outerwear, but her Armani faux-fur bomber, with the abstract face on the back, was "a surprise" find at discounter TK Maxx (the U.K. version of TJ Maxx) for a budget-busting £250. But it was worth it.
"It literally winked at me and jumped into my arms and said, 'This is the coat!' Once we put it on, it became this starting point of, 'Yes, this is Arabella,'" says Moore, adding, "Many, many fittings later — with that bloody coat on and off [with different outfits] — and Arabella grew and grew." Arabella wears her trusty statement coat often, especially when she craves a sartorial safety blanket, like her impromptu flight to Italy. After Biagio kicks her out, a lost and despondent Arabella wades into the ocean, fully clothed, which required Moore and her team to clean and refurbish the bomber for later scenes.
An avid vintage collector herself, Moore also reached into her archives and personal closet, including the colorfully printed and textured cardigan that Arabella wears to The Writing Summit to ultimately out Zain publicly for rape.
"Michaela said, 'I'd really like to wear this cardigan for the Summit with the khaki trousers and the boots,' which was quite military and powerful" says Moore. "Then with this cardigan and her lipstick, it's so feminine. So it's a nice contrast." The costume designer added subtle padding to create "power shoulders to give that authority figure silhouette."
At closer look, the soft, but tough outfit hints at Arabella's impending fearless reveal — especially with the matching red tank top that signals "alarm!" — while also serving as an intentional misdirect. "This is what's great about Arabella. She always does what's not expected," says Moore. "You can't guess what she's going to do and that's what feels great about that outfit. Had she gone up there in a strong boilersuit and stormed onto the stage, we, as the audience, might have known what she was going to do."
The patterned cardigan also fits into a knitwear theme threading through the season, from Simon's borrowed Ganado-print bomber on the night of Arabella's assault to a refined red, black and white checked sweater in the finale. Moore says the motif wasn't a "deliberate decision," but considers a subconscious effort, especially connecting the Summit cardigan to Arabella's final look. "Same trousers, simple top and bold black red/vintage cardigan," she says. "Both times Arabella is trying to present a professional demeanor and one of strength. Statement power shoulders and bold prints are Arabella's version of power dressing."
As the year progresses into summer, Arabella, Terry and Kwame start to explore different personas on their own paths to healing, as also represented in their warmer-weather style. At the start of episode seven, Arabella leans into the influencer aesthetic, with a Champion logo-mania tracksuit (above), selfie-friendly "Instagram makeup" and a long, straight hair wig. "This is the only time she's trying something else because she becomes obsessed with social media," says Moore, who, along with Swan, dedicated those episodes to hair and headwear.
"Arabella is always wearing wigs. It's very much part of her identity. Who she is; how she's feeling," says Moore, who points to Arabella's flashback purple wig, which expresses when she feels strong. "She then shaves her hair off, which is cathartic, a release."
Kwame switches out his signature beanie for a bucket hat. As he grapples with his own assault following consensual sex with a Grindr hookup, he contemplates dating women. "He's trying to get on with his life and trying to be confident. He's still suffering with everything that's going on. He goes on this date," says Moore. So she changed his aesthetic from poppy '80s pastels to sedate grays for his dinner with problematic Nulifer, who pulls on Moore's dove gray beret.
The costume designer also pulled scarves from her vintage collection for Arabella's and Terry's headwraps to realistically and lovingly portray how Black women wear and protect natural hair. "This was something we wanted to show on TV. Beth, Michaela and I talked long and hard about how it's important to show real life," says Moore. "With the scarves, obviously, this was also a chance for me to use vintage prints to show their personality and color palettes."
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Arabella's self-absorbed social media dependence peaks in episode nine, propelling her onto a path of healing, with the support of her friends. It's Halloween and the trio, as many of us do, cobble together last minute costumes with their individual takes on the go-to angel/devil concept.
"You get people who want to be the sexy version and some people who want to be the gory version, and the half-assed version," says Moore, who wanted to make sure the looks were distinct in showing each character's personality and how they'd create their costumes. She wanted to avoid pre-fab-looking ensembles bought from the "fancy dress shop."
After essentially calling dibs on the furry halo, Terry opts for the "classic" sexy angel with a zip-front dress, which Moore customized with feathers. She wears a faux-fur white coat from Topshop, when she's not sporting her translucent wings. "I wanted it fabulous," says Moore. "Then Kwame is Kwame. Kwame's all about creating his own style." With his severe wig, Kwame stuns in a black and white lace tux (sans shirt), which Moore found for £50 on Asos.
"What ended up color palette-wise, you had Terry in [all] white to one extreme, Kwame, in the middle with the black and white suit, and Arabella: the other side," adds Moore.
As for Arabella, who was scripted as a demon, discussions with the team went "to and fro" to land on a "dark angel" aesthetic. "She's got two sides at this point," explains Moore. "In part of the episode, she sees herself as this savior and she's deluded. She's taking people down and that's the dark demon side of her. The other side is the angel in that she actually believes she's doing good and that she's helping people."
To illustrate the demon side, Moore twisted faux barbed wire, sourced from Barnett Lawson Trimmings, around Maleficent-looking devil horns and the waistline of a sheer black Asos mini-dress. "Arabella, she's a creation of her own self," says Moore. "This is something that doesn't reference or mean one particular thing. It's how she feels at that moment and she wants these horns to charge and take people down. But it's still quite a feminine dress and sort of sweet. As always, it's an unexpected take on everything."
But the pièce de résistance: Arabella's imposing dark angel wings, bridging the two personas in her head, practically have a supporting role of their own. (The spot-on timing of when she raises and expands the wings for a street selfie is priceless.)
"You literally just pull the strings and they flap up and down," Moore says excitedly. "It's like an old school trick and it was amazing. I bought about 10 pairs and we were all trying it on the car park and having a bit of fun with them. They're so therapeutic."
In the frigid evening air, Terry implores Arabella to don her burgundy faux fur coat from New Look, but she refuses. With her bold, if not audacious, wings perked straight up, Arabella furiously stomps down the crowded streets. She's frantically checking her IG and Facebook Live comments and reactions, while coming to her own realizations to move onto the next stage.
"The wings being up was me," says Moore, adding, "We decided this was a moment. This was it. 'Get the wings out! It's now or never.' And [Coel] was freezing. It was so cold, but she was like, 'No Lynsey, you're right. We need to do this.' And the shots we've got are amazing for it."