Creating the world of Harjuku Girls: Cécile Trémolières on design, Cosplay and sliding doors
Designer Cécile Trémolières has been getting deservedly fantastic reviews for her work on Harajuku Girls. I met up with her to talk about how she approached the challenge of creating such a huge and varied world in a tiny space like the Finborough and to undesrtand a bit more her process, inspiration and all things Cosplay…
What attracted you to working on Harajuku Girls?
I really liked the world of the play and how much potential it had in term of costumes and atmosphere. The image club was something particularly interesting to design, especially in term of relationship with the audience and how to create different rooms that will share the same visual language so the audience clearly know where they are. I was also really excited by the different and contrasted places of the play (Mari’s house versus panty shop for example). As a designer, Japan is always present in my references. I cannot get enough of its classical beauty, the perfection of its architecture, fashion, food and product design. But I am also totally fan of its messy, colourful, neon fantasy. It’s something very challenging because very different from our own European culture.
I also think we rarely see on a theatre fringe stage a play that ambitious, happening in Asia, with strong females roles and I was super excited to be part of such a project.
For those that don’t know about it, can you explain a bit about the world of Cosplay?
Cosplay is a mix between the words “costume” and “role play”; it is a way to dress up as character from comics, TV, music band or video games. I think it came from Japan and it is now happening all over the world. It is not linked to a special day like Halloween or Mardi Gras, but I know there are festivals with costume competition. The best costumes are usually hand made. There is usually a real pride about how good you can make your costume, displaying your talent, your attention to details but also your creativity as you can add your own style to the original models. People spend a lot of money on their costumes, and can ask, as Keiko does in the play, a special designer to make their outfits. The character you chose to portray is also an important part of cosplay culture, as usually the cosplayer will imitate its manners and body language. The fact that Keiko is personifying a sexy and powerful woman does actually give quite a few clues about her personality, in the same way than Mari is the cute but courageous Sailor Saturn while Yumi is an innocent but not very thought through Lolita.
Can you tell us more about some of the specific Cosplay characters that feature in the play?
Keiko’s costumes is inspired from Lulu’s character in the role play video game Final Fantasy.
Mari’s costume is Sailor Saturn, a well known character of the Japanese TV show Sailor Moon.
Yumi’s costume is more generic; she is a “rococo Lolita”, a fashion inspired by the French 18th century court in Versailles. However a few films, like Kamikaze Girls, portrayed characters dressed in such fashion.
How do you think the choice of Cosplay outfit reflected the personalities of the characters in the play?
As I said before, I do think they do in some way. Lulu’s character is supposed to be quite serious but kind-hearted and intelligent. I think it shows that Keiko is probably someone with a strong wish of showing her good side but because she is very insecure she still had to make her costume looking very sexy.
Mari’s choice shows that she is quite innocent at the beginning of the play, thinking about sexiness still in term of school uniform. The character of Sailor Saturn is also someone that looks already like her and we can draw a line between her wish of becoming a film actress and the fact that she choose to portray a TV character.
As Yumi, she did not choose any particular TV character but just a generic fashion which tells a lot about her not being very ambitious and specific in her life plans. Rococo Lolita is also quite a safe character, with apparently no intention of seduction. It shows a very naïve and childish personality.
But above all I think the way the costumes were designed and sourced shows even more about their personalities. As I mentioned it before, the quality of the costume is very much a pride for the owner. We bought Yumi’s Lolita dress, because we thought Yumi wouldn’t bother making it herself. I don’t think she will be patient and focused enough anyway. Mari did make her own costume, so I ask a friend of mine to make it, but we asked her to do it in a “hand made way”. We could see the stitches and the quality of the fabric was not amazing. We wanted to show that Mari would persevere making it as good as she could but that she was too poor to afford good fabric. The design of the costume was also an exact copy of the sailor Saturn one. However, for Keiko, we wanted to create something more unique and I designed a specific customised version of Lulu’s costumes. I wanted it to look sexier and more dangerous than the usual cosplay version of this character. We hired the skill of a professional costume maker to create a really good looking costume that will show how much Keiko is obsessed with her look and how much money she is able to spend on a single outfit.
The costumes in the image club where either bought from ebay or directly imported from Japan! Gakuji, who played Mr Okada and Mr Chiba, bought them for us and brought them with him when the rehearsals started.
