Dissecting artistic talent can be a slippery, elusive thing. Its often difficult to articulate what draws you in to the the work of a specific person, what it says to you, why you like it, what it means- all those Big Questions. Jason Alper's genius is that he is completely fluent in the language of clothing- and he's goddamn hilarious. He met Sasha Baron Cohen in a friend's apartment in London 12 years ago and they have been collaborating ever since.
How rare is the artist who is interesting and compelling to both the casual observer and the savant. Whether youre a fashion designer or someone with no interest in clothes at all, you completely understand what he's saying.
And a few questions:
LM: How does the collaboration with Sasha work?
JA: We come up with the characters together- he comes up with certain elements- the way the charcter acts and talks, and I come up with the costumes and the visual element.
LM: So what was the first character you came up with?
JA: The first character we created was Bruno actually. And the joke was that he would never be able to get into any actual fashion shows. But we realized that theres actually just as much material to work with without the whole show element.
LM: Do you have any formal design or fashion training?
JA: Ive been doing this for 20 years now. and working with Sasha for 12. I worked in theaterical costumes for 3 years. All kinds of clothing from the 1700s to modern day, that was my training. And then at 21 I went freelance and have been freelance ever since. It feels crazy, but I guess you could say Ive made it. 12 years ago I met Sasha, and we started doing characters. And it worked with Sasha from day one.
LM: Yeah! Id say its working quite well. So you travel with Sash on set?
JA: Well there are no sets. Everything is a real life situaion and everyone is oblivious to whats going on. All the situations are real. We have the luxury of not having loads of people around all the time. You don’t even know that were making a movie. Sasha literally has a camera on his lap at certain points. We don’t even have lights! It not a big budget Hollywood film kind of experince. Id liken it more to film school, which I ve never been to. Im so lucky to have a project like this that’s a blank canvas. Im much happier doing something like that than a period drama- theres nothing new there.
LM: Did you always want to go into fashion?
LM: Did you always want to go into fashion?
JA: No, I left school at 16, I wasn’t very academic and I didn’t really fit in. Both my parents are hairdressers and I discovered that I can cut hair. So I did hairdressing for a couple years and then I became a window dresser at this high-end clothing store where I met the costume designer for Batman. So I talked to him and told him you know I love clothes but I don’t like working in retail, how can I get to do what you’re doing? And they told me to go see a guy called Tim Angel at a costume house called Angels. So I went on my lunch break and he basically offered me a job. So I worked there for a couple of years and then I moved to another costume shop. From there I kind of moved into a production company and I’ve always kind of worked and did a bunch of British TV shows and other things. And then I met Sasha, he was an out of work actor and we talked and we created these characters Ali G, Borat, and Bruno. And we’ve worked together now for about 12 years and it’s just been brilliant and I’ve been very lucky. Just very lucky that we got to come to America and everyone liked it.
LM: Are there more characters that you guys made together?
JA: No, those were the 3 characters and now we’ve made 3 movies together and I think it’s time and we all need a little bit of time away from each other. I wouldn’t be surprised if we did more together in the future, but at the moment everyone is doing their own thing.
LM: What’s your starting point with a character? Do you have an idea based on a person or do you sketch or drape?
JA: Yeah, well let’s say its Ali G. There was a DJ called Armin Van Buren, and his style was kind of what Ali G was modeled after, his clothes kind of idolized Ali G. There always needs to be some kind of repeated element. Something to make the character iconic. For Bruno, it was the Zac Efron style hair, and the fact that none of his shirts would have sleeves. For Ali G, I put him in yellow glasses and always covered his hair. This was also so that no one would be able to tell what race he was- that his race was ambiguous was important. Most things I’m working on I have a very specific idea about, but sometimes there is a lot of searching to find the right look.
LM: So did Bruno have a specific person that was like a starting point?
JA: No, he actually didn’t. When we started Bruno actually had crimped blonde hair and a tiny mustache. And then he had a faux-hawk.
LM: And did you sketch or sew any of the garments?
JA: I can if I have to. It’s like life or death if I have to. But I’ve gotten to the point now where it’s a luxury really and I’ve got people that help me make things. When I made the green bathing suit for Borat I didn’t want it to look like a costume. I’ve just gotten very lucky and gotten great seamstresses. One really great one who made the Velcro costume for Bruno. Bruno probably had around 100 different costumes so there was a lot to do.
LM: How many of those costumes did you design and create? And how many did you find?
JA: I would say about half and half. I found a few things and I would fit them and cut out the crotch and I designed the rest. Most of the things Bruno would wear I would find on the sale rack in designer stores. So I got lucky in that aspect. But some of it is very instinctual. When I go shopping I am very picky because I know exactly what I am looking for.