Reem El Adl

The Master of Costume Design

Reem El Adl, renowned costume designer known for her creativity and incredible sense of style, who has been in the business for more than ten years, had never expected to end up on this career path. Over the years she has worked with a long list of celebrities and filmmakers like Karim Abdelaziz, Menna Shalaby, and Sherihan. El Adl is a professional who is intimately involved in every detail that goes into the appearance of a character. She has worked on numerous projects, both local and international, and she most recently got rave reviews as the costume design consultant for the popular Marvel show Moon Knight, directed by Mohamed Diab. eniGma’s Salma Mohamed got the chance to sit down with El Adl to discuss her career journey. Here are some excerpts from their fascinating chat.

When did you realise you wanted to pursue a career in costume design? How did you start your career?
I didn’t really know anything about costume design growing up. I always say that this career chose me. I was in the Sculpture section at the Faculty of Fine Arts but after two years I decided to transfer to the Film Institute to study Montage. My mind was in a completely different place then; very far from costume design. At the time, one of my colleagues, Yasmine Fahmy, was a wardrobe stylist and we became friends. Yasmine asked me to fill in as her assistant for a while. Since I knew the basics of filming and, thanks to my family’s strong involvement in movies, I was familiar with what goes on behind the scenes of movie sets, I was happy to oblige. I was just helping out, and didn’t fully understand what went into the job. However, as time went by, I came to love this job, and I remained her assistant for about two years, working on commercials. I then got my first job as a costume designer on a movie. I fell even more in love with the idea of costume design and working on movies. I felt it was meant to be.

What was your first movie experience like?
The film was called Oreed Khola’ (I Want a Divorce), directed by Ahmed Awad and starring Ashraf Abdelbaky, Hala Sheeha, and Sherif Ramzy. It was an easy movie, but as it was my first experience, my knowledge about the job was still not fully developed. Looking back now, I keep thinking that it seems it wasn’t real. It’s almost funny to me. I felt like a kid back then. I made a photo album to understand the plot of the movie and decide what the characters should wear. It was like homework to me. I even showed the album to Yasmine Fahmy to have her double-check for mistakes. I knew I did well considering it was my first job, but, at the same time, I didn’t believe that I was already a costume designer. I was too young, and I knew I needed more practice. So, I went to work as an assistant for Nahed Nasrallah for about a year, then I decided to travel to Italy to take costume design courses to further my knowledge in the field.

What do you pay attention to the most? What is your process like?
Ever since I started this career, the thing I love and focus on most is being realistic. When I get the script, I always try to think of how the audience will watch it, and how they will interpret it. It’s not necessary for the characters to appear beautiful or attractive, it’s more important for the characters to be real. No matter where the movie or series takes place, even if it’s a period piece, I want it to be as close as possible to reality. The exception would be in movies like Samir, Shahir & Bahir, where we were already breaking the rules of reality.

What was your experience like making Samir, Shahir & Bahir?
I made this movie a long time ago, and it’s one of my absolute favourites. I had already worked with Ahmed Fahmy, Chico, and Hesham Maged before on Waraet Shafra (Code File). It was a very fun set to be on. At that time there wasn’t much social media, so it was one of the first movies where people were talking about the costumes, as well as hair and makeup, after leaving the movie theatre. It was a turning point in my career as it was then that people started noticing my work. I love this movie so much that I always say I wish I could remake it with the knowledge and experience I have now.

Do you usually have any references for the looks you create?
I don’t necessarily look for specific references around me, I just generally put myself in the characters’ shoes. There are exceptions with some character’s looks that I need to study, and there are rules that I follow automatically. The question I get asked the most is about the difference between fashion stylists and costume designers, and my response is always that we focus on different things. The stylists follow trends, while we follow the background of the character. For example, in Wesh & Dahr (Front & Back), which took place in Tanta, I had to learn about the culture of Tanta. In other instances, there are things that I already know. It’s like I have a stock in the back of my mind of some characters that I usually use in my work.

What do you base your sketches on?
After reading the script, I base my sketches on how I see the character, and everything related to it. I sometimes even come up with a background for the character that doesn’t appear in the script. It helps me as a base for my designs. I also ask the script writer and director how they see the character, and what they based their background on, then we reach a common ground on how this character should look. A lot of things go into shaping the character and how he or she dresses.

What was it like working on Moon Knight?
It was an incredible experience; a once in a lifetime opportunity! Mohamed Diab was the mastermind behind it all. His idea of showcasing the real Egypt on an American show was amazing. We usually see the Arab world in American movies portrayed in a stereotypical, and unrealistic way. When Mohamed Diab wanted to create a realistic Egypt, he thought of me to work on the costumes of the Egyptian characters that appeared in the show. I was a costume consultant and took this as a learning experience, as a workshop really. I was thinking about what I could learn to benefit Egyptian cinema in my future work. One of the things I love doing is called the aging of fabrics. I wanted to see how it’s done.

What was it like working on Coco Chanel?
Working with Sherihan was something else. I absolutely loved working with her. Coco Chanel was the first play I ever worked on. I had some experience in theatre, but it was when I was younger and I was more of a supervisor backstage. I’m a person who tends to get nervous about most things. With Coco Chanel, they already had a costume designer, but then they decided that they wanted me instead. They called me and asked me to start working on it the next day, and I was terrified. I wanted to come up with an excuse so as not to go because I was so nervous. It was something completely new to me. But all the fear went away when I got there. Sherihan took me in and reassured me that everything would be alright. I had had some experience working on period pieces, so I had an idea of what people at that time period used to wear, but there were other major things I had to think about because it’s a play not a film. For example, I wanted to make sure I had sturdy fabrics that wouldn’t rip with the dancers. I take everything I do as a learning experience, so through Coco Chanel I learned how to dress dancers and what fabrics I need to use for them. I used this knowledge in other things I worked on that had dancers, like commercials.

What is your experience working on short films?
I love working on short films.The benefits are two ways. Short films usually are made by young people for university projects, so they focus on the essentials of making a film, like the location, the camera, the lighting, and the last thing on their mind is the costumes and hair and makeup. They often simply ask the actors to bring their own clothes. I wanted to help them, and told them that the costumes are a crucial point in filmmaking. For me, I learned how their mind works, and how they viewed filmmaking in general.

What was the biggest challenge you faced throughout your career?
I faced many challenges in everything I worked on. As I mentioned before, I’m a person who gets scared and nervous easily, so everything that happens to me is a challenge. Wahet El Ghorob (Sunset Oasis) was definitely among the hardest things I ever worked on because it took place in the 19th century, and not a lot of films of that time period had been made before. Like anything else I make, I wanted this to be believable. A big part of the show took place in Siwa, and Siwa isn’t a place we know much about historically, and talking to locals about 19th century Siwa was nearly impossible. So, I decided to base it on people in Siwa now and to imagine how they may have developed, how they would have looked at the time. I wanted it to be realistic to the audience. Another big challenge for my career was having children, I had to work while I was pregnant, and I even went into labour while filming.

What is your proudest moment?
I always say that Segn El Nesa (Women’s Prison) is probably my favourite project. It was a turning point in my career. It was one of the most difficult and challenging things I’ve made, but I learned a lot from it. Betlou’ El Roh and Wesh & Dahr (Front & Back) are the closest things to my heart right now because they are the last projects I worked on, and I can see my progress over the years through those projects.