After the death of Gotham City’s Batman, the city is thrown into chaos and disorder without the Dark Knight to protect it. That is until the team of mismatched fugitives known as the Gotham Knights band together to become its next generation of saviors! In this interview, costume designer Jennifer May Nickel discusses the Gotham Knights costumes seen on The CW series. Jennifer shares her passion for costume design and her love for Batman and Gotham City. She talks about the excitement and honor of designing costumes for iconic characters as well as the thrill of being canon in the DC universe. The conversation delves into the inspirations and approaches behind the Gotham Knights costumes for various characters, such as Turner Hayes, Duela, and the members of the Court of Owls.
Spencer Williams: I am so excited to introduce my friend, costume designer Jennifer May Nickel. Hey Jennifer!
Jennifer May Nickel: Hi, Spencer. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Spencer Williams: I’m excited to talk to you. I want to start by learning a little more about you. I did a bit of light stalking… you hold an MFA in costume design from Carnegie Mellon University. You studied in England at Oxford University. I just have to ask you, why costume design?
Jennifer May Nickel: Ever since I was little, I’ve always been drawing clothes. It is just the first thing that I took to artistically, and I’ve always loved theater, film, and television, and I didn’t quite know that it was a field that I could actually have a career in. I got into undergrad school, and my professors were seeing my drawings on the side of my notebook, and they suggested I could be a costume designer. Why don’t you just give it a try? I did some short plays, and I really fell in love with it right away. Everything clicked in place. I found my soulmate, career-wise. I wanted to stay up all night sewing, draping, designing, and painting. It was just everything I had ever wanted.
Spencer Williams: Well, you are brilliant at it, which is why I’m so excited to dive into the show Gotham Knights on CW. Admittedly, I’m not as well-versed in DC characters as I am in Marvel. However, I think there’s a universal love for Batman and Gotham City. I feel you and I both share some similar nerdy qualities in the sense that we love this world, we love comics. How does it feel to be designing costumes that carry the legacy of that Batman-related property?
Jennifer May Nickel: It is just one of the coolest feelings in the world. It still gives me goosebumps when I think about it! It’s actually been over a year ago now since I interviewed for the job. I was putting together the presentation, and for the interview, I was doing some sketches for it, and I remember thinking even if I didn’t get the job, I have the opportunity to design for Robin. As in… Batman and Robin! How amazing is that? I definitely have a reverence towards the world a lot, and I’ve been a huge Batman fan all my life, so it’s just been really quite lovely that I get to be a part of it now.
Spencer Williams: That’s so exciting. You got to design for characters that we’ve watched through decades in different iterations. That’s kind of the dream, isn’t it?
Jennifer May Nickel: Yes! It has always been my dream to design costumes for Robin and Two-Face… I got to do it.
Spencer Williams: To make it even more cool. You are now canon in the DC universe as being an haute couture fashion designer in Gotham known as May Nickel. When I saw this, I screamed. Not to brag, but I am currently interviewing an actual designer from Gotham City!
Jennifer May Nickel: That was just the best thing ever. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of myself, and also my husband too! The fact that now I’m canon in the DCU as a designer is awesome.
Spencer Williams: It’s so cool, and it’s such a great look too. What I love about Gotham, in general, is the darkness to it. I love seeing the various takes creators have brought to this world. For example, Matt Reeves’s film, The Batman, was a bit more sinister and grimy. The Dark Knight trilogy by Christopher Nolan was a bit more contemporary, and the Tim Burton films are very campy and over the top! How did you prepare in terms of developing the look for Gotham?
Jennifer May Nickel: It was really amazing how we were just all on the same page very early on in the process of the look. When I got the lookbooks from the production designers and the DP, it was very much in line with what I’d already been thinking and what the showrunners had been conveying. There is a little art deco and some Blade Runner influences, as well as some influences from the films that you just mentioned. We wanted to keep everything more grounded and realistic. It’s our own unique take on it that still pays homage to the others.
Spencer Williams: It definitely has an edge to it with some sophistication to it. Let’s get into some of our favorite characters, starting with Turner Hayes, Bruce Wayne’s adopted son. You can see some of that classic Bruce Wayne in the costume, but you still got to add a little bit of punk to it. What was your concept behind this character?
