Superhero suits may have dominated at San Diego's Comic-Con last week, but it wasn't all spandex and pop culture heroes - there were also thick tartans and kilts. One of the events was indeed dedicated to Outlander, a 16-part series launching this August on American network, Startz.
Adapted from Diana Gabaldon's eponymous romantic novel set in Scotland (the book was actually released in the UK with the title Cross Stitch), the epic drama recounts the story of Claire (Caitriona Balfe), a World War II nurse who, through a stone circle she discovers during her second honeymoon with husband Frank, travels back in time to 18th century Scotland.
Claire finds herself in a battlefield, meets her husband's ancestor Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) and gets kidnapped by the men from Clan McKenzie who believe she is an English spy. Forced to marry Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), Claire genuinely falls in love with him and eventually finds her place in history and time, among castles, villages, wild woods, prisons and abbeys.
Directed by Brian Kelly, John Dahl, Anna Foerster and Richard Clark, the episodes were shot in a production facility in Cumbernauld, outside Glasgow. The costumes were designed by Glenne Campbell and Terry Dresbach, but were made by an outpost of Venetian tailoring house Atelier Nicolao.
Last year Stefano Nicolao decamped indeed to Scotland to work on the costumes and accessories for the series. In a few days' time Gabaldon's fans will be able to see on their TV screens not only Jamie Fraser's tartan and kilts, but also heavy capes, stiff corsets, red coats matched with black tricorn hats and feathers and furs decorating the attire of "witch" Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek).
Startz hope the story will rival HBO's Game of Thrones (from George R. R. Martin's novels) and Scotland would instead like with this series to confirm itself as the perfect destination for further successful film productions. But, for the time being, only one thing's for certain: if they will ever be looking for a tricorn hat like the ones sported in the series by the English troops, fans will have to travel as far as Venice.
How did you get involved with this TV series?
Stefano Nicolao: I worked in the past on other productions by David Brown, the UK producer of Outlander. They contacted me and explained they had a team of cutters and tailors, but it wasn't big enough to support the production and make sure the costumes were ready by September 2013, when they were supposed to start filming. They felt they were a bit behind with the making of the costumes, so I joined them with roughly ten people from my own atelier. I left just a few hours after they contacted me to try and understand a bit better how to get organised for this job. During the first days I just worked on setting up tables and machines as the facilities were really new and they had originally thought they would have been able to work with pre-existing garments from specific repertoires. Little by little, we realised there was a lot of work to do as the series starts in the 1940s and then goes back to the 1700s. This meant I had to get more acquainted with 18th century fashion in Scotland. After organising the workshop, my team and I worked on cutting and co-ordinating the collaborators. We did many costumes for both the male and female characters and we also did the lingerie.
Did you enjoy working away from Venice?
Stefano Nicolao: We worked for longer hours, roughly 14 hours a day, and that was stressful, but it was a great experience. The early days were a bit harder as we had to get to know each other, and at the beginning we thought my team was assigned to the extras and the secondary characters, but then things changed and they honoured us with a much more rewarding assignment - the costumes for the main characters. We ended up developing a lovely relationship with the local team of cutters and costume makers, we really respected each other, so everything went smoothly.
Did you finish any costumes in Venice?
Stefano Nicolao: When the production stopped for the Christmas holidays at the end of last year I worked on some garments in Venice and then went back to Glasgow in January. Two costumes for Callum (Gary Lewis) were also made in my atelier in Venice.
We usually talk about luxury in conjunction with famous fashion houses. Can we talk about luxury also in your work and costumes for films, theatre, opera and ballet?
Stefano Nicolao: In my work and atelier I often employ very expensive textiles such as Rubelli fabrics that at times cost 350 Euros per metre. You usually employ 5-6 metres of this fabric to make a woman's costume, so you can imagine that costs are extremely high once you add the manufacturing, decorations and embroidering. But I always say that luxury is not represented by extremely high prices. You see, luxury in my life means being able to showcase through a costume historical and artisanal knowledge. For example, a garment that may not be by a famous designer but is entirely made by hand, can be considered as a prestigious piece if it is made following the highest tailoring standards. Besides, I have extremely talented and skilled collaborators who manage to inject in the pieces they make all their passion and I consider the latter as an added value to a costume or a garment. There are small accessories we make at my atelier that cost maybe between 30-50 Euros, but they are still luxurious pieces since they were made by expert people.
