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‘Back To Black’ Costume Designer On Creating 57 Amy Winehouse Looks

‘Back To Black’ Costume Designer On Creating 57 Amy Winehouse Looks

In director Sam Taylor-Johnson‘s new biopic Back to Black, British costume designer PC Williams took on the monumental task of dressing Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse, as well as the rest of the cast. Named for Winehouse’s second and final studio album released in 2006, the film spans eight years in the life of the iconic singer, who passed away in 2011 at just 27 years old.

Winehouse left a tall fashion legacy with her unique mix of retro va-va-voom styles and sportswear.  Caricature-like proportions were another signature — from a giant beehive, bold gold jewelry and teetering peep-toe pumps to diminutive halter dresses and ultra-skinny jeans. In 2010, the singer even collaborated with one of her favorite British labels, Fred Perry, on a 17-piece capsule line. The brand, featured heavily in the film, continues an ongoing collection to benefit the Amy Winehouse Foundation.  A 2021 Julien’s Auctions sale of some of the singer’s wardrobe and property also raised $4 million, with a portion going to her foundation. A pair of Amy’s well-worn ballet flats is currently listed on eBay for about $9,347. 

In Taylor-Johnson’s film, Williams charts three key eras in Winehouse’s fashion evolution: The period after the rollout of her debut album Frank in October 2003, the recording and release of Back to Black, and the time leading up to the end of her life. With a team of 25 to assist her, Williams narrowed the myriad of fashion moments down to 57 looks for Abela and outfitted performance scenes, complete with concert merch. Amy’s father Mitch Winehouse opened the remaining wardrobe archive to Williams, who used or replicated five pieces, detailed below.

No stranger to the music scene, Williams launched her career styling artists such as Lil’ Kim and British rapper Stormzy. While Williams hung out in London’s Camden at the same time as Winehouse, she never met the legendary songstress.

Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Back to Black, a Focus Features release.

Dean Rogers/Focus Features

“One of my greatest regrets, actually, is not having gone to see her live,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter on a call from London about her designs for Back to Black. “I used to listen to ‘Take The Box’ on repeat for God knows how long! I actually wonder whether, in the grand scheme of things, it’s good that I don’t have that firsthand connection with her because then I think the pressure might feel even greater.”

In 2022, Williams won a BAFTA for costume design for her work on the Channel 4 series We Are Lady Parts about an all-female Muslim punk band. “I tend to find projects that are able to mix my love of music and storytelling,” she says.

Below are highlights of THR‘s conversation with Williams, including the influence of Winehouse’s paternal grandmother Cynthia on the singer’s style, key fashion brands featured, vintage shopping resources in London and which item had the most duplicates.

How does Sam Taylor-Johnson shooting the film’s point of view through Amy’s eyes translate to costumes?

How I see myself and how photographs portray me are not always the same. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes I look at myself and I’m like, “I look amazing in this outfit.” And then I see a photo and think, “I don’t know who they’re photographing because that cannot be me!” And so when we were approaching the design of this project, yes, there are so many millions of photographs of her. But I don’t necessarily imagine that she would always have seen herself in that way. And so it was my job to try to understand the ways in which she would have thought of herself and would have seen how she was looking, rather than how others saw her. That’s the approach that I took. It wasn’t about all of the images we’ve seen of her. It was about what she would have loved about the outfit, how the outfit would have made her feel. And I tried to represent that through the costuming.

Marisa Abela (left) and costume designer PC Williams on the set of Back to Black, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and released by Focus Features.

Dean Rogers/Focus Features

Amy is obviously a style icon. Her look has been called retro rockabilly or ’50s-meets-grunge. How do you describe it?

Her aesthetic is very reflective of London. It’s a mix-match of vintage and streetwear, like vintage 1950s-1960s pin-up, but there’s also a Reebok Classic. Folks from London are able to mix things that don’t make sense together. And yet when they do it, it feels right. There’s a vixen-ness about her that is exaggerated. The heels are super high. The hair is massive. The body frame is super small. You’ve got these tiny little dresses with huge heels and massive big gold hoops and all the necklaces. In the same breath, you can have the skinny jeans that are so low with the ballet flats to the ground and a Fred Perry polo.

