Image courtesy of Viacom.

meet the costume designer behind the outrageous looks in 'rocketman'

i-D talks to Julian Day about reimagining Elton John's bedazzled numbers for the big screen.

by Brittany Natale
31 May 2019, 7:37pm

Image courtesy of Viacom.

Julian Day is behind the larger-than-life costumes in the new Elton John-inspired film, Rocketman. Described by the costume designer as more of a fantasy musical rather than a biopic, it outlines legendary musician Elton John’s rise to fame and the personal struggles he endured behind the scenes. Day was given the responsibility of capturing the musician’s radiant style — one that often features sequins, feathers, and glitter — that has become as timeless and transcendent as his music itself.

The seasoned UK-based designer, whose career spans over three decades, previously worked with Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher on the 2018 Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. It was here that Day recreated some of Mercury’s iconic looks down to the last detail, like the iconic outfit he wore for Queen’s 1985 Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium. However, with Rocketman, Day was given more artistic rein — using his original designs that were inspired by the singer’s vibrant ensembles, he helped actor Taron Egerton transform seamlessly into Elton John.

i-D recently spoke to Day over the phone ahead of the movie’s release about the process of finding inspiration, working with the musical legend, and the experience of visiting Elton John’s clothing archive.

How did you prepare for Rocketman?
When I got the job I sat down with Dexter, the director, and we went through the whole look of everything. The thing that came up was the idea that it was a fantasy musical, and not a straight-up biopic. We were looking at photographers such as David LaChapelle and Tim Walker, and then I read the script and worked out what was needed in the script. Afterwards, I went to see Sir Elton John’s archive for clothes in London, which had his stage clothes as well as his regular clothes, so this was really interesting. We always said that we were not going to do reproductions of his stagewear, it was our film and we were going to make it our film. The only thing that we particularly paid homage to was the Dodgers costume. But even then we changed it up slightly by using Swarovski crystals instead of sequins. [The process included] in-depth research on the Internet, chatting with Sir Elton, and going through his archives.

Image courtesy of Viacom.

How was the experience of going through his archives? It sounds amazing.
It was incredible. I mean, he’s a legend. He is known for his flamboyant dress, and going to see the actual clothes was fantastic. It was just the idea of getting up close and personal with the detail. He has got a lot of shoes there, hats, clothes — I think it is just so fascinating to see how much somebody loves clothes and how much they mean to somebody. The experience was invaluable.

Did you find that not having to recreate all of his looks to an exact ‘T’ creatively liberating?
Absolutely. I mean, I became the designer rather than the copier.

With the film I did before, Bohemian Rhapsody, we did copy some of the outfits. So I have done both, and I think I prefer to do the idea of designing myself. It was great, it was completely liberating.

How many pieces did you design?
For Elton probably about 60 outfits maybe, with about 40 pairs of glasses and about 40 pairs of shoes. I designed young Elton as well, so in total it must have been about that many.

Image courtesy of Viacom.

Besides referencing Elton John’s clothing archive, where else did you draw inspiration from your designs?
I think you can find inspiration from everywhere. What I tried to do was to go back to the basics of where I thought the designers that had designed for him would have looked at. For example, I looked at the Rio Carnival, Venetian carnivals, drag queens — things that were fairly over-the-top, all of those sorts of things.

Were there any sources of inspiration that were unexpected to you while doing research?
I don’t think so, I love doing research anyway so I personally would say I am fairly knowledgeable and my reference is quite wide. I’ve been costume designing for over 30 years so I have a big storage [of references] in my own head, so I don’t think there was anything that came up that was unusual.

Do you have any particularly favorite pieces you designed for the film? I know it may be hard to choose.
You’ve got it spot-on — it is very hard to choose, and it is a question I get asked a lot obviously and I understand the reason why. But they all mean so much to me and so I can’t really pick just one piece, but I do love the heart glasses and the devil outfit. The Dodgers outfit is really cool, the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” outfit also is really cool. I love all the shoes and the sunglasses — I love it all to be honest with you.

Image courtesy of Viacom.

You kind of touched on this already, but how was the process of working on Rocketman different from other films you may have previously worked on?
I am about half-way through designing another film at the moment and I am using the same process that I used on Rocketman. So therefore there really is no difference, I’ve done plenty of biopics before also so, again, there is no big difference there. It wasn’t unknown territory to me at all. I guess that the most important thing for me to get across was that I basically wanted to make sure that Elton John liked what I designed, and was satisfied in that I was representing him in a true and honest way. That was the most important thing. He came down to the studio and I showed him the concepts and he loved them and only had positive feedback.

And how was working with Taron Egerton?
It was brilliant. I have worked with him before and he is a consummate professional. He took the film role very seriously, he hung out with Elton quite a lot so they were good friends. He’s very dedicated to what he was doing, and I think when you take on a role as one that is basically Elton John you are going to take that very seriously and you want to put your heart and soul into it, of which he did. He did an amazing, amazing performance. He was incredible.

What is your favorite Elton John song? Have you listened to his music much throughout the years?
Absolutely, I’ve always listened to Elton John. I once was doing this job up in Newcastle in the north of England, and I used to drive up through the motorway every Sunday night and come back every Friday night. I would put Elton John on and make up different routines in the car just to pass the time. I also remember watching Tommy as a child, and seeing Elton John in Tommy, as the pinball wizard. I feel like you are always aware of his music and his looks. And favorite song? I would say “Are You Ready For Love?”

Image courtesy of Viacom.
Elton John
costume design