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  • Writer's pictureSophia Scorziello

Was Jonathan Anderson’s Costume Design in Challengers Just a Drop Shot?

Updated: May 10

Or was it a calculated take on Luca Guadagnino’s non-costume approach to costume design?

 

L-R: Zendaya, Jonathan Anderson, Josh O'Connor

When Luca Guadagnino invited then first-time costume designer Giulia Piersanti to join his 2016 film A Bigger Splash, he had a philosophy in mind. 


“With Giulia, we already thought about reality, truthfulness [and a] silhouette that could be absolutely organic to the essence of the characters through the act of clothing them,” the Italian-born director told Grazia in 2016. Piersanti was a seasoned knitwear designer but never made clothes for the big screen. She was also going to be joining Raf Simons — who was collaborating with Guadagnino for a second time — a combination that made the whole thing feel more like celebrity styling than costume designing. For Guadagnino, that’s sort of what he wanted. 


“Working with designers can lead you to do something absolutely organic and truthful. So naturally, I prefer to work this way,” Guadagnino added. So with his team of designers including Piersanti, Simons, and Pieter Mulier of Alaïa, he forged an “organic, unimposing wardrobe” for Tilda Swinton’s Marianne Lane. 


For his 2018 film Call Me By Your Name, Guadagnino tapped Piersanti again to convey a similar sense of costume-lessness. Inspired by photographs, films, and magazines from 1980s Italy, she set out to create looks that reinforced Timothée Chalamet’s Elio and Armie Hammer’s Oliver authentic summer-in-Crema looks. The result was short shorts and loose-collared shirts – a kind of wardrobe that didn’t distract from the painful love story unfolding on the screen. “I wanted to avoid the characters looking too ‘costumey,’ like one of those bad Italian TV movies,” Piersanti told the New York Times in 2018. 


That same year, Piersanti also costumed Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, where she utilized vast amounts of red; locks of real human hair; knotted rope; and prints filled with physiological images. In part, it was costumey, dramatic, and shocking, but felt fitting for an homage to Dario Argento’s slightly campy and fantastical 1977 original. 


Then, in Guadagnino’s 2022 cannibal romance film Bones and All, Piersanti opted for a slouchy, slightly pre-grunge ‘80s wardrobe with a color palette that was specifically “muted to blend in with the landscape.” The clothes looked like borrowed, used afterthoughts, lending to the transient and messy journey of Taylor Russell and Chalamet’s characters. 


When the time came to costume Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist in his high-stakes, high-heat tennis drama Challengers, Guadagnino didn’t turn to Piersanti. Instead, he turned to Jonathan Anderson. 


“I saw the first JW Anderson collection, and I was like, What the fuck? It was a revelation. Bertolucci said that when Stravinsky played The Rite of Spring, things changed forever, ” Guadagnino said of his love for Anderson in W Magazine this April.


Guadagnino praised Anderson, but never made clear why he didn’t return to Piersanti. It would have marked the pair’s fifth film in a row together as costume designer and director, and, at a glance, Challengers does deliver the same organic style of the duo's previous collaborations. So how (and where) did Anderson fit in? 



In Challengers’ outfitting, Anderson hones in on branding and simple design. One could call it quiet luxury. But here, camel sweaters and leather Loewe Flamenco bags are more than just covert displays of wealth — they’re covert displays of calculation. 


This is something lead tennis prodigy Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) is no stranger to. Be it posing for photo opps, getting plastered onto billboards and posters, or playing in front of screaming crowds, Tashi’s life revolves around developing a brand and image around her success on the court. Take the early scene where she revises the billboard of her and Art, adding an “s” to the word “challenger.” It’s just one example of Tashi rescripting the narrative of their relationship and her own legacy through the smallest of changes. 


So even as tennis stars like Serena Williams have been pushing the boundaries of simple tennis whites for over two decades (see: U.S. Open 2004), Tashi serves away in plain-Jane looks, solid colors, and a Stanford sweatshirt. The looks are simple and classic, yes, because so is Tashi in the public eye.


Serena Williams, 2000s

Off the court, the story remains the same. Some have even gone on to box the looks in Challengers into the “normcore” category. Tashi’s look is clean and sharp and always made complete with dainty gold jewelry. Throughout the film, her looks remain simple, from the strapless blue mini dress look to the later black sheer turtleneck, slacks, and Chanel slip-ons. 


