There’s a scene about half-way through Call Me By Your Name—the new film by Luca Guadagnino—when the young protagonist Elio (played by Timothée Chalamet) sneaks into the room of Armie Hammer’s Oliver, a graduate student staying at his parents’ Italian villa, and places his head inside one of Oliver’s swimsuits. The scene displays Elio’s tense romantic longing and adolescent frustration, but another feature about the strangely-sweet moment stands out—the swim trunks are perfect. They’re a classic shade of red, a bit short, and squarely ’80s. You probably wouldn’t want to put them on your head, but they’ve got the nostalgic vibe that is so resonant in fashion in 2017.
The person responsible for Call Me By Your Name’s pitch-perfect style is costume designer Giulia Piersanti, who is rapidly making a name for herself in the cinematic world. Call Me By Your Name is only Piersanti’s second film, but her first was Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, one of the most stylish movies of 2015. And her day job? Knitwear designer at Céline (with previous stints at Balenciaga, Dior Homme, and Missoni), which prepares her well for the role. Piersanti is already signed on for Guadagnino’s next film.
Though the swim trunk-sniffing is one of the more striking examples, Call Me By Your Name is full of scenes where the clothing rises above mere adornment. Close-ups in the film are not limited to the actors—the camera lingers on those bright swimsuits and billowy button-down shirts throughout. The clothes, particularly the ones worn by Chalamet and Hammer, are the perfect uniform for their dreamy Italian summer.
Call Me By Your Name arrived at Sundance an immediate festival darling and has now transitioned into a full-fledged awards contender. As the film makes its way into theaters, Piersanti gives us insight into her process.
GQ Style: How collaborative is the costume designing process? Both with the director and with the actors?
Giulia Piersanti: We usually discuss the characters’ backgrounds, surroundings and any information we want to say about them, Then I go on to making a wide visual research and color palette. I then search for vintage [pieces] to create the looks for each character to match my research, and make some pieces from scratch where we needed to achieve something specific I have in mind but can’t find. Then we discuss ideas with actors and Luca during fittings.
The film is such a great immersion into this Italian summer in the 1980s. How did you go about crafting the overall look of the costumes and clothing in the film for this period and place?
Visual research came from some of my own family photo albums of my parents—especially for Elio and his parents and friends—but also actual local families from where we were shooting for the background town people. Some research came from fashion magazines and movies of the time. I grew up between Rome and L.A. and was able to have a full understanding of these very different characters and their fashion.
There’s so much happening between the characters internally. How do the costumes act an extension or lens into their personalities and feelings?
Through repetition of some key costumes we managed to be very clear about what we wanted to tell about them. From the beginning, I wanted the costumes to be very subtle and not be too present, and the look to be on point but without the period to disturb the viewer from “feeling” and experiencing the story. Choosing pieces that still feel relevant in our wardrobe today so not to pop up too much. I tried to avoid ’80s cliché as much as possible. I also wanted to communicate a sense of summer heat and sensuality very subtly.
A few pieces of clothing are very significant to the story and film. Can you talk about Oliver’s swimsuit that Elio discovers, and the shirt that Oliver gifts to Elio? How did you approach these pieces?
A hint from Andrè Aciman’s book [Call Me By Your Name] was that Elio thinks to read into Oliver’s emotions by his ever changing swimsuits all in different colors, so we simply played around that. Another piece taken from the book is Oliver’s “billowy” shirt which he gives to Elio. Here I wanted to play with proportions so to make Oliver’s shirt be much bigger and looser on Elio since Oliver has such an American statuesque look compared to everyone else in the town.
What’s the story behind the patterned shorts that Elio often wears? Are there any other pieces that were personal favorites of yours?
I looked at early Bruce Weber photographs and often found these sorts of swimsuits with bold prints on them and faded as if left over from past summers—as if they always belonged to the house through time. The shirt Elio wears in the last scene is one of my favorites. I like the print and how different he looks in it.
Not being a traditional costume designer, what appeals to you about the role and the work?
I love collaborating with Luca and actors to create characters and telling a story through clothing. Luca and I have been friends for many years and share many interests. It is such an amazing and fun opportunity for me to immerse myself into his world and evade my everyday work.
How does your work in contemporary fashion design inform your work as a costume designer? Has your work in costume design influenced your design work?
As a designer I am used to recreating a memory or a specific look, and the process I use to get this through research and the love for fashion, music, art and life is the same I use to create a character or mood in film costume. I find the two to be very similar.