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Babylon Berlin costume designer: “It wasn’t elegant, but it had character.”

Pierre-Yves Gayraud tells us about the epic and exciting task of clothing the most expensive European drama of all time, the art of recreating that roaring twenties Berlin look.

Image for Babylon Berlin costume designer: “It wasn’t elegant, but it had character.”

Babylon Berlin, set in 1920s Berlin, is the most expensive European drama of all time. Photo: Babylon Berlin

With a filmography of more than 65 titles spanning Oscar-winners like Indochina and blockbuster classics like The Bourne Identity, two German Film Awards and two César nominations to his name, Pierre-Yves Gayraud is one of the most sought-after costume designers in European cinema. Since 2016, the Frenchman has turned his sartorial talents to Babylon Berlin, the hit neo-noir TV adaptation of Volker Kutscher’s crime novels, which journeys deep into the dark underbelly of the Weimar Republic. Directed by Achim von Borries, Henk Handloegten and Tom Tykwer, the series enjoys a budget of more than €40 million, making it the most expensive non-English language TV series ever made. With a budget of €6 million, Gayraud was tasked with bringing to life the fashion of the three seasons set in 1929.

With more than 400 leading and minor roles, almost 8000 extras, and three directors to contend with, how do you approach dressing a TV show of this scale?

Everything was cross-boarded; the directors were in charge of individual scenes, rather than episodes, so the system was to establish the costume of a main character with the director in charge of their first appearance. As soon as we’d started shooting with one director, we had to prepare fittings for the second one, and then the third, it was like a train. We collected references from the era for each episode. Sometimes a character has only two or three scenes, so we had to establish their background through their costume. And it’s interesting being the costume designer for three directors – there’s always a little competition, which brings a lot of energy to the show.

It’s like a kindergarten sometimes. They all want to make their scenes iconic and I try to make them happy. We shot the first two seasons in 180 days, and when we had parallel shoots in Berlin and Cologne, I felt like an orchestra conductor, trying to manage my team from a different place. It was like shooting four feature-length period movies, one after the other. Thankfully I had a very good core team of 50.

Image for Babylon Berlin costume designer: “It wasn’t elegant, but it had character.”

Since landing his first full credit as a costume designer on Le Brasier (1990), Pierre-Yves Gayraud has gained international critical acclaim, dressing more than 65 films and TV shows. He is now based in Lille. Photo: Supplied

The 1920s are such a well-studied, widely represented era in Berlin’s history, with many iconic films set during the period, like Cabaret for example. What was your research process like for capturing the style?

Funnily enough I’d been collecting family photo albums from German flea markets since shooting Cloud Atlas in 2011. I started this collection specifically in Berlin, at Straße des 17. Juni flea market and Mauerpark. It’s huge; it covers the end of the 19th century until the Second World War, and most of the collection relates to the period of Babylon Berlin. So, when they called me for the show, I had this to offer. It’s very interesting because it documents the lives of real people. Of course, we referred to extravagant figures from the 20s and 30s like Anita Berber, Sebastian Droste, Margo Lion, Marcellus Schiffer, Harald Kreutzberg and Lieselotte Friedlaender.

But we tried to use real documents as much as possible. So we didn’t think about Cabaret or anything like that. We listed what was iconic, and we tried to propose something different. Our approach was more intuitive and experimental. My concept booklet was a mixture of these real pictures and images from magazines at the time. But it also contained styles from Australia and London. It wasn’t limited to Berlin.

Did your research bring any surprises?

If you look in detail at the references from the period, you’d be surprised to find how extravagant, how modern the fashion was. There were already some punk attitudes emerging during this time. I found a fantastic picture of [English photographer] Cecil Beaton when he was in his twenties. It was taken in Cambridge in 1925, and he looks like he’s wearing the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper jacket, with the hat and makeup of Boy George. The era was full of stuff like this.

Was there something unique about the Berlin look back then? What set it apart from cities like Paris, for example?

The skirts were shorter in Berlin than in Paris, definitely. It was more casual. It wasn’t at all Hollywood, or like the fashion designers from Paris; it was more bricolage – very mixed. It wasn’t elegant but it had a lot of character. 

Tom Tykwer has spoken about not wanting to idealise the Weimar Republic. How did you convey this with your costumes?

Yes, the directors asked us not to make anything too polished. As a costume designer, I don’t pretend to have a strong signature style. My obsession is with putting the maximum of life into a show – when a costume needs to be ugly, it’s ugly. I don’t try to put glam on everything. It helped that there’s a difference in attitude between actors in Germany, compared with, say, France. German actors like to disappear under the character, totally, from head to toe. They don’t try to make the silhouette too perfect – they don’t use Spanx. The cast was brilliant in this way.

Image for Babylon Berlin costume designer: “It wasn’t elegant, but it had character.”

