‘Succession’ Costume Designer Shares the Inspiration Behind the Show’s Pitch-Perfect Corporate Wear

September 8, 2019, 11:01 AM UTC

When it comes to Succession, it’s easy to focus on the scathing dialogue, the painfully accurate sendup of the corporate media world, or the deliciously immoral characters. So easy, in fact, that you might overlook one critical thing that allows those aspects of the show to land with such a satisfying wallop: the clothes.

Everything in the world of the Roys—the family at the show’s center—revolves around power, status, and wealth, including their wardrobes. Their clothes are carefully calibrated to do, well, what clothes do: send a message about how the wearers see themselves—as well as, try as they might to hide it, who they really are. And in the case of the HBO hit, the looks have also been designed to give viewers a sense of where the characters currently find themselves on the ever-shifting sands of the Waystar Royco hierarchy.

It’s a neat trick regardless, but particularly impressive considering that much of the series’ intrigue take place at the company—in the slick but personality-free world of boardrooms and offices, and among people wearing the usual corporate fare: suits, ties, silky blouses.

Yet the show’s costume designer, Michelle Matland, doesn’t seem to have been constrained by the boardroom mis en scene. Matland, who previously worked on films like While We’re Young and The Girl on the Train—in addition to a nine-season stint on SNL—finds ways bring nuance and quirk to the characters’ looks, bending but not breaking the unwritten rules of executive-wear.

To learn more, Fortune sat down with Matland to talk what it means to rock a statement coat in the boardroom, how suspenders can be a cry for attention, and who inspired Shiv Roy’s enviable trouser collection. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Fortune:  When you were starting on the show, where did you find inspiration about how these characters should dress and what kind of looks would fly in a company like Waystar Royco?

Michelle Matland: In the first season, we spent time sort of standing outside of News Corp and Viacom and trying to pick out who the high powered execs were and the middle management were, to get an eye for the levels and what these people were really wearing—to be actively aware of what they wear and who they were. That was kind of step number one, then we started looking into general fashion icons.

Fortune: What kind of icons?

Matland: For instance, our original idea for Shiv (Roy sibling Siobhan “Shiv” Roy, played by Sarah Snook) started with the Carolyn Bessette vision. Clean, classic, yet still conservative, but still sexy and feminine. And we wanted to really give Shiv that independent air—she wants to be independent, yet she still wants to be equal to everyone in the boardroom. In the second season, we’re looking to heighten that now that she’s away from Gil. She’s now in a battle with her brothers to succeed, so we wanted to give her a little bit more of a fashionable style. After doing a little bit of research, we brought in Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, these women who started the pants movement. That look is not only sexy and feminine, it battles the conservative world by moving her into a higher fashion level. She started to get a little less restricted and that’s when we brought in more leather, based on what we’ve read and just try to make her more modern. She’s also left the lighter, more subtle tones which we used on her in the first season, and moved into a much more high-powered look so we could see that transformation.

Shiv and Roman Roy in Succession
Shiv and Roman Roy

Fortune: Interesting. I love all those high-waisted pants you have her in. And I’ve noticed that a few of the fashion sites have had posts about Shiv being their wardrobe inspiration for fall. Does that surprise you—or were you expecting the fashion press to pick up on her?

Matland: Well, you always hope that you can help to establish a look for women that moves them into a powerful place in the workforce. We didn’t know where it was going to go, but certainly as an actor and a character she is truly an independent and that’s what we wanted to portray. She wanted to have her independence, but maintain some equality with the men and so we tried to blend that and make that happen.

Shiv Roy in the Waystar Royco offices in Season 2.
Shiv Roy in the Waystar Royco offices

Fortune: I’m sure that will sound familiar to a lot of women. As in the real corporate world, there are not many other women in the show who you see operating inside the top reaches of the Waystar Royco, though Gerri (Waystar Royco general counsel Gerri Killman, played by J. Smith-Cameron) is a notable exception. Are there parallels or contrasts in the way you think about dressing Gerri and Shiv?          

Matland: They’re completely different. Gerri’s position is to be one of the guys.  I mean she’s obviously one of the most powerful women in the show and we looked at various political women [for inspiration]. Remember way back, the Pelosi coat?

Fortune: Of course! That was big fashion moment.

Matland: Well, that was a huge moment for Gerri. [Gerri wears a red, Pelosi-esque coat early in episode 4 of Season 2.] To have that Pelosi coat, that identifiable mark of a woman of power… She’s out there in the world doing what she needs to do, not thinking about fashion so much as work and appearing like she is one of the people in the room who’s to be dealt with. 

Waystar Royco boardroom in Succession
Gerri (far right) in the Waystar Royco boardroom

Fortune: Let’s talk a little bit about the men in the show. Given that men’s corporate wear tends to be pretty limited, it seems like it could be more challenging to really differentiate their looks. How did you approach that?