Jennifer May Nickel: There is this sense of privilege to him now because he’s had Bruce Wayne’s wealth. But at the moment in our show, since Batman is dead and Turner is now a fugitive, he doesn’t have access to the power and wealth anymore. Therefore part of him is in a place of reverting more to his past and who he used to be before he was Bruce Wayne’s son.
He doesn’t change a lot clothing-wise. He has his staple pieces that are like his comfort blankets… especially his jackets! We tried to create a universal sense of timelessness. There were vintage elements throughout the show and throughout different characters at different times. Turner’s looks tend to take on more of the 1940s and 50s worker kind of style. It has a classic feel to it.
Spencer Williams: Such a fun character. Honestly, he had my favorite costumes in terms of what I want my future looks to look like. Probably shocking to no one, my favorite character was Duela, the daughter of the Joker. I love her style. It’s very punk and reminds me of that first Blade Runner with costumes designed by Michael Kaplan. I also believe that she has a comic book background. Tell me about bringing this character into live action.
Jennifer May Nickel: In terms of her comic book background, she has such a rich, twisted character. She’s the Joker’s daughter. She would mess up her face in the comic books as a way of making herself look beautiful and paying tribute to her dad. We weren’t necessarily going to be doing that on our show. It definitely gets very gruesome! I wanted to find a way of honoring that within costumes. Any iteration of clothing that she inevitably has stolen from somewhere, she kind of funks it up in her own way. She goes and makes it her own. She would steal a $5,000 jacket and then make holes in it and add safety pins. Since she’s also a fugitive and can’t really do too much, she’s stealing the other students’ clothes from school and funking them up, and making them her own.
Spencer Williams: She is the coolest. But the Gotham Knights would not be complete without Robin. As you mentioned, this is someone you have always wanted to design costumes for. I love this look because it has a more practical take on the classic Robin look; she is not wearing tight spandex! There are still elements to it that say Robin to me, though, such as the colors. What was your approach to designing the Robin character?
Jennifer May Nickel: I wanted to make sure that she felt grounded and in our universe. She’s not just popping up in a superhero suit because that’s not where she is. Batman took her under his wing, but he was still teaching her. He was showing her the ropes, but she didn’t quite have all the tools yet. We wanted it to feel as though this is a teenage girl who is secretly, quietly doing all of this. The costumes have practicality in the sense that you would believe this is something that a teenager would’ve put together themselves. There’s also that ability to equip different things for each situation. Do you need a grappling hook? Are you going swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper? I wanted to make sure that she had the ability to change, and she also has a whole lot of pockets, which I think is essential.
Spencer Williams: That’s perfect. She has to stay ready so she doesn’t have to get ready. I would love to talk about the Row siblings next starting with Harper. She also has an edgy style that feels contemporary.
Jennifer May Nickel: Harper is also from the comics and my favorite of the Knights. She fights for the underdog, and it was actually something I mentioned in my interview for the job. I admire the way she fights for and protects Cullen. I was always the one in grade school standing up to the bullies for my friends. It was something in her arc that I just absolutely loved. She’s a mechanic and an engineer with a cool style that’s edgy, but also again functional and practical because she knows she’s going to get dirty. She doesn’t need to be wearing something frilly. She is more comfortable in a coverall.
Spencer Williams: Since you see some of yourself in some of these characters and costumes, would you say that there is a collaborative process between you and the actors who are bringing these costumes to life?
Jennifer May Nickel: Very much so. There is always a collaboration with everybody. With these characters because having a comic background combined with our own unique world, there was always a discussion of understanding what elements we want to keep? What are you bringing to the plate? We don’t want to do a literal translation. We want to keep the homage to the comic book characters, but how are we pushing it forward into our Gotham and the things that we all feel are interesting? With Harper, it was keeping the elements of the coveralls and practicality, but also adding in a little more color and a little more funkiness. She’s not necessarily the t-shirt kind of gal even though she often is in the comic books. We do add the elements in there when it works.
Spencer Williams: Yeah. Have a bit of fun with it! I love Cullen‘s costumes. To me, he’s the the most relatable. I can see myself in Cullen’s costumes. What was the inspiration?
Jennifer May Nickel: Cullen’s costumes are closest to the comic book character in the beginning. As a fugitive and a trans man, the costume is a little more hesitant to be seen. He’s a little more inward covered. Not quite as in your face as maybe some of the other characters.
Spencer Williams: Right. Lots of graphic tees and baggier fits.
