Style

Joe Woolfe tells us how he camped up Benedict Cumberbatch for the Met Gala

We spoke to the actor’s stylist and suit-maker Joe Woolfe on the inspiration behind the delightfully OTT three-piece Labassa Woolfe suit he wore to last night's Costume Institute Ball in New York City

Every year on the first Monday in May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosts its annual Costume Institute fundraiser with its starry red carpet flooded by the most important people in the arts all trying to out-do eachother in outfits that tie into the theme of the year’s exhibition. It’s the biggest night of the American (if not global) fashion calendar, giving those lucky enough to be invited the chance to really let their creativity run wild – kind of the antidote to the enforced tuxedo-stiffness of  the Oscars.

Over the past 21 years that the event has taken place, this annual theme has sometimes been more straightforward to interpret and other times really quite a challenge. ‘Punk: Chaos to Couture’ in 2013? Relatively easy – a couple of safety pins at the very least and, boom, you’re ready to go. ‘Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology’ in  2013? Pretty tricky with a white tie dress code.

This year, the theme verged towards the latter. With the 2019 exhibition being titled ‘Camp: Notes On Fashion’, the first thing any potential guest needed to ask themselves is, ‘what is camp?’. For the most part, many of the women in attendance took their cue from Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay Notes On Camp who described it thus; ‘the essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration’. Whether feathers, sequins or multiple costume changes throughout the night (hell, on the red carpet before they even got into the venue as with Lady Gaga and Zendaya), more was definitely more.

For men, this approach was adopted with various degrees of enthusiasm, starting with Liam Hemsworth’s handsome-yet-not-at-all-fruity plain black tuxedo via Ryan Murphy’s fabulously bonkers peal-embellished cape and ending with Billy Porter dressed as a gold lamé angel being carried into the venue by six shirtless men.

Somewhere in the middle was actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who perhaps more so than any other man in attendance, masterfully trod the line between OTT and tailored wearing a three-piece off-white suit with a matching (and jauntily angled) felt trilby, cravat, velvet slippers embroidered with parrots, a cane and a encrusted tie pin. A wonderful mix of Moore-era Bond villain, studio-era Hollywood mob boss, and eccentric Gilded Age railroad millionaire. In short, brilliant – and bang-on theme.

Despite debuting the look in New York, the outfit was created here in London by tailoring house Labassa Woolfe – and the brainchild of its stylist and co-founder, Joe Woolfe. We gave him a quick call to talk to him about dressing Benedict Cumberbatch for the Met Gala, giving a subtle nod to The Avengers, and his thoughts on what makes something camp.

How did you come to design Cumberbatch’s outfit for the Met Gala?

Ben and I have been working together for over ten years. Once this year’s theme was released, we started a conversation and went to the usual kind of places, but for various reasons none of them could do it. Then we were in a bit of a pickle, as time was ticking – that was three weeks ago. So I said I’d make it for him as I knew exactly what it should be. I knew he’d only worn a cream suit once before [to the Oscars 2015], I thought that the lapels should be wide, and that the trousers should be high-waisted with pleats and big turn-ups. I thought, that’ll be a blank canvas to accessorise with lots of different things.

What was your inspiration for the look?

I had Buster Keaton and Marlon Brando on my mood board, plus some fantastic tailoring from Tommy Nutter with big wide lapels. I also had some vintage images from the 1930s. You can see this influence on the back of the jacket, where the fabric is gathered to give really beautiful accentuation of the waist. The turned-up cuffs were copied from the morning coat that he wore at his wedding.

Joe Woolfe, designer, stylist and founder of Labassa Woolfe

What was the design process like? 

We had a big conversation about ‘camp’ and about what he thought it should be. We also looked at lots of different fabrics, which we were limited with because of his vegan, sustainable stance. We ended up using this amazing English bamboo fabric from Huddersfield Fine Worsted. We’ve used this before for him – his Kilgour tuxedo for the Avengers premiere was made from this fabric.

Then I was thinking about how I could make the outfit really pop, and fulfil the ‘camp’ brief. He had to have a cane. He had to have a hat. He had to have amazing jewellery and a pocket chain. I went to see Emma Willis and together we came up with a stock shirt in pure silk, and then I went to Jaeger-Le Coultre for his watch, and Lock & Co for the hat. Ben didn’t know anything about it until Saturday when I arrived in New York with the suit. We did a quick fitting on Saturday and he said, “I love it.”

Did you choose the pin on purpose as a nod to the Time Stone in Avengers: Endgame?

It was 100 per cent intentional. I selected it from Verdura on Saturday afternoon, and as soon as he saw it he said “that’s the Time Stone”. But we actually then went away from it, and chose this big Maltese cross that went better with Sophie’s jewellery. Then we changed it back just as he was about to step into the car yesterday evening. 

What does camp mean to you?

It’s a sensibility that among other things converts the serious into the frivolous. It’s ironic, yet sincere. It’s glamorous, yet tacky. It’s so bad it’s good. It’s too much but at the same time just right. It’s stepping outside the boundaries of what people expect to see. It’s a confidence, and attitude. It’s a moment. It’s taking on another character, bigger than who you are.

Why do you think this look really nailed the brief?

Had it been a different person, it wouldn’t have worked so well. Nobody has seen Benedict looking like that before. The fact that it’s a completely new, exaggerated thing, where he’s never gone before, that fulfils the brief. Camp for me is stepping outside of your natural comfort zone, stepping outside your normal character – and that’s exactly what he did. He was just really excited. He was like a child going to a fancy dress party. And that’s camp.

Which other looks at the Met Gala were the most successful?

I liked the femininity and androgyny of Harry Styles’ outfit. Ezra Miller was great, and Ryan Murphy – that outfit was so gloriously camp with a cape that must have weighed 100 pounds. However, on the whole I thought so many guys just didn’t get it. It just wasn’t camp.

Joe Woolfe is a stylist and co-founder of tailoring house Labassa Wolfe, 6 Percy St, Fitzrovia, London W1T 1DQ. labassawoolfe.com