Tashi’s style reflects earlier JW Anderson looks that heralded a sort of refined style, evident in elongated, rectangular silhouettes and heavy use of corporate blues and neutrals. Looking closely at the aforementioned black turtleneck, the back of the shirt is striped with a single thick black line, reminiscent of a regularly used Anderson motif. 


One reason Guadagnino felt Anderson was a surefire fit as a costume designer was because he’s “savvy about the history of the silhouette.” 


The aesthetic pillars of quiet luxury or old money relate to traditional displays of white Anglo-American wealth. In these groups, style was — and still is — reinforced dress codes, particularly in country clubs or corporate settings. In Anderson’s work, particularly at JW Anderson, there is a noted regard for those ideals. Often, he perverts fitted tailoring and normcore fashion, almost poking fun at its simplicity (see: his 2024 spring claymation collection or his 2015 ready-to-wear big button, big tie, big hat collection). Sometimes, he revels in it (see: his tightly-tailored debut 2011 fall collection, which was fitted on a boy.) With Tashi, he leans into it. 





“As she climbs the ladder, she wants to own everything she’s got, so the goal is power. And power means how you control your life, how you control other people’s lives, how you control your look, and how you make your look be the definitive answer to the world,” Anderson told W, further explaining that Tashi “...is proof that there is something about success that ultimately makes people go toward conformity.” He added, “As you become more successful, you get to this point where everyone else who is successful has the same luggage, or the same jewelry. They all aspire to this same thing, which becomes slightly generic.” Tashi isn’t the kind to risk tarnishing the empire she’s built by stepping out of the box. Instead, she plays it safe, opting for identifiable markers of clean-cut success.


Mike Faist

The same goes for her little white boys. Whether Art (Faist) and Patrick (O’Connor) like it or not, their triangular friendship-slash-romance-slash-feud always seems to play out in Tashi’s favor. When Tashi realizes Patrick won’t let her marionette his tennis career, she moves on to Art. When she starts losing a grip on Art’s career, Patrick shoulders it back to her. And when she wants to see them both makeout with each other, well, she makes that happen too. Not to mention, that all happens in the shadows: of an Applebee’s parking lot, the backseat of a car, a hotel room, a secluded beach alcove. 


The repeated branding in Art’s later looks lends to Tashi pulling strings in their relationship. As the one who says she’s leaving Art if he doesn’t win the match, Art is just “a vessel for whatever you want him to be,” Anderson said to W. “So if he’s going to be Adidas, he is Adidas; if he’s Uniqlo, he is Uniqlo. There is no aesthetic — it is just whatever is there.” 


On the other hand, Patrick’s JFK Jr.-esque style represents calculated messiness. In one scene later in the timeline, Tashi scolds Patrick for pretending to be a starving athlete when he could run his parents for money at any time. He could dress like Art if he wanted to, but his stubbornness leaves him in poorly matched plaid shorts and a 2000s-era-looking tank top. “There is a cockiness to him,” Anderson said to W. “This way of putting clothing together that becomes quite seductive, because he’s so used to taste that even if it’s put together badly, it somehow looks good.”



While the costume design in this grand slam spectacular might look simple, it can be argued that Tashi, Art, and Patrick’s clothes are choicely crafted to reflect the dynamics of the trio without impeding too much on the characters and plot. Aesthetically, Challengers follows suit with Guadagnino’s fashion designer approach to organic wardrobes. Still, the question that remains is: why was Piersanti, current head of knitwear at Celine, not tapped to pull this off? Was Anderson’s take on non-costume costuming a true unique derivative of his philosophy surrounding tradition and refinery? Was it a lackluster drop shot to get Angerson over the net and into the film world as he joins Guadagnino for the director’s upcoming film Queer? Could it just have been a way to Trojan Horse brands, including his own, into the film? Or did Guadagnino just decide early on that costumes were partly cannon fodder in a film where clothing is half optional? 🌀 


 

Sophia Scorziello is a freelance writer from Connecticut who misses living in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter for unsolicited takes and Spotify links. 

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