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Modern Renaissance at ‘Da Vinci’s Demons’

Costume designer Annie Symons talks to WWD about her work for the Starz TV series, set in 15th-century Italy.

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On the set of Starz TV series “Da Vinci’s Demons,” costume designer Annie Symons is fitting a gown with a built-in corset for the seductive and scheming character Lucrezia Donati, played by Laura Haddock.

“It’s a bit of a designer’s dream — reinventing the Renaissance,” said Symons, who compares costume design and fittings to the “same process as creating a catwalk fashion show.”

The location and time period of the series is Renaissance-era Florence, where the show chronicles the untold story of a 25-year-old painter, sculptor, and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci.

While the story is set in 15th-century Italy, Symons makes a point of saying she is not creating period-perfect costumes. Her directive has been to “contemporize it and make people sexy.”

In other words, give the clothes a modern twist that an Internet-savvy audience watching a historical fantasy on HDTV can relate to.

Symons — who won an Emmy for her work on the BBC’s “Great Expectations” — won a BAFTA award for the BBC drama “Worried About the Boy,” which told the story of pop star Boy George. For “Da Vinci’s Demons,” she gleaned inspiration from Renaissance paintings and sculptures as well as contemporary designers to illustrate the look of a modern Renaissance.

 

“The first stage is, I always research paintings and sculptures, and depending on the project, I more or less stay true to the period. Paintings and sculptures tell you how the fabric hangs, and then there’s color and shape,” explained Symons. “To take a contemporary view, I looked at fashion designers and fashion imagery. For instance, for Clarice Medici [played by Lara Pulver] I wanted a couture look, so I looked at Balenciaga and modified silhouettes, with the way shapes were cut, such as formal skirts with long trains. She had to look sculpted because the Medicis were the wealthiest people at the time. But for Lucrezia, I made a lot of that up and looked at fashion by Alexander McQueen, and used a lot of animal and bird motifs.”

To achieve the sculpted silhouettes, Symons said she and her staff of 30 cutters, sewers, dyers, and leather and embroidery specialists handcraft “every undergarment.”

“We make them all. It’s part of the couture manipulation of the form. You’ve got to get your foundation shape right.…The form has to skim over the top so you’re not aware of the structure going on underneath.…Everything is built from scratch, with every fabric, lace, ribbon and pearl that’s sewn on,” said Symons.

She noted that the use of color and fabric can be tricky on HDTV.

“The reds are very true — a medici red, a soft terra-cotta red — and the greens I use are from the [Renaissance] paintings. But some reds look different on HD.…It’s a pain in the neck and you can’t get away with the things you used to.…HD amplifies textures and clears everything up at the same time. I never use synthetic fabrics because they kind of shine.…But this is not fabric for a museum, it’s for film. I use fabrics that move and light well. My favorite fabrics are Indian and Italian. Italian silk, always. And English wool is fantastic.…But Indian silk and cotton does seem to have a cruder weave,” said Symons.

As for the male characters — after all, Da Vinci, played by English actor Tom Riley, is the star of the show — Symons exclaimed she had no intention of putting men in tights. Black leather pants give the proper virility and swagger, she said.

“It was very fashionable for young noblemen to take off as much formal clothing as they possibly could to look sexy. It was kind of a punk thing. But then it was the Renaissance,” she quipped.

Symons drew inspiration from Versace and Armani for the male cast, which includes Tom Bateman as Giuliano Medici and Blake Ritson as Count Riario.

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