Jane Holland and the Costumes of Cowboy Bebop

Today I am so excited to speak with Jane Holland, costume designer from one of my new favorite shows, Cowboy Bebop. The live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop takes place in 2071 and follows Spike Spiegel (played by John Cho) as he wanders the galaxy in search of jobs as he begins leading a group of ragtag bounty hunters to chase down criminals across the solar system while trying to earn different rewards. I speak with Jane Holland about her inspirations and the process behind translating some of our favorite characters from the anime to this live-action adaptation.


Spencer: Thank you, Jane, for joining me. I’m so excited to talk to you, I love the show. I powered through it so quickly, I just couldn’t put it down.

Jane: Thank you so much for having me. I am excited to be here!

Spencer: It’s my honor! Every time I have a new guest, I love to hear about their journey to becoming the costume designer sitting in front of me.

Jane: It makes complete sense to me now, but it wasn’t straightforward. I didn’t know that costume could be a profession so I did a science degree because my passion was with words, drama, and performance; and an English and drama degree. I was interested in storytelling; that’s always been my passion.

Through drama, I ended up on a film set, and I was watching and talking to people behind the scenes, and I just thought, that’s where I belong. I want to be doing that. So I got involved in the costume department! I’d always made costumes for production while studying drama, so it wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me. That’s when I realized that there was a job there.

I was fortunate. to have foundd myself working on Jane Campion’s film, The Piano, as a standby. I looked after Anna Paquin and Holly Hunter primarily. I kind of looked after all the women. It was just extraordinary, that film that was so pivotal in so many ways. From a design perspective, working with that costume designer, Janet Patterson, really opened my eyes to what you can do in costume as a storyteller.

So I went from there to the Australian Film Television and Radio School in Sydney and studied costume design there. I came back and found my feet as a costume designer. Being in New Zealand, I’ve had a real diversity of projects!

Spencer: I love this story, and I feel that it is so relatable to so many in the costume field. I can hardly wait; let’s get into Cowboy Bebop. You did such a brilliant job with the show. I loved it. But have to ask, though, the anime is such a massive hit that is so beloved by fans. I have to imagine this was a bit of a daunting project to take on?

Jane: Yeah, there’s a responsibility for sure. So, going back to when I came onto the project, the enthusiasm was a bit quieter. I was aware of the fans, but I always felt my responsibility was to the anime. If I could find a connection and draw the threads and sensibility of the anime and bring that into the live-action costuming, I felt that if I could embrace the spirit of the anime, then maybe the fans would embrace the live-action costumes.

You have to be open, exploratory and you’d have to be brave. If you’re second-guessing everything and wondering what people are going to think, it can be stifling… So you have to be free! I was sort of feeling that I had a connection and that I was coming from the right place. There’s something about the anime. When I first saw it, I was blown away. The story is just so wacky, different, and surreal. I loved the cacophony of the soundtrack combined with the visuals.

Costume Designer, Jane Holland

My base place was asking myself the question, what was the movement of Cowboy Bebop? Bebop was about breaking free from restraint. It was about improvisation. It was about moving forwards and finding a new way. I embraced that spirit and the storytelling, which became the lens that I applied to my design process. 

Spencer: That’s beautiful. I love the dedication, and I know that your embrace of the spirit of the anime came through in the live-action series on Netflix. Now, taking it from a technical perspective, how do you approach translating characters from the animation and bringing them into the live-action. 

What sort of references besides the anime were you taking in when developing these characters? The show is really unique and stylized, and it’s set in a futuristic time period, but it’s also not futuristic at the same time.

Jane: Right, it’s very retro. We talked collectively about developing the “Bebop Mashup.” The anime has this mesh up, which, as you said, is futuristic, but then it’s retro. So it’s retro sci-fi. It’s full of these collisions; this dissonance then kind of just finds this place. So I think that that was always the challenge, was to find that place. For me, that was the Cowboy Bebop twist.

Spencer: Right, so then how did you apply that Cowboy Bebop twist to our main character, Spike Spiegel?

Jane:  I started with Spike Spiegel and the blue suit because that is sort of the heart of this story. As you begin to drill down into that suit and its relation to the anime… when you really look at it and the shape, it’s kind of unusual. There’s a single boxy lapel that sort of disappears. He’s got this extra long leg, let’s say there’s this real stylized thing about it, but what is with the sleeves rolled up?

Cowboy Bebop – Courtesy of Netflix

I looked at Japanese designers and Japanese tailorings, such as Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons. I looked at the tailoring from these designers because there was something in Japanese sensibility, which does precisely what Cowboy Bebop does. It sort of takes something conventional, and then it just gives that bit of twist we see in Cowboy Bebop. 

I also looked at some Japanese and Korean designers who are making contemporary clothing, but they’re kind of reaching into traditional dress. When you look at that kind of tailoring, the way that a jacket does up or that off-center fascinating… that’s in the anime! There’s a link. I found a thread, which led me to work out how to create something that had that single lapel and then make it disappear and come around the other side. So these designers gave me a way to find out how to make Spike Spiegel make sense. 

The suit is a very bright blue, and it’s unusual. We had to create something that embraced the character of Spike Spiegel, who is effortlessly cool, who then turns into this incredible fighting machine. Spike has this depth to him, with