Are there any small and affordable luxurious pieces in Outlander?
Stefano Nicolao: We actually had to send quite a few tricorn hats on the set since they couldn't find the same high quality we could offer.
As a whole how do you feel about this production?
Stefano Nicolao: Very happy and satisfied: there are quite a few images of the series out at the moment and the trailer has also been online for a while. The costumes look amazing and I'm also very happy for the fans of Diana Gabaldon's books: there are quite a few ones in Italy as well and they're all eagerly awaiting for this series.
Which was the most challenging production you worked on in your career?
Stefano Nicolao: Quite a few, including Michael Radford's The Merchant of Venice and Lasse Hallström's Casanova, but I have amazing memories of Giuliano Montaldo's Marco Polo. This was way back in 1982 and I was asked by Enrico Sabbatini to assist him for a period of time in Rome. Then one day he sent me to the Himalayan chain to work on the costumes for the scenes chronicling the passage from Persia to China. We ended up working at 3,000-4,000 metres with no electricity but with a team of tailors and dressmakers and sherpas. As you may guess, this was a rather unusual situation and quite often we ended up using archaic methods to find solutions to certain problems. Luckily, the situation in Scotland was quite different and definitely less challenging!
Which was the latest production you worked on fashion-wise?
Stefano Nicolao: We lent some costumes for the Louis Vuitton's "L'invitation au Voyage" campaign, the advert that came out last year featuring David Bowie and Arizona Muse, directed by Romain Gavras. As you may remember, Bowie plays the harpsichord in it amid a grand and confusing Venetian masked ball. Muse arrives in Venice's St Mark's Square in the same hot air balloon she used to leave from the Louvre in the previous instalment of the advert and enters the palazzo where Bowie is singing. In this rich and mad environment full of fragrances, smells and colours, and crowded with people, Muse has a sort of Stendhal syndrome and re-evokes in her mind balls and historical costumes. They borrowed from us a lof of costumes in pastel colours that worked pretty well with the hairstyles they had chosen, mainly wigs decorated with horns and other extravagant and eccentric elements and pieces. There were also some Louis Vuitton designs that had been contaminated by reinvented Venetian elements that called to mind Carnivalesque or masked ball atmospheres.
Did you find it difficult to co-ordinate your atelier in Venice while you were working in Scotland?
Stefano Nicolao: It was terribly difficult, but in the end we managed to. I sort of went back and forth between last year and this year a few times to work on other commissions, among them an exhibition of costumes in Trieste, an event about fragrances at Palazzo Mocenigo in Venice that also included garments from their archives that we had restored, and then a staging of The Inspector General by Gogol adapted by Damiano Michieletto and with costumes by Carla Teti for the Teatro Stabile Carlo Goldoni, it was unusually set in the '60s, so the costumes had a sort of Eastern vintage mood about them. We also worked on a staging of Verdi's s Nabucco and Ballo in maschera, the latter with costumes by Alessandro Ciammarughi, and on Puccini's La Bohème in Ferrara. More recently we collaborated on the Goldoni Experience, a representation of Venice in the 1700s and homage to Carlo Goldoni in Venice. Our costumes will also appear in September in a representation of Mozart’s masterpiece Così fan tutte in Cyprus. You can keep updated on our future events and collaborations on the atelier's Facebook page or new site.
Italians are stereotypically famous in Scotland for cafes, fish and chip shops and ice cream parlours, but you managed to take to Glasgow your traditional tailoring skills and costume knowledge - will Scotland miss you?
Stefano Nicolao: Well, we can always open a branch of the atelier in Scotland...
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