At the time, I don’t know if everyone necessarily got it. I don’t think in 2007, 2008, that folks were saying that she was a style icon. She was so individual and so unique that she was different at a time everyone was trying to be the same. No one could doubt the voice. The voice has always been the voice. But the way she presented herself was maybe a little misunderstood. On reflection, we can go, ‘Damn, she lived in her own lane!’ Hindsight’s a beautiful thing.

Was the pin-up vibe influenced by her paternal grandmother, Cynthia, whom she was so close to?

I think 100 percent it was. It was also her love of the music of that era and the feeling that came with the music. She was so jazz. Everything about the jazz world was, to her, something to be enamored by, something to replicate in her own way and put her stamp on. Cynthia, a jazz singer, represented that world. It was really important for me to show how much Cynthia influenced her style by mirroring some of her on Amy. When we first see Cynthia, she’s in a silk leopard-print blouse. Next time we see them together, Amy’s in a leopard-print top, as they’re walking through a hotel. In my mind, she’s making the 2000s version of Cynthia.

Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Back to Black, a Focus Features release.

Olli Upton/Focus Features

You’ve talked about creating three different eras or looks for Amy in the film.

Yes, a big chunk of it is 2004-2005; then there’s a jump to 2007-2008; and we jump again to 2011. When we were doing the research, it was really clear to see how her style evolves. The Frank Amy has a lot more color in her wardrobe and the styles she wears are more naive. It’s still vintage but stuff that you would find at a charity shop, like you are trying on things from the past to figure out who you are. Then, you jump to Back to Black Amy and all the color was stripped away from her costuming. It becomes super monochromatic: black, white, pops of red or pink. The leopard print comes through, some houndstooth. Shapes become tighter. The dresses become shorter. The necklines become lower, and the bras are more prominent. There’s a womanliness about her.

The final chapter, when Amy’s in her house in Camden Square, was the hardest costume of all 57 changes Marisa has to nail because there was a consensus that we didn’t want to signify that it’s the end of the film. You don’t want it to be depressing, but you also don’t want it to be super grand. You had one outfit to tell that story, and you wanted to be able to say, “This is a woman who’s stepped into her own agency.” There’s an assurity in herself. She was sober at the time, so there’s a clarity to her that we didn’t necessarily have in the previous section. We settled on that outfit the morning we were filming. She’s in vintage Levi’s jeans, the white vest top with the buttons and the 1920s silk Asian-print pajama blouse.

You had access to some of Amy’s actual wardrobe, right? Can you talk about the items you used or replicated?

Mitch [Winehouse] very kindly gave me access to what’s left of Amy’s wardrobe. Before we started on the project, there was a big sale of a lot of her archives to raise money for the charity. So there’s very little still in her family’s possession. We took four or five pieces, a few of which Marisa wore on camera. One being the ballet cardigan that she wears in the scene where she and Blake break up in the pool room. The second is her Pink Lady varsity jacket that has “Amy Woo” hand-embroidered onto the side. She wears that in the Back to Black sequence where she’s driving over the Brooklyn Bridge on her way to record with Mark Ronson. We also borrowed Amy’s black jeans with the corseting detail on the leg by her ankles that she wore quite often. We remade those and her leather jacket with the cropped sleeves for Marisa. And Mitch lent us Amy’s Star of David necklace, so Marisa wore that. You realize in those moments, the magnitude of what you are doing, when you are holding these archive pieces and knowing who wore them before Marisa. It grounded the fact that whilst we were filming, Amy was also there.

Jack O’Connell as Blake Fielder-Civil and Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Back to Black, a Focus Features release.

Dean Rogers/Focus Features

After you decided what other looks to zero in on, did you want to be as close to exacting as possible or did you take some liberties?

