THE EMPIRE STRIKES A POSE
The sketchbooks of stellar costume designer John Mollo are up for auction. Philip Wilson seizes the opportunity to view the initial drawings of Darth Vader’s iconic look
HOW DO YOU create the look for one of the most celebrated villains in film history? According to the costume designer John Mollo, it can sometimes be a matter of assembling wildly different elements from stock clothing in a costumier’s. ‘For Darth Vader, I had to go to three departments: the ecclesiastical department for a robe, the modern department for a motorcycle suit and the military department for a [Second World War] German helmet and gas mask. We cobbled it all together and there was Darth Vader.’
Mollo’s characteristic nonchalance about realising his designs – for the film he initially described as ‘a sort of space western’ – belies the amount of work that goes into visualising an entire world from the imagination, long before the actual costume fittings. His name may not be as familiar as that of George Lucas, Richard Attenborough or
Stanley Kubrick, but his contribution to films such as Star Wars, Gandhi and Barry Lyndon was fundamental. Now, the personal sketchbooks of this double-oscar winner, containing costume designs for these films and others, are up for sale at Bonhams in London.
One, with an estimate of £80,000-£120,000, includes hand-drawn details of the mechanics of Darth Vader’s helmet, plus sketches of Chewbacca’s hirsute look, Princess Leia’s full-length white gown, and the stormtroopers’ armour. Initial doodles and finished designs sit alongside scribbled meeting notes, phone numbers, budgets, schedules – even the odd shopping list.
Tom Mollo, the designer’s son, remembers his father as being ‘a man of boundless imagination, but he never forgot the practical side of costume design – that actors had to be able to move and breathe and speak their lines as well.’
One such actor, Sir Alec Guinness, was an early fan of Mollo’s work. The designer was called upon by Lucas to help to convince the initially reluctant Guinness to play the part of the Jedi master Obiwan Kenobi, after creating a series of sketches of a monastic brown cloak and cowl. ‘George wanted us to go and see Sir Alec with the drawings, which Guinness liked very much,’ he recalled. ‘I got the feeling that it was the costume that really sold him.’
Another sketchbook contains drawings for The Empire Strikes Back, Ridley Scott’s Alien and Douglas Hickox’s Zulu Dawn. Also on sale are Mollo’s Rotring-and-watercolour costume drawings for Gandhi (1982) and The Three Musketeers (1993), as well as Napoleonic uniforms for Kubrick’s biopic Napoleon, which was never filmed.
Tom Mollo recalls, ‘My father once said with typical understatement, “I think on the whole I did a good job.” History has surely proved him right.’ Now you can see for yourself, without needing to travel to a galaxy far, far away. Designing an Empire: The John Mollo Archive will be auctioned at Bonhams, New Bond Street, London W1, at 4pm on 11 December (sale previews on 8 and 9 December, 11am-3pm; 10 December, 9am-4.30pm; 11 December, 9-10am); bonhams.com
Initially, Sir Alec Guinness was reluctant to play Obi-wan Kenobi. ‘I got the feeling it was the costume that really sold him’
Clockwise from top left Among the lots at Bonhams is John Mollo’s sketchbook for Star Wars (1977), including costumes for Princess Leia, Darth Vader and Obi-wan Kenobi (played by Sir Alec Guinness, bottom right); estimate £80,000-£120,000. In 1978 Mollo won the best costume design Oscar for his work on the film, presented by Natalie Wood