Lauren Miller is a costume designer whose work has both captured and influenced a generation.
From Netflix’s cultural phenomenon Top Boy to the latest season of critically-acclaimed Sanditon, the designer has made her mark in some of the biggest projects in recent years.
We spoke to Lauren about her humble beginnings in retail, throwing caution to the wind in pursuit of a career as a costume designer and the influence that her work has on everyday fashion trends.
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Lauren Miller and I am a Costume Designer for Film and Television. My most recent credits include TopBoy Netflix S2, Sanditon S2 & S3 and Treason S1 coming to Netflix in the New Year.
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now …
Currently, my life is blessed and busy.
I’ve heard you say that before pursuing costume design as a full-time career, you’ve worked in the head office of some of the most well-known high-street retail stores. You then decided to quit your job to chase your dream. How did you know that was the right time to leave the security of a steady paycheque?
There is never a right time you just have to feel the fear and do it anyway. When I left that job it was a real make-or-break moment. I had been doing freelance work as a ’Side hustle’ for a solid couple of years and I just decided that I needed to take a leap of faith and really concentrate on building up my contacts as a freelancer. The company I was working for had just mentioned the offer of Christmas bonuses and that if you left within a certain time after the bonus was paid then you would have to pay it back. I took that as my cue to hand my notice in. It was a wild thing to do at the time but it gave me more drive to make Plan A work … there was no Plan B.
The 80s and the 90s were a real sight to behold in terms of style in film and television with the likes of Dynasty, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Clueless setting the standard. There was a real drop-off in the early 2000’s, but it feels like the interest in the desire and appreciation for unique costume designs has made a big comeback. Why do you think this is?
I really think that Covid has played its part in the comeback of the costume drama. I think so many of us staying home and watching every single television show and film ever made has absolutely left people wanting more beauty and escapism, a story to get lost in while the world is so uncertain. We are in the modern equivalent of the Roaring Twenties which was post War escapism, I guess. I love the fact that I am at an age where I am seeing fashion come back around for the second time. It is so fascinating to see things in the shops that as a youngster I would see in magazines and want to own. The fashion that comes back is generally the cool fashionable items … not the way that people actually used to dress.
Society places such an emphasis on wearing designer brands being the only way to be considered stylish, what ways did you find around this as a young, up-and-coming designer when you first got into the craft?
Social media platforms have a lot of responsibility for the emphasis on designer brands in popular culture in my opinion. I do think that in film and tv designer brands can actually be quite distracting so they are used significantly less than you would probably see in real life. I think as an up-and-coming designer it is more important to pay attention to the fit of clothing to make it look more expensive. You can take a high street suit off the rack and have it tailored to fit an actor then suddenly they look far more expensive.
In a behind-the-scenes video, Rose Williams, one of the stars of Sanditon, spoke about how you’ve brought in a lot more of a pastel palette and brighter colours. How do elements of the script and character development influence the way that you approach costume design?
Script and Character are always the starting point for any project. I love the process of my job. You read a script and then immerse yourself in that character’s world with your research. You are thinking about where they shop, why they dress as they do, where they live and how much disposable income they have. You are always focusing on the details and the nuances of the character and with period costume, you are looking at the accuracy. It is a great moment when you put an actor in costume and you find the character. For Sanditon, we rejoin the story 9 months on from where we left it and so the characters have all moved along in some way, so there are elements
of the costume design to show that.
Rose’s character Charlotte Heywood presents herself as a far more matured character in Season 2 so this was very nice to contrast with her sister Alison who represents the fresh-faced country girl that Charlotte was in Season 1. I really wanted the Sanditon colour palette to reflect the fact that Sanditon is a happy and bright seaside town and it really ties in with the fresh colours of the new promenade.
The resurgence of the corset in contemporary fashion has been a big topic of conversation recently and it is a garment that is heavily featured in Sanditon. Are you conscious of the role that your work has in shaping popular fashion as you’re creating it or is that an afterthought?
Corsets were heavily used in Sanditon to accentuate the bust line and to keep the silhouette period accurate. I think it is always an afterthought because you never really know what will become popular with the public. On the contemporary dramas that I have designed costumes for, I will often get contacted on social media asking where to find various items of clothing seen in the show. It is nice to know that people like my costume choices but quite often the items are sold out by the time a show airs.
You’ve been successful in the industry for long enough now that you no longer need to accept every opportunity that reaches your desk. What do you look for in projects that you want to align yourself with?
I love reading scripts and I love having range in my portfolio. I am always interested in a project with a great story and doing something that I haven’t done before. That was one of the main reasons for transitioning from Fashion to Costume early on in my career. In costume, you can go from something beautifully stylised to blood and mud. It is great telling those stories through costume as there are so many stories from so many time periods. If I feel like I am starting to do too many of one type of project then I know it is time to move on to something different. I do love period costume, fashion and fantasy or stylised projects so I am always more interested in those kinds of films or shows.
Films about inner-city London often aren’t treated with the same level of attention to detail as films about other communities, especially in regards to wardrobe. However, the costumes in Top Boy were all so distinct and authentic. How important is it to have an understanding of the culture when designing costumes for projects about our community and others?
Thank you for saying so. For Top Boy it was really important to me to keep in line with the existing framework of the characters but also bring my own sense of style. I wanted to avoid using too many designer brands even though that is realistic but sometimes it can be distracting and glamorise that world. There are definite nuances to certain looks or communities that you would only understand or relate to being from that community. I love seeing Black girls go to bed with a head scarf on screen because that is realistic and that is something I do myself. Even things like making trainers dirty so they look lived in etc. That is something I would do for a lot of shows but there is a multibillion-dollar industry dedicated to keeping trainers fresh and clean and a lot of the characters in Top Boy would keep their trainers crisp and clean.
More women of colour have been able to create space in the industry than ever. Where do you see the evolution of wardrobe and costume design going in the coming years with input from more diverse perspectives?
I am so here for it! It will really bring more perspectives to future storytelling. I think it is really important to me that in my career I get to tell all kinds of different stories so it is great to have so much more diversity in front of and behind the lens and in the film and television industry as a whole.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU …
- A book you have to have in your collection? What I know For Sure by Oprah Winfrey
- A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? My current song obsession is Break My Soul by Beyonce. It just makes me want to dance around the house like a madwoman.
- A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? I love the film Edward Scissorhands. I remember watching it in the cinema as a youngster and just being captivated by the costumes. That was the film that made me want to be a Costume Designer, I just didn’t know what the job was at the time.
- The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)? The first Westend show I went to see was An Inspector Calls. It was a school trip and it was such a good experience it just showed how clever you can be with set design. I do love theatre and it is really interesting seeing the differences between film costume and theatre costume. Everything is bigger in theatre in order to read from the back of the room.
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? The sunshine has made me all three. The trains being cancelled because of the heat did make me mad but it has been great to have some lovely hot weather.
Sanditon season 2 s available on BritBox now and airs weekly on Fridays on ITV @9pm