How Altered Carbon’s costume designer created the fashions for its futuristic world

The first season of Netflix’s Altered Carbon began streaming on February 2nd. It’s the company’s answer to some of its competitors’ big-budget science fiction shows like The Expanse or Westworld. But in this case, it’s a civilization coping with a technology that allows them to escape death, downloading people’s minds from one body to the next.

While the show has its roots in Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 dark cyberpunk novel, and certainly carries some of the aesthetics of stories like Blade Runner, the show’s designers worked to make sure that it had its own unique look and feel. That includes the show’s costumes, which costume designer Ann Foley says helps tell the story in their own way. I recently spoke with Foley about her work on the show, in designing costumes both for far-future action and for specific storytelling.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What does designing costumes for Altered Carbon entail?

I am responsible for working with the creators of the show and the directors to create a concept and look for the show, and then bring it to life. It’s also bringing the right crew — I was really blessed on this particular project. I had one of the most amazing crews to help bring this complicated world to life. I think we fit probably over 2,000 costumes over the course of the show, and then custom-made somewhere in the realm of 500 pieces or more.

Image: Netflix

How did you go from the basic idea of Altered Carbon to the finished products?

At the very beginning, when I interviewed for the show, I did a presentation, and then we figured out what kind of visual story we wanted to tell for this world. Then we went straight into illustrating. From the illustrations, you start building the costumes. But also at the same time, a lot of what we do is right there on the page. We’re trying to help tell a story as well with the visuals, and so we’re trying to help create characters. We could really do some wonderful character development with the costumes over the course of those 10 episodes, and that’s really what I tried to do.

Laeta [Kalogridis] wrote a beautifully nuanced script, with multiple meetings about where we wanted to go with these characters, and what were we trying to tell, subtly. What sort of things are we going to try to tell the audience, even subliminally? At the same time, the show is super stunt-heavy, so you’re trying to work with those limitations. I worked really closely with the stunt department to make sure that the actors and the players have freedom of movement with their clothes, and that they can do what they need to do. The null-gee fight is a really great example. When I was designing the null-gee suits, freedom of movement was at the forefront of my mind when it came to picking out fabrics, and when it came to the design itself.

Image: Netflix

What kind of fabrics did you pick out for that fight?

The null-gee fight suits were actually made out of a printed Eurojersey, which is a four-way stretch. The base of it is white, and we then printed the color and pattern onto it to give it a really cool texture and definition, so it becomes a very specific fabric to our world. Then the vests they wore were made out of leather, but also had stretch elements in them, so they moved with the body. And we used wrestling boots we found online, and altered them so the actors didn’t have to worry about their feet while doing wire-work.

How did you balance your aesthetics between styles that are recognizable to the audience, and conveying that this is the future?

This is a part of a very big conversation we had at the beginning of the show. We wanted to keep the look very grounded. It’s only 300 years in the future, and we wanted people to be able to relate to the clothes, but we didn’t want it to feel like other science fiction films out there. When you look at men’s pants, for example, they have changed over hundreds of years, but they’re still recognizable as men’s pants. So we played with silhouette and style lines and certain things.

One of my favorite things in film is when you use the past to design the future. I think the first Blade Runner did that beautifully, as did Gattaca, so I tried to play with those sorts of elements.

Image: Netflix

Visually, the show owes a lot to Blade Runner. How important is that aesthetic to a project like this?

I didn’t actually rewatch the first Blade Runner before I went into this — I only had a memory of it — so it wasn’t a direct visual that we were using. There are worse things to be compared to, but when you’re doing anything set in the future, there’s always going to be that sort of comparison.

Speaking of those wrestling boots, how much did you modify existing items, vs. entirely original creations?

I was trying to come up with that number earlier — we probably fit over 2,000 people over the course of these 10 episodes. When you’re dealing with that many people, sometimes you have no choice but to work with items that are currently available in stores. The challenge was sending them to the work room where we would try to modify them so there was always something a little different. We always played with the collars of the shirts, the lapels and jackets, and then we would style pieces, and mix and match.

