How I May Destroy You Channeled East London’s Vintage-Heavy Fashion Scene

Rachel Tashjian
·5 mins read

Twenty-somethings in London have a special relationship with fashion and style. Some of fashion’s foremost rapscallions and tastemakers were educated there—Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, and Phoebe Philo, most famously—and the design school Central Saint Martins’s Fashion East shows are biannual talent-scouting sessions for the next out-there star. But there’s also something unique about the way young people in the area, especially those with limited budgets, insist on developing offbeat personal style.

“They’re literally constructing their identity through their clothes,” says Lynsey Moore, the costume designer of Michaela Coel’s hit HBO show I May Destroy You, of the stylish East London 20-something characters in the series. “They like to say, ‘This is who I am. This is me.’ And it’s about expressing themselves and feeling comfortable in your own skin. These aren’t people who have got masses of money. It’s not about going out and spending money for the sake of having lots of expensive clothes. It’s about finding pieces that show who they are and their creativity and their arty side.”

“The cheaper the item is—secondhand, vintage, charity shop—it’s sort of more desirable,” says Moore, who first worked with Coel on her 2015 television show Chewing Gum. “It’s one of a kind; you’ve made this cool. And in that way, it sort of has a bit of a status to it.” Moore says she dresses “very differently” from Coel; the pair “have very different styles and ways of expressing ourselves through our clothes.” But they’re both interested in “narratives that we haven’t seen before. Something new.”

To call I May Destroy You “something new” is an understatement—the show is a hilarious, surreal, painful, and sometimes unbelievable sensorial experience. The pacing, plot lines, casting, and soundtrack of grime and Grimes alike create a totally original universe—Coel asked for a sublime amount of creative control—with the costumes a vibrant aspect of the show’s originality. Here, Moore walks us through four of the show’s best costumes, explaining how she translated East London’s stylish grit for the screen. This article contains mild spoilers.

The Anti-Influencer Influencer Uniform

Although Arabella eventually devolves into an attention-addicted social media influencer, you won’t see her in Fila Disruptors or floral onesies. That's on purpose, Moore says. “She doesn’t necessarily feel like she’s a part of that world. She feels like she’s slightly grittier.” We first meet Arabella in a worn-in T-shirt, sweatpants, and a funky-faux-fur blue-and-red jacket that clashes with her candy pink wig. Moore and Coel tried to use as much vintage as possible: “Mixing old stuff with new to create something completely different. Hopefully you can watch this show in five or ten years, and she’ll still look cool because it’s not necessarily rooted in 2020. It’s a look of her own signature.”

<h1 class="title">Arabella (Coel) in her worn-in T-shirt and favorite vintage fur that clashes with her pink wig. Photograph courtesy of HBO.</h1>

Arabella (Coel) in her worn-in T-shirt and favorite vintage fur that clashes with her pink wig. Photograph courtesy of HBO.

“Power Dressing” for a Public Takedown

Arabella is an unapologetic extrovert, and at times she dresses like it’s her divine right (and perhaps duty to her fans and followers) to put on clothes that say something. “She’s very aware of everything she’s wearing,” says Moore. “We think about not only how will it look on camera, but the mindset….She’s quite edgy, she’s quite grungy, and she likes to do things a bit differently.”

<h1 class="title">Arabella (Coel) onstage to out her former love interest as a rapist, wearing a soft cardigan with military trousers. Photograph courtesy of HBO.</h1>

Arabella (Coel) onstage to out her former love interest as a rapist, wearing a soft cardigan with military trousers. Photograph courtesy of HBO.

<h1 class="title">Arabella (Michaela Coel) in green fatigue-inspired trousers and combat boots—her idea of "power dressing." Photograph courtesy of HBO.</h1>

Arabella (Michaela Coel) in green fatigue-inspired trousers and combat boots—her idea of "power dressing." Photograph courtesy of HBO.

For example: Arabella’s chunky boots and cardigan when she takes to the stage at a literary conference to out a former love interest (and fellow writer) as a rapist. Moore says she wanted to create a version of power dressing for Arabella that didn't rely on a strong shoulder and stilettos. “She’s got these green military trousers, a big belt around her waist, and boots,” she says. “But with that, she had a very soft cardigan on, with pattern, and feminine lipstick. And that’s the way Arabella is: she takes the norm and she plays with it. Half of it is one thing, half it is the other. From that outfit, you’re not certain what she’s going to do.”

Kwame’s Faux Fur Security Blanket

Faux fur became a somewhat accidental motif over the show's run—its playfulness presents a contrast to the celluloid glamour that fur often summons, and it works as a sort of security blanket. Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), the show’s male lead, wears big teddy jackets throughout the season, funky toppers to his stylish shy-guy wardrobe. “Kwame is an interesting one because at the beginning, he’s very out there and enjoying life,” Moore says. “A lot of the time he’s just wearing sweatshirts and trousers and trainers, which is very generic for men,” Moore says, “but by shortening the trousers just slightly, and putting the hat higher on the head, it completely changes it. This is someone who deliberately wore these things in this way to look different.”

<cite class="credit">Courtesy of HBO</cite>
Courtesy of HBO

Kwame’s Beanie-Bucket Hat Dialectic

<h1 class="title">Kwame (Essiedu), on the left, sets aside his beanies to try something new with bucket hats. Photograph courtesy of HBO.</h1>

Kwame (Essiedu), on the left, sets aside his beanies to try something new with bucket hats. Photograph courtesy of HBO.

“How [Essiedu] wears the beanie on his head, and the pops of color [it creates], just seem to create Kwame,” Moore says. After he’s sexually assaulted, though, “he goes through a journey—not as big a journey as Arabella does, but he starts trying different things, and he experiments with being heterosexual.” Enter: the bucket hat. By the end of the season, he’s returned to something of his previous style, though in richer colors like navy and mustard. “He’s not matured, but he’s gone through something and learned about himself.”

Originally Appeared on GQ