Background in Focus: UK Costume Designer Jemima Penny

Costume Designer Jemima Penny

 

While most creatives take many years to find their true calling and turn it into a career, often times there are hints during childhood as to the direction their artistry will later take, and London-based costume designer Jemima Penny is no exception.

Penny recalls, “I was always drawn to costumes. As a little girl my favorite game was ‘dressing up.’ I never wanted bought costumes, I’d always make them up myself.”

Over the past decade Penny has become known internationally for her work as the costume designer on a wide range of projects, including films such as the popular Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, which was nominated for a prestigious BAFTA Film Award for Best Documentary in 2015, the dramatic mystery film In The Dark Half starring Jessica Barden from the Golden Globe nominated series Penny Dreadful, the comedy film Where Have I Been All Your Life? with two-time Primetime Emmy Award winner James Corden (Into the Woods), and many more.

“I was always fascinated by how people define themselves and send messages to wider society about who they are through the way they dress. So I naturally gravitate towards character work over trend. And of course, storytelling is one of the most important and basic human needs. Its how we communicate and pass messages on to one another. So to be able to be part of this industry is a wonderful thing,” explains Penny about what led her to pursue her career as a costume designer.

Penny recently wrapped production on multi-award winning director Jonathan Hopkins’ (Goodbye Mr. Snuggles)  upcoming horror film Slumber, which is slated to be released later this year and stars Maggie Q (Live Free or Die Hard, Mission: Impossible III), Will Kemp (Reign, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce) and Sylvester McCoy (Sense8, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey).

The film follows Alice, played by Maggie Q, a rationally minded sleep doctor who, after finding no plausible scientific explanation for the terror an entire family of clients faces while they’re asleep, is forced to abandon reason and accept the existence of the ‘Night Hag.’ In Slumber, we realize that this supposed mythical creature who paralyzes her victims while they’re asleep, one who’s been referenced and written about by practically every culture since the beginning of time, may not be as mythical as everyone believes.

Poster for Slumber
Poster for the upcoming film “Slumber”

For the upcoming film costume designer Jemima Penny has done a thoroughly brilliant job of representing the changing mental states of the characters into their wardrobe, which in the case of this film in particular, changes drastically over the course of the film, at least for some. One of the most drastic visual changes in wardrobe style that audiences will immediately notice is that of Q’s character Alice.

“Alice, the main character is a rational, scientific person who likes to have total control over every element of her life. She is ordered and methodical. However over the course of the film she starts to unravel as the Night Hag becomes more real to her,” explains Penny.

“We used her costumes to help depict this journey. At the beginning of the film she is very put together. Her clothing reflects her character– buttoned up, stylish, sleek, conservative and coordinated… As the film progresses and Alice’s mental state deteriorates we gravitate to more casual, rougher looks– jeans, boots and tees… and the colour palette becomes more earthy and darker.”

The reason Penny has become such a recognizable and sought after costume designer in the industry is due to more than just her skilled abilities as a designer and seamstress. At the end of the day her success can be attributed to the rare and unique way that she gets inside the head of each character she designs for… it’s the methodical way that she breaks down their personality, changing emotions and the outer circumstances that they can’t control to design their wardrobe scene by scene that makes her such a powerful force in her field.

Slumber star Maggie Q says, “Jemima is one of my favorite designers. Not only does she have an incredible sense of style, that is evident in all her work no matter what the brief, but she is totally dedicated to getting the costumes right for the piece, which, for an actor, is such an essential part of being able to fully become immersed in a role.”

Bringing such talent to the table, it is not at all surprising that Slumber is not Jemima Penny’s first time working as a costume designer on one of Jonathan Hopkins’ films. Earlier on in her career she served as the costume designer on his comedy film Minimus, which earned the Festival Award from the 2013 Chicago Comedy Festival. The genres alone reveal the polar opposite nature of the previous project compared to their most recent collaboration, but clearly Penny’s talent as a costume designer proves that her skill exceeds the limitation of any particular genre– or medium for that matter.

“Johnny and I have worked together for a long time. We started making TV commercials together nearly 10 years ago and have built a solid understanding of each other’s work. So after an initial meeting Johnny will ask me to develop designs for the piece and we have a very collaborative process… he is always open to new ideas and trusts in the rest of his creative team to bring valuable input to the project,” says Penny about working with director Jonathan Hopkins.

In addition to making a strong impact as a costume designer in the world of film, Penny has also created a dazzling repertoire of work that includes music videos, such as Calvin Harris’ ‘Sweet Nothing’ feat. Florence Welch, which has over 200 million views on Youtube, as well as an overwhelming list of commercials for globally recognized brands such as Nike, Virgin Media, ITV’s The X Factor, the BBC, Cadbury, Dyson, Disney, Absolut Vodka and many more.

Up next for costume designer Jemima Penny is Primetime Emmy nominee Polly Draper’s (Thirtysomething, Demolition) film Stella’s Last Weekend starring Nat Wolff (Paper Towns, The Fault in Our Stars) and Alex Wolff (Coming Through the Rye, Patriots Day), as well as the upcoming film Farming, which is set in Great Britain in the 1970s and follows a Nigerian child who grows up in a white working class family and ultimately becomes the leader of a skinhead white supremacist gang.

About the upcoming film Farming, Penny says, “It’s a heart wrenching terrifying look at racism in the not too distant past and it should be a very powerful piece. It’s also a fantastic era for costume.”

 

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