This autumn’s best fashion moment didn’t happen on a catwalk or a red carpet, but on the small screen, at approximately 9.45pm last Saturday night. In the second episode of Killing Eve, the darkly hilarious spy thriller from Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, immaculately dressed contract killer Villanelle (played by Jodie Comer) flounces into an appointment with her psychiatrist. She’s wearing a pink tulle confection by Brit designer Molly Goddard, paired with those Balenciaga cut-out boots. It’s the ultimate subversive party outfit, girlish with an edge: the perfect outfit for a killer who uses fashion and femininity as a weapon.
‘She’s just sticking two fingers up at the analyst,’ laughs costume designer Phoebe de Gaye. ‘The script called for a big, pouffy, dress, so I thought “you couldn’t get more pouffy than Molly Goddard.”’ Except that, well, they could. Villanelle’s style is as attention-stealing and theatrical as the kills that capture the attention of MI6 operative Eve (played by Sandra Oh): she’s a peacock, someone who wants to be looked at. And so, for an extra flourish, de Gaye’s team ‘slightly exaggerated’ the ready-to-wear design, making ‘an inner petticoat so it fluffed out even more and adding a tiny bit of extra trim in that bubblegum pink,’ she says. ‘Then we put the boots with it as an antidote to all that frou-frou, and the black bra. How often do you get a chance to use something like that in TV?’
Quite. Not since the days of Sex and the City or Gossip Girl has the wardrobe of a TV character become such a talking point. But while those shows dealt with aspirational Manhattanites knocking back cocktails, our small screen style icon is now a hairpin-wielding assassin and self-confessed psychopath. Go figure. For de Gaye, Villanelle’s fashionable appeal lies in her ‘chameleon-like character: she’s hidden in plain sight, but she’s also always fairly flamboyant.’ When dressing Comer for the role, the designer’s first task was ‘to try to think of different kinds of looks, so that the audience would always be guessing as to what on earth she was going to turn up in next, so that they could never pin her down.’ On that count, she’s certainly succeeded. From a lace Burberry dress for a mission in the Italian countryside to a ruffled JW Anderson leather jacket in Berlin, to the androgynous, harlequin-print Dries van Noten suit worn for a murderous foray into that city’s club scene, Villanelle’s outfits meld almost perfectly into her surroundings, but always have a showy sting in the tail. ‘She’s almost daring people [through her clothes]. She’s saying, “I’m obviously here, just try and catch me,”’ de Gaye reckons.
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After each kill, we see Villanelle adding to the cache of designer clothes stored in her shabby chic Parisian apartment (were she not preoccupied with all that murder – and with Eve, the woman tracking her – you imagine she’d make a very good lifestyle blogger or Instagram influencer). Bringing her upscale style to life on a TV budget was no mean feat. ‘Sometimes it was stuff I found in Selfridges, but some of it was charity shop stuff: the leather jacket she’s got on the motorbike in Italy, for example,’ explains de Gaye. For some specific pieces, her team would reach out directly to the designers. ‘With the Molly Goddard dress, rather than buying it from Dover Street Market at vast expense, [they] could go and talk to Molly about the show and the character… and get a little bit of a discount,’ she recalls. The relationship with Goddard came full circle at London Fashion Week this season, when Jodie Comer sat front row at her catwalk show. Comer, who de Gaye has previously dressed for a very different role –a medieval princess in period drama The White Princess - was ‘great fun to work with,’ making for ‘quite a playful process.’
If Villanelle has a wardrobe worthy of an Instagram it-girl, harried MI6 agent Eve is her sartorial antithesis. ‘One of them is so ultra-conscious of what they look like, and the other just never gives it a moment’s thought,’ says de Gaye. ‘There’s a really nice contrast between those characters: how they express themselves through their clothes, or how they don’t, in the case of Eve.’ It follows, then, that Eve’s clothes have rather less glamorous origins. She wears ‘odd jackets and fleece suits’ in fifty shades of greige, mostly sourced from ‘Uniqlo, C&A – which is still going in France – and some charity shops on Golders Green Road. She’s someone who leaves everything in the corner of the room when she takes it off.’
Fashion, de Gaye says, is ‘embedded in Killing Eve, it’s in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s interest herself,’ so style is anything but superficial. Clothing can be a power play, and just as Eve thrives in Villanelle’s reflected glamour, the killer is fascinated by Eve’s dowdiness. When Eve does, briefly, get her fashion moment, it’s a turning point in their twisted cat-and-mouse game. After stealing her foil’s suitcase on a recce to Berlin, Villanelle replaces fleeces and anoraks with expensive designer clothes, luxuries that Eve would never dream of wearing. When the missing case is returned – and when Eve, intrigued, tries on a black and white evening dress from this glamorous haul – it’s almost as if Villanelle has seen something in her enemy that no one else can. ‘She chooses the dress very carefully. We got one of those Roland Mouret dresses, which are very tailored and fitted, so you can see her figure, which all this time has been disguised,’ says de Gaye. ‘Villanelle can see with this X-ray vision: she can see the beauty in Eve.’
She’s right. Both Villanelle and Killing Eve are hyper-aware of how women perceive one another, of the subtle messaging of their style choices. Yes, we want to wear Villanelle’s fluoro Molly Goddard, but we’re equally fascinated by why she’s wearing it – and that’s precisely why the show’s style feels so exciting. It’s on-screen fashion seen through a gaze that’s unapologetically female.
Killing Eve airs at 9.15pm on Saturdays on BBC One and is available to stream in full on BBC iPlayer