Matland: Well as far as the men go, as they’re written by [creator and executive producer] Jesse Armstrong, they are so identifiable and the actors have absolutely engaged with each character, so all of the costumes very much came naturally. For example, Kendall [the second-oldest son, played by Jeremy Strong], we know that early in season 2, he’s a bit broken. So, the question is, how do we transform that into a man who is willing to get into the battle of taking his place as a leader? [To show that] we see his costumes change often. As for Roman [the youngest of the male Roys, played by Kieran Culkin], he’s a little looser. He doesn’t care in the same way what happens—he could play it any way. He’s free, or at least he’s freer. So his clothes show that. He doesn’t wear a jacket, he’s not necessarily wearing a tie. He’s more casual. And then Tom [husband of Shiv Roy, played by Matthew Macfadyen] who is of course desperate to be seen. So his clothes are a little bit more ostentatious. You know, suspenders on occasion, trying to be a little bit more seen. He wants people to be aware of him in the room, so his clothes can be a little bit more identifiable.

Kendall Roy on Succession
Kendall Roy

Fortune: And what about the man they’re all trying to impress? How do you conceive of dressing Logan [The Roy patriarch and Waystar Royco founder and CEO, played by Brian Cox]? Is his style based on a particular media mogul?

Matland: Logan is like the king. He’s like King Lear. So of course there are people like [former CBS and Viacom executive chairman Sumner] Redstone and [News Corp founder Rupert] Murdoch, but we don’t try to link him to any one person. I’d rather think of as this independent, obstinate leader. He’s in his world, in his comfort zone. He knows who he is and he has no need for pretense. So. he doesn’t have to be in one of his structured suits—if you notice, he’s often in something like a shawl collared cardigan sweater. His identity is set and he doesn’t need to dress for it. 

Logan Roy

Fortune: Which character has had the most significant fashion evolution over the course of the show?

Matland: I think the one whose change is more obvious is Greg [cousin of the Roy siblings, played by Nicholas Braun]. He came in without anything—he was buying his clothes for his first day at work at a used clothing store. And now he thinks of himself as one of them and so he is now identifying himself through his clothes, using Tom as his symbol of where to go. He’s a copycat basically. So, in terms of just the clothing, his transformation is more identifiable, but I think every character has grown and changed as the seasons and the writing has changed.

Tom and Greg in Season 2 of Succession
Tom and Greg

Fortune: There have been a few instances in the show where how a character dresses has become a significant plot or explicitly become part of the dialogue. I’m thinking about moments like when Kendall wants that particular pair of sneakers to pitch the startup he hopes to invest in, or in this season, when Shiv and Roman were making fun of Tom’s suits. How closely are you working with the writers on those kinds of scenes—because it seems like the references are so closely calibrated with the character looks you’ve created?

Matland: It all comes from the written word, so everything is dictated by Jesse. Then it comes to us and we have to interpret that through a process with the actor, what they’re thinking about the scene, with Jesse and the production. There are also a lot of legal clearances, so we can’t just put anything we want on an actor. That does put some limitations on us. For those sneakers, we tried to find something different that you wouldn’t see on just anyone in the street. 

Fortune: On the legal clearance issue—how often are you using brand-name, off-the-rack garments vs. actually making items for the show?

Matland: We use [tailors] for things like making shirts for Roman—we have suits made for Logan. And for Holly Hunter [who plays Rhea Jarrell, CEO of rival media company PGN], all of her clothes obviously had to be either custom-made or highly tailored. For someone like Gerri and for Shiv, we can buy off-the-rack and tailor it. But we don’t just go to every high-end store and just buy—we’re looking for something that fits the character and not just a high price tag.

Fortune: Is it more difficult to create interesting, layered costumes for a project where your characters are operating in the corporate world—as opposed to, say, a show set in a more creative industry or where people are wearing fewer work clothes?

Matland: The challenge is only to define them enough that you can find within the suit or the shirt or the tie something that helps to tell the story—without painting it by number. But you have to be a little bit more subtle I think, than in a more flamboyant story. 

Fortune: In the business world, there’s a lot of “uniform dressing” and wearing the same things day in and day out. Do characters in Succession repeat their outfits just like the rest of us?

Matland: The women do not repeat as much. Gerri may have on occasion—certainly not Shiv. The men, definitely, because as we know in real life, you go to your closet, you pull out what you have there. We wanted to feel authentic so yes, we try to repeat wherever we can, but for the women it’s much harder, because as you know, women don’t—if they wear their big gala gown, they’re not going to wear it to the second event. 

Read Fortune‘s ‘Succession’ Season 2 Recaps

Succession S2E4: The Gold Rush
Succession S2E3: Takeover Defense
Succession S2E2: Media Matters
Succession S2E1: Blood in the Water
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