There were times when we had a little bit of creative license. We tried to keep close to the actual imagery for performances and other outfits we all know and have seen a gazillion times like the red Fred Perry polo with the tiny denim shorts she wore when recording Back to Black in Ronson’s studio. We had the original Luella dress she wore at Glastonbury, but it’s very heavy and all one shade of blue. When talking about how they wanted to light the performance scene, I felt as though we needed to add a little more depth. So we remade our version of it using three different shades of blue and a silver metallic underneath the floral so it played with the light more. We took out a lot of the weight by changing the appliqué.

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There are times in her personal life, where we recreated pieces: A version of her wedding dress; [gold leather] boots she wore with a cutoff denim skirt that has badges attached to it from the Frank era; and a cropped black Adidas top with red trim that she wore in a laundromat in some photos that is so iconic from that time. We had her ‘Amy Jade’ nameplate necklace and the sailor-inspired ‘Blake’ heart brooch she wore in her hair replicated.

The dress she wears to visit Blake in prison is a completely new design, something she never wore, and so is the suit she wears for Cynthia’s funeral. But we took a lot of ideas around designs she was wearing at the time and brought them into one outfit. There’s a famous image of her coming out of Westminster Court [in 2009] in a pearl necklace and Anglomania suit. We did our own version of the suit and sourced a pearl necklace from a vintage dealer. We were thinking constantly about the fact that this is a piece of cinema, as opposed to a documentary. So it allowed us the opportunity to be authentic and true in moments that required it and also to use our creative license and take bits from outfits to come up with something new for her.

And Dolce & Gabbana remade the 2008 black Grammys dress, right?

Yes, we reached out to them to see if they had it in the archives, which they did not, but they were very kind in offering to remake it to spec for Marisa. And Christian Louboutin remade the nude snakeskin-embossed peep-toe platform heels she wore at Glastonbury. [The originals sold at the Julien’s Auction for $38,400.]

Did you use Freed of London satin ballet flats, since that’s the brand Amy wore so often?

We did use Freed of London. My junior assistant costume designer Maya had a lovely time going down there to keep getting more, more, more! Because we had to have so many different versions of breakdown for her in these ballet pumps. I think we had five different stages and each stage had like four or five different repeats. Textile artist Michael Saal is a genius when it comes to aging things. We also had at least three replicas of every necklace, every earring, every belt. The thing we couldn’t get repeats for were her shoes because they were mainly vintage. So you’re just praying to God that they hold up while you’re filming.

Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Back to Black, a Focus Features release.

Courtesy of Focus Features

Can you speak to any specific vintage shops that you worked with?

We sourced from the guys at Portobello Road Market every Friday. Beyond Retro, we used a lot, and a lot of fabrics came from Joel & Son, which is near our office. There are vintage market dealers right next to Joel’s and they have amazing costume jewelry, so we sourced a lot for Cynthia from there. Different makers along Hatton Garden made bits of jewelry for us. We commissioned one particular place to do some of the necklaces, and the day we were due to pick them up, he was robbed. So we had to have them all redone in three days.

You also dressed the entire cast and outfitted crowd scenes. How many costumes, approximately, did you create?

At the end, we donated just over 280 bags worth of clothes, just for crowd scenes, to charity. It was a lot of costumes! For the Shepherd’s Bush performance, we had over 200 people to dress, same as Glastonbury. We have people in the crowd dressed like mini Amys coming to watch Amy. Others are dressed like cows because, when you go to Glastonbury, folks come dressed like fancy dress characters. And then we made all this merch to go with the performance scenes because they’re dressed in Amy Winehouse merch for this moment.

I can imagine that while creating this real person, who is such an icon, there is so much passion and pressure to do her justice.

Amy is so beloved. But everyone has their own very specific, individual interpretation of Amy. So when you come to design, you are never going to give everyone their version of Amy. And so I had to lean on my gut and my intuition and bring forth a version of Amy that felt true to me, hoping that I was able to accomplish an Amy that rings true to others.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Back to Black is in theaters now.

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