In terms of set design what were the greatest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
I think there were two main challenges, the first one being the space itself, its curve and its size. The second one was the numbers of locations and how fast we were getting from one to the other.
With Jude (the director) we agreed really quickly that we wanted very few props so the scene changes would be as easy as possible. We also wanted a space that could bear different meanings. The challenge then was to make really clear signs for the audience to understand where they were.
The idea of the sliding doors, even though we were a bit scared at the beginning of it being too clichéd, was just a really good way to create different spaces. Especially for the club where everything would happen behind doors, as if the audience was watching a peep show. It gave us the possibility for the audience to also imagine that the space behind the doors was bigger, leading to some other rooms, like for example in Mari’s house it became a corridor. It was also a good hiding place for the actors to get changed.
The LED strips on the floor was also a good help to change spaces, when they were not lit (in Mari’s house) they become the lines that tatamis draw on the floor in classical Japanese house. But their colours changed, creating different atmosphere in the nightclub Extinct or in the Lounge Bar.
We also tried to really take as much space as we could in the Finborough, going right against the audience feet in the front row, and as high as we could!
Were there any pitfalls you particularly wanted to avoid when it came to putting the world of the image club on stage?
I think it was quite important not to be too innocent about it and make it glamorous. It could also be quite tempting to make the set very precise and decorative for this parts of the play but this would have been very slow in set changes and would also have created a weird theatrical expectation from the audience. We also wanted not to be too voyeuristic so it is why we created that wall between the audience and the scene, with a microphone sound effect for their voices, so the audience would feel the distance, a bit like in a movie.
Can you tell us a bit more about your relationship with the director Jude, your process and how you worked together to create the world of the play?
I worked with Jude before so it was really easy! We are pretty much on the same page so we agreed very quickly on the main aspect of the show. The limitation of budget and space was also a big factor in the decision we took design wise. She came at the first design meeting with a lot of references books so I knew where she was coming from visually and I took most of my references from the same books as well. During rehearsals we would meet pretty often to discuss scenes and costumes changes, eat Japanese snacks and listen to Japanese tunes. A very enjoyable and smooth process indeed!
What have you most enjoyed about working on Harajuku Girls?
Reading about Japan, watching Japanese films and Youtube videos, listening to Japanese pop music and surfing on Japanese websites for days. I also very much enjoyed working in a team where there was a very homogeneous creative energy and where people where really thinking in the same direction so there were no clashing of opinions at all.
I think designing the costumes was also a very enjoyable moment as I could really feel each character, where they would buy their clothes and why. There was a moment in rehearsal, pretty near to the start of the show, when the costumes where finally all sourced and we placed them all down on the floor of the rehearsal room. To see all these colours and crazy styles together was the best feeling of pre-show excitement I ever had.
And in general, what do you most love about being a designer?
The first meeting with the director when everything is still possible to happen and the moment when everything is coming together in 3D, at the real scale and you just look at the model and you feel like something amazing has just happen, from your brain to reality!
If you could work on any project or play, what would it be?
I want to create a design-led project about spectatorship and all the different aspect and possibilities of being an audience. I also want to design the Ring Cycle by Wagner because it is so big and so mad.
Who or what has been your greatest inspiration as a designer?
I think there is a very long list of things and people I am inspired from as a designer, here is what I have in my mind at the moment: Pina Baush, the V&A, my mother, the Comédie Française in Paris, the National Theatre, the Young Vic, Aladdin’s cave in New Cross, Depford Market, movies like Hôtel du Nord, La Règle du Jeu, , Citizen Kane, painter like Claude Monet, Picasso, Hantai, Paula Rego, Schiele, Bonnard, Francis Bacon, the Saatchi Facebook page, Orson Wells, Quentin Blake, Tomi Ungerer, Bertold Brect, my grandparents’ house in Brittany and the sea, Japan, Wim Wenders, Josef Svoboda, my teachers in Wimbledon, Mozart, Martin Parr… I think really anything and everything: as I have been told in uni, designers are like “cultural magpies”, they steal from everyone and everywhere.
What’s next for you?
Next month I’ll be shadowing a designer at the Royal Opera House. I am also working on some strange Welsh writing, an ambitious devised play where Europe had been transformed in a Theme Park, and have started designing an interactive walk between London and Paris!
Thank you to Cécile for such a great conversation and all the amazing work you have done on Harajuku Girls. I can’t wait to see what you do next!