With a budget of €6 million, Gayraud was tasked with bringing to life the fashion of the three seasons set in 1929. Photo: Babylon Berlin

And I always said to my assistants, it’s never just 1929. In your wardrobe, you always have a pair of shoes from 10 years ago; you have clothes from a second-hand shop, something borrowed from a friend. This was especially true during this time. So, we’d reuse a pair of shoes for different outfits and keep the same coats.

We used part of Lotte’s costume for her sister as she got older. I was worried that it was strange Lotte could afford so many glittery things for the nightclub scenes, so they put a line in the script during the prep that she has access to the wardrobe of Moka Efti, the night club she works at. And the character of Elisabeth Behnke, the widow with the pension who’s in her forties, is dressed how she was dressed in 1918. You make the viewer feel like they’re not only in 1929; I think we had people dressed as they were before the First World War, so it’s a spectrum.

For the musical score, the directors wanted to hear “an echo of today in the past”, which is evident in songs by Roxy Music. Did you get playful with modern elements too?

Yes, I involved some German fashion designers from today, to add this modern touch. Berlin hatmaker Fiona Bennett made Lotte’s green cloche hat, and the little hats of the Moka Efti waitresses, in dusty pink and black. We had three items knitted for us, including Lotte’s bathing suit, by another Berlin designer, Claudia Skoda, who was very famous in the 70s and worked with David Bowie.

I also worked on Nikoros’ leather coat and Tristan Rot’s stage outfit with Esther Perbandt, whose studio I spotted when I was parking my car in Mitte one day. But it was a long show, and although we had more than 10 percent of the overall budget for costume, sometimes you don’t have any ideas or time. Often, the last-minute decisions of the directors forced us to improvise, which put more life into the costumes. We once needed a jumper for Charlotte but didn’t have time to do any knitting, so we went to Kurfürstendamm and bought three variations of this modern jumper from a cheap brand. We transformed it in our workshop – we cut it, made the sleeves longer, put some period buttons on it and transformed the décolletage. And it worked.

Let’s talk about the cabaret look for the iconic dance scene of “Zu Asche, zu Staub” at the Moka Efti. How did you create it?

The Josephine Baker banana girl costume was the request of Tom Tykwer, 10 days before we started to shoot! I asked my assistant to find someone who painted motorcycle helmets, as I had the feeling it could put a modern, arty touch on the iconic look. This motorcycle helmet designer, Burkhard Hain, came to us and made the black hats of the dancers. It was very funny. He was this tough motorcycle guy, and we gave him all these plastic bananas to paint gold and black. After that, we fixed the bananas on an H&M belt. It was like a Christmas tree.

How does one break into lm costume design and become one of the most sought-after professionals the field?

I studied literature and film. When I was at the Sorbonne, one of my modules was German cinema from 1910 to 1930, so I actually saw a lot of German movies in this period – Metropolis, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Der Golem… I started in film in 1985 as an assistant director to Nina Companeez. After my first three years in the movie business, I wanted to work with costume, and got a job as a trainee on Après la guerre. There’s a lot of contact with the actors and I like working in a team, in the workshops, making things with my hands; I like photography and breaking  down costumes in the ageing department. In the end, costume design is a mixture of all of this. My credits are very eclectic, so I’m not in a cage. I always try to go to different worlds – it’s like Back to the Future.

Image for Babylon Berlin costume designer: “It wasn’t elegant, but it had character.”

The hit neo-noir TV adaptation of Volker Kutscher’s crime novels journeys deep into the dark underbelly of the Weimar Republic. Photo: Babylon Berlin

How does working on a period drama compare to a contemporary film or TV series?

I’ve worked on more period movies than modern ones, and the present-day stuff isn’t necessarily easier. I worked with Xavier Dolan on two films which were very modern, but we custom made absolutely everything for this show; we would never buy a T-shirt, we would even make the underpants, it was crazy. When you have a director who wants a strong signature style for costumes on a modern show, it’s not so easy. And everyone has an opinion on how it should look.

What can we expect from season four of Babylon Berlin, will it be set in 1929 too?

I haven’t read the fourth season so I don’t know, it might be set six months later. I hope that the time lapse between seasons is a little wider. When you have a show like The Crown, they change the cast and costume designers every two seasons. It’s goodbye Claire Foy, hello Olivia Coleman, and you have a new actress, a new silhouette, a new period.

In our case, seasons one and two are a direct cut, and season three is set three months after season two ends, but we had a year-long hiatus between filming. The third season was more difficult for me – especially for characters with only one costume. The faces of the actors change, they have a baby, or they make three other movies in between. The actors playing Toni and Moritz grew up a lot. So it was complicated.

In light of coronavirus-induced restrictions, do you have any idea when shooting will resume?

I think the directors will start filming when we have the chance to have the same number of extras, because of course, the big character in the series is the city of Berlin. You can’t make a fourth season with only three people in a room. We’ll investigate duplicating extras, but I don’t know – I don’t think the directors are ready to compromise so much, as they never compromise on anything.