Sep 23, 2014 10:18PM

Clueless' Costume Designer Mona May On Iconic 90s Style [Interview]

Talking 'Fancy', a Romy & Michele's sequel and dressing each Clueless character in 60 outfits.

Mona May is the biggest thing to happen to fashion since Coco Chanel. She is the costume designer behind the most inspirational fashion in films in recent history. Her resume is incredible: CluelessRomy & Michele's High School Reunion, A Night At The RoxburyNever Been KissedHouse Bunny, and The Wedding Singer. We recently had the supreme honour of interviewing her on all of our favourite films and outfits. 

Oyster: Okay, so first things first: do you have an update on the rumoured Romy and Michele's High School Reunion sequel?
Mona May: The Romy and Michele sequel is clearly a rumour and I wouldn't be sure who they would cast in it. But what I do know is that they are writing a Broadway version of Romy and Michele.

OMG that's so exciting! The costumes in your films like Clueless are still so relevant today — perhaps more than ever! How did you pull it off?
I watched Clueless for the first time in 10 years recently, and realised how current it still is today, which is amazing. There are so many outfits you could wear now. There is a scene with Alicia Silverstone and her father when she is pouring him tea and she is wearing a leather black skirt with a sheer blouse and a tank underneath that is so current; Alexander Wang is showing that right now on the runway!

What was the inspiration for the wardrobe in Clueless?
When Amy Heckerling wrote the script, everything was grunge. Nothing on the streets or in the schools represented what we wanted to achieve. I met Amy on a pilot, and we fell in love with each other as we have very similar stylistic points of view. Overall there were 60 outfit changes for each character in Clueless. Everything on screen was planned — even for the colour palate in all my films, I look towards the future, fashion-wise. I wanted to bring something that no one had seen before; I wanted to be unique, to inspire the viewers. I wanted them to have fun.

When did you realise that Clueless had become this pop phenomenon?
When it was all over Vogue, WWD... They called it the fashion film of the year. We did these water holders in the gym scene that no one had done and Karl Largerfeld sent them down the runway for Chanel! It was quite wild how it took off. When the film came out, we didn't anticipate it to be the type of film that it was because we weren't looking to change the world, but we wanted to push it as a fashion-forward film. And I think it came out at the right time as women were looking for change. They wanted to come out of the grunge phase and open themselves up to girly fashion. 

How did Clueless change your life?
Clueless was the breakout for me as a costume designer. When I meet women and I tell them I did Clueless they tell me their stories of how they had to buy the Jeep and bought all the clothes — even though they lived in a small town in Texas they had to have the clothes! Even the younger generation love the film. It's mind-blowing. Even Iggy Azalea!

How did you feel about Iggy Azalea replicating your style in 'Fancy'?
It was so cool and I felt flattered! They completely recreated every frame and the outfits and gave it a modern spin, which I felt was very tasteful and well done. I loved it! 

Romy & Michele is a big deal fashion-wise, but obviously in a very different way. How do you see the focus on fashion in Romy & Michele versus Clueless?
Romy and Michele were more grown up than the girls in Clueless, who had to be shown dressing in a more respectable way — this was important to Amy. When I went to the runways in London and Paris to catch the next wave I had to translate that onto the screen. And with Romy and Michele I could do what I wanted, as they were grown up woman who were very resourceful. They had the style and knew how to sew and make cool stuff, even though they didn't have any money.

I did look at specific designers for Michele — there is one look of hers that is very Moschino, with the cherry earrings and a fun sweet vintage-inspired theme. She knew the line of Versace and tried to get a job at the Versace store. Romy had a more clean cut look, which could be Alexander Wang right now, or Japanese designers from the 90s, with those clean cut lines. Those two characters were bigger than life and I had to figure out how to make them funny but not caricatures. It's not Absolutely Fabulous, which is over-the-top. You have to find that fine line, where the costumes don't become the joke.

What was the thinking behind the two dresses at the end of the movie, the matching blue and pink dresses they wear to the reunion?
I designed Mira Sorvino's outfit and then had something completely different in mind for Lisa Kudrow, more of a flowy chiffon style — as she was more the feminine character in the relationship. A day or two before the scene Lisa asked what Mira was wearing and so I showed her the dress. She looked at the sketch and said she thought that the dresses should be similar, that they should be the same dress but should wear it in different ways.

I was a little upset as we had spent a lot on her original outfit, but as a designer you have to be open to being a collaborator with the director and the actors. So I went to the director and he thought that it would work really well. So I made the same A-line shift dress for Lisa but in pink. I trimmed it completely different and made it more girly with the boa trim on the bottom with bubbly fun accessories.

When they came out together wearing those dresses it was just so right! It felt like they made them and it was their signature. And in the end the costumes made it onto the film poster! So again you have to be very open to last-minute changes because they could be the right thing to do. As an actress knowing her character, she knew it would work.

What was your favourite outfit from The House Bunny?
It's a scene from the end of the movie where Anna Farris is doing a Playboy shoot, dressed in red like a skater chick holding her skateboard. Inspiration-wise, I looked at actual Playboy magazine shoots. That was a pivotal scene, where she realises that this isn't her and she has to change her life. The House Bunny is a good example of character transformation in clothing transition: from ugly duckling to sexy party girl and then, in the end, she really finds herself. The themes of most of the films I have done relate to the question of how you can find yourself. It's the eternal quest: Who are we? Who am I? And how can I express myself? And clothes are a huge way we can express ourselves.

I love doing films with women because you can influence them through clothing. It's important to create a good example as there are a lot of young women dressing like Miley Cyrus, which I think is ok because as artists we need to express ourselves but there needs to be a boundary for younger woman. You can look sexy and cute like Alicia Silverstone but you don't have to go that far. But there is so much happening — information overload with instagram and everything — that you kind of have to go so far to be outrageous these days. But in the 90s you didn't have to do so much.

What was it like working with Will Ferrell on A Night at the Roxbury?
My stomach hurt all the way through the movie — I couldn't stop laughing! For those shiny suits they wore at the club I had to source special fabric from Japan that was stretchy enough, because they kept ripping all the clothes when they were dancing! So I had to use a material that would expand at the seams so that they could continue with their outrageous performances.

There is one moment when they are walking on the beach in their stringy G-strings, which I had to make. In the fitting I had to cut higher and higher, and it was so funny because they wanted the cut higher so that their bums wiggled more. They wanted it to look more Euro. Comedians bring so much to the film in their fittings as they are constantly creating the character with the clothes. You just never know what's going to happen in the fitting.

What future projects have you got coming up?
Right now I am working on an animated musical film called Bollywood Superstar Monkey; creating Indian concept costumes for two monkeys who try to stop an ancient demon from conquering the world. It's loosely based on the Hindu mythology of Ramayan. So far, it's in pre-production, set to be released in 2017, and Lea Michele has been cast to voice Pinki, the monkey. 

How would you describe your personal style in three words?
It definitely has to be girly, colourful and memorable.

Text & Portrait Photography: Robert Lang