The Rough and Tumble Fashion of The Bikeriders

An exclusive Q&A with costume designer Erin Benach.

Inspired by Danny Lyon’s photobook of the same name, Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders follows the life of a Chicago biker gang from the '60s to the '70s. Centered on the complex relationship between Kathy (Jodie Comer), the young biker Benny (Austin Butler) she falls in love with, and the Vandals’ leader Johnny (Tom Hardy), the film dramatizes how the gang moved from a spirit of freedom and rebellion into something much darker.

To give the gang its unique style, Nichols turned to his longtime collaborator, costume designer Erin Benach. Defining the personality of each character within the Vandals’ vocabulary of leather and denim, Benach brought back the passion and style of that period. The film, writes The Wrap, is "costumed to nonchalant perfection by” Benach.

So we had her talk us through her creative process and how she tailored each character’s look to capture the period and person.

The Bikeriders opens in theaters June 21, so get tickets now!

Official trailer for The Bikeriders

This is your third film with Jeff Nichols. How did he tell you about it?

It’s always such a treat to work with Jeff, because he's so great at knowing the psychology of all the characters and being able to communicate that to me. He told me about this project years ago, before it had been green-lit. At the time, I told him, “You know that I will definitely be doing the project because there is nothing more fun on the planet than what you're describing right now.”

What was your biggest creative challenge?

My largest creative challenge was defining distinct characters within a uniformity of leather and denim. We also had to create all the patches from scratch. We couldn’t use the patches we found in research due to copyright issues. We worked with a graphic designer who created patch designs. Then we aged and added them to the costumes with all sorts of embroidery. Because there was so much stunt work, we had to make lots of multiples for many of the costumes.

Norman Reedus in The Bikeriders

In addition to Danny Lyon’s book, what other research materials did you use?

There was another book, Portraits of American Bikers: Inside Looking Out, that covered the Michigan chapter of the Outlaws during that period. That was really helpful in seeing the details of all the vest pieces. From that book, I got the idea of making a sort of Mexican serape blanket vest. A Life Magazine piece on the Hells Angels was really helpful for the character of Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus). The Hells Angels were doing the same thing at the same time but on opposite sides of the country and with a totally different style. They used more fur and employed very different styling elements than were used in the Midwest.

How did you dress Benny to stand out?

Benny is the ultimate “I don't care” guy. He has this incredible presence that just exudes effortlessness. In dressing Benny, we needed to make sure that he did not look like he spent a lot of time on anything or cared very much about it. There was actually a minimalist quality to his jacket and his colors. His jeans and everything else is very loosely fitted and just hangs off his body.

Tom Hardy and Austin Butler in The Bikeriders

What do we learn about Johnny from his clothes?

Johnny is the leader of the group. He was definitely influenced by Marlon Brando and characters from the '50s. So, his silhouette and his jacket needed to feel more '50s than '60s. Instead of him wearing a denim jacket over his leather, he had a separate one, which made him look different.

What about Brucie, who is played by Damon Herriman?

Brucie was a little similar to Johnny in that he had more '50s styling. He wore these great penny loafers, which were such a '50s thing to do. He wore more '50s-style shirts. His denim jacket was also a completely different version.

And Cal, played by Boyd Holbrook?

Cal, who built engines, was more mechanical and craftier than the others. I imagined that he would also sew leather on to his jacket and would go the extra mile with his outfit with more adorning and more personalization.

Mike Faist and Jodie Comer in The Bikeriders

Kathy’s look is very different from the other women who surround the gang.

It was very important to convey the idea that her strength went beyond simply going along for the ride. She was her own person and did not need to look and dress like everybody else. Jodie is so beautiful that it would have been easy to do a fun, glam '60s look with her, but I really had to hold back.

And the last character is Danny, played by Mike Faist.

He was interesting because, as the observer, he is part of and not part of this culture. He serves as a pivot character that lets us understand that there is a big wide world that has nothing to do with the gang. Danny was accepted by these guys and was part of their world, not so much that he got his own colors but he got a cut [a biker's vest]. He was allowed to put some stuff on his vest but that was as far as they would let him go.

How did you evolve your costumes to capture the changes that occurred from the '60s to the '70s?

As we leave the '60s, we definitely see a little bit more Vietnam stuff, as well as bell-bottom jeans and wider legs. Part of this is because there are more people who are not part of the gang hanging out with them. Also, in the ‘70s, the gang’s style was being emulated by more and more people as fashion.

Emory Cohen, Jodie Comer, and Austin Butler in The Bikeriders

Could you source the costumes or did you have to fabricate most of them?

The problem was that we needed so many multiples of each outfit. I would find this perfect beat-up leather jacket, but then I needed six more exactly the same. The process was a mix of sourcing and building costumes by altering and aging them to make them work.

What do you hope audiences take away?

I hope they are emotionally moved by the characters in the film.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Bikeriders Collection

Freedom Belongs to the Fearless

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