Suttirat Lalarb captured Mumbai street wear in the Oscar dark horse Slumdog Millionaire—and she’s getting as much buzz as the film itself.
Chaos assaults you in Mumbai, says hot costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb, who spent six months in its Dickensian swarm on Slumdog Millionaire, the brutal new feel-good movie that’s generating huge Oscar buzz. Director Danny Boyle’s go-to wardrober, she’d only been on the job an hour before a Mumbai driver casually slammed his car into her shoulder. “I fell flat on my back in a puddle,” says Larlarb, who found the incident more funny than ominous. “For me, it was a cosmic message that things were going to come at me from every direction, and I was just going to have to get up and get on with it.”
Not that this chilled-out flexibility came easily to Larlarb, a rising design star who’s increasingly renowned in film circles for her tireless, sometimes sleepless, perfectionism. She worked as the art director for lauded indies such as The Savages and The Namesake, and since her costume work on Slumdog, she’s been mulling a steady stream of offers for both major Hollywood and indie movies. She’s currently styling the upcoming Cillian Murphy and Ellen Page film, Peacock, a period thriller whose visual team is crammed with Oscar nominees.
“Their ‘prostitute’ costumes were basically full-length ball gowns. It’s a very discreet country.
On the surface, the elaborately precise New Yorker was perhaps an odd choice to costume Slumdog, a sprawling, messy, shot-on-location epic about an orphaned slum-kid who bumbles and connives his way to riches and romance. Her previous collaboration with Boyle, after all, was the sci-fi indie Sunshine, “a luxurious exercise in control,” as she puts it. “We designed everything from scratch in a studio.” In Mumbai, a third-world city whose idea of archiving costumes is cramming them into blue garbage bags, “I quickly realized,” she says, “that trying to impose my New York systems would just be insane.”
Her Slumdog work, a far cry from the sort of Marie Antoinette grandeur that usually get noticed, is now earning high praise for its discreet verisimilitude, but the results were hard-won. The biggest obstacle was her local Bollywood collaborators’ obsession with razzle-dazzle spectacle—rather unproductive when you’re recreating the shit-stained reality of beggars who have, at best, a glancing acquaintance with sequins. Bollywood doesn’t do squalid, she discovered, or even rumpled. “If I wanted someone’s sleeves rolled, “ she says, “They’d fold them up in perfect symmetry.”
This fastidiousness stemmed partly from respect, she says. In India, actors are often treated like deities on par with the corpse of Princess Diana. Not the sort of people, in other words, whose shirts you abruptly remove and stamp in the mud, something Larlarb and her team were occasionally forced to do when their conventional distressing methods—sandpapering, stretching, shredding, and laundering garments up to 50 times—failed to yield enough suitably bleak clothing.
Indian extras (up 1000 per scene) consistently ignored wardrobe guidelines and showed up in their ruffled, starched Sunday best, only to be redressed in rags or bewilderingly filth-ified. “They found the idea of looking purposely sub-par very unexpected,” says Larlarb. If her right hand man, Riyazali Merchant, a burly Bollywood vet, sensed that the crazy New York lady craved more destruction, he’d start yelling at the crew like a gym coach, until they sandpapered even faster, mildly rolling their eyes.
“There was just an enormous volume of work,” says Larlarb, who logged 18-hour days, fighting surreal traffic to visit 50 different stores. “We’d ask to see their selection of beggar costumes,” she says, “and they’d bring out these kitschy, Peter Pan and Lost Boys things—big colorful patches with yarn stitching. Their ‘prostitute’ costumes were basically full-length ball gowns. It’s a very discreet country.”
Another challenge was conceiving a visual through-line for characters that age 11 years onscreen. To give Slumdog’s pivotal love-interest, Latika, an iconic quality, Larlarb jolted her look throughout the film with shots of yellow, the one color she says reliably “pops” in the context of a Mumbai crowd’s Technicolor garb. (“It’s not like New York where everyone wears black or gray,” she points out.)
To find the perfect yellow cotton poplin for a key Latika dress, Larlarb ransacked fabric stores for three days, puzzling her Indian colleagues; at one point, losing focus and falling briefly in love with a bolt of “weird” orange fabric emblazoned with blue cherries. In the end, she used the orange to mock-up versions of the dress, then promptly forgot it.
Then one day on set, three slum girls came to watch the crew film in their shantytown. Larlarb gave the girls those cherry dresses in trade for the “remarkably, perfectly grimy” outfits off their backs, then watched them happily retreat into their lives in spanking new, hand-tailored frocks. “Everyone won that day,” she sighs.
So what’s next for Larlarb? Not House Bunny 2, that much is certain. “I know it’s irresponsible to turn down work,” she says, “but, after Slumdog, I haven’t found many movies that could be, on every level, so fulfilling. At this point, I just can’t see myself dressing up a bunch of sorority girls.”
Dale Hrabi has analyzed culture and trends as a writer and editor for Details, Elle, Radar, and The New York Times, among many other publications.