Jennifer May Nickel: Exactly. There were layers on too. Slowly throughout the season, we start to change his clothing to be fitter. We’re growing into the role of both being a superhero as well as wanting to be seen. He’s a Gotham Knight and starts to own it. We really push that!
Spencer Williams: Perhaps there’s nothing creepier than a masked cult, especially when they’re guarded by a large assassin named The Talon. Tell me about the Court of Owls and The Talon because I was nervous. What’s creepy about the costumes too is that they’re clearly sophisticated, establishment characters in the very proper suiting.
Jennifer May Nickel: The Court of Owls are my favorite group of villains in the Gotham world. I love that comic series, it is one of my absolute favorites. When I heard the show was going highlight this group, I knew I wanted to be a part of this series. They’re just so creepy! Being able to bring that to life on screen was definitely one of the most fun things I got to do.
This is really where we got to bring a lot of the vintage elements into the show and help give even more of that timeless vibe that I’ve been talking about.We dress the court members themselves in a more lighter palette than a lot of the rest of the show. They’re a bit more austere and pristine. You can tell they’re rich. These people have inherited their position in the court from their grandfather’s grandfather. It was essential to me to really hone in on that, using creams, metallics, softer browns, things of that nature. We also used grays, tweeds… everything that just feels old and creepy.
Spencer Williams: It’s fascinating that using a brighter color palette on these characters is what made them creepier. Because they stood out against the rest of Gotham. I knew I didn’t want to hang out with these people. Or maybe I do?
Jennifer May Nickel: Their clothing is clean. Then with the masks, it was fun getting to design those. They’re so cool. I wanted them to have the feeling of the statues at The Haunted Mansion. It was a fun process with the show runners and our co-creator, showing them how the slightest move in the mask makes it more sinister by keeping the brow furrowed and the cheekbone arched.
Spencer Williams: Very spooky. But even spookier perhaps is when The Talon smashes into the scene. The Talon has a really interesting suit too with different textiles and fabrics. How did this piece come together?
Jennifer May Nickel: I have to say I loved designing him so much and it’s just going to always be one of my favorite things because there’s just such a richness to The Talon and such an extra creepiness to him with that weirdo mask. One of the first things we started with idea wise was looking at The Talon from the comic books and the video game that is different from our series. We’re really leaning into the vintage aspect for The Court of Owls, so I wanted to lean into that aspect for The Talon as well. You’ll find out in the series that this guy has been around for a while. There are gold elements throughout that I thought of as being a conductive property, since metals are conductive. The gold is something that helps keep him warm and alive.
He’s a bit of a nightmare and a legend So he has to have that visually in the costume. Having that executioner’s hood feeling to it was important! All of the various blades that he uses on his victims… it was important that we kept those close and at the ready. One of the things that I actually really love the most about his costume is that we engineered his katana blades to actually disappear behind his cape. When he puts his blades away, you see the very top of them. It helps keep that creepiness of the cape going too. We mixed six or seven different leathers together with four different fabrics in addition to those leathers. There was a whole lot of awesomeness!
Spencer Williams: How perfectly creepy. There were also lot of large scenes that had many background actors, especially when we were at Gotham Academy or the gala that we were talking about. Talk to me about your team and how you all work together to bring together these scenes. There was a lot of costumes!
Jennifer May Nickel: It’s a lot of costumes! With a new show, you’re figuring all of it out as you go. Nothing’s really been established quite yet so you’re really trying to figure out the world, the sets, and everything! We were all just so excited to be getting to play in the world of Gotham and we all embraced it together.
Spencer Williams: It really came out beautifully. It’s such an expansive world and it really speaks to the talent of your team and everyone having to work together. What did this project mean to you?
Jennifer May Nickel: It truly meant everything to me. Here we are a year later and I just can’t say enough about how much I loved it. I loved it, not just because of the world of Batman that we got to live in. . which that alone would’ve done it for me, but my amazing, amazing crew that I love so very much. We put all of our hearts and souls into the show and the fact that even though it’s a crazy schedule, they kept showing up and showing out for me. They kept believing in my designs and wanted to make this show the best. It wouldn’t look this great without them. it has been the best group of actors that I have gotten to work with. Everybody was just so lovely, so collaborative and it was just such a joyful place to be.
Spencer Williams: Jennifer, I am so happy for you! Don’t make me cry… Thank you so much for joining. It’s been such a great conversation.
Jennifer May Nickel: Thank you, Spencer!