Image: Netflix

We stuck to a very specific palette for the Meths [the show’s upper class], because they live above the clouds. We decided to use a palette very much like a cloud: sheer and light material, silvers, golds, ivories, light blues. Then we played with certain types of clothing. Some of the men are actually wearing women’s clothes, but you would never know from the way we styled it or modified the garment.

And then there were times when I just made the garments. I would say 95 percent of Miriam Bancroft’s dresses were custom made. Laurens Bancroft was 98 percent custom made. The only thing we didn’t make for him was his shoes.

The show features characters who switch bodies, and at one point, Miriam’s daughter inhabits her mother’s body. How do you use costumes to convey the sense of the same person being in different bodies?

That was an interesting conversation I had with Laeta, because I was like, “Okay, so she is going to be in her mother’s sleeve.” [“Sleeve” is the show’s slang term for tradeable bodies.] “Do we keep her in the same dress? Did she have the wherewithal to create a duplicate dress?” You see Miriam go out, and as her daughter comes in another door, we wanted Kovacs to be confused, because that was the first indicator that something was going on. We changed the jewelry, which is something so subtle that I’m not sure the audience would pick up on it: she’s not wearing her mother’s wedding ring, and her earrings were different.

That’s an interesting challenge, because you literally have the same characters jumping from body to body.

Absolutely. The interesting thing about the show is that technology, and what that means, when the body is basically a sleeve. Everything that makes you who you are is in that stack [the device in the show that stores a human consciousness.] You can jump into a new body if your body is destroyed, which is what the Meths do as their as their sleeves age. Or in Miriam’s case, she has different sleeves for different purposes. When she goes to seduce Kovacs, her sleeve is customized to have all of these different pheromones in it. The bodies become another accessory, like a piece of jewelry, or a suit, or another dress.

The Praetorian Guards have the series’ most science fiction-y costumes. How did you go about designing those?

I worked really closely with the director of the pilot, Miguel Sapochnik, and I also had an amazing concept illustrator, Keith Christiansen. We talked about what we wanted to convey. When these guys burst into the room in the pilot, I didn’t want the audience to know whether they were human or aliens, not until one takes his helmet off.

Image: Netflix

The other important aspect was protecting the stack at all costs, so they have this really cool neckpiece that I called the “stack protector.” Those were important elements when we went into concept design. For the helmet, it needed to be something that could fit a bunch of different stunt guys. It probably has about 30 pieces in it, made from a couple of different media: some pieces were molded and cast, or 3D printed, and then it had working lights and sound. They also had to have some air flow to keep these guys from getting too claustrophobic. The body itself was made out of a soft urethane that was printed to look like metal.

Image: Netflix

We brought in this incredible company called Ironhead Studios, and we worked with them to create a costume that the stunt guys could move and fight in, and still be safe. It was great, because they had padding underneath the armor for fighting, but the body armor acted like a stunt pad as well.

I’m a big fan of hard-armor costumes, and the helmets in particular were interesting to me. They’re skeletal and don’t have visors or anything, and I’ve never seen anything like them before.

That’s probably the best compliment I’ve ever gotten, thank you. That was actually important to me when I started working with Keith. We wanted to come up with something nobody’s seen before. That’s hard to do with the video game world.

Are you seeing advances in the costuming world that you were able to put to work here?

TV is turning into something else altogether. I feel like this is where the interesting content is now: you’re seeing feature-film-level costumes, production design, and visual effects on television. I am noticing that a lot of shows are moving toward building more costumes and creating these really cool universes, and very specific looks to their shows. It’s so much fun, and it’s not just specifically the period shows like The Crown or Downton Abbey, or science fiction shows like Black Mirror or Star Trek: Discovery. They’re creating these beautiful costumes and these amazing new worlds, and it’s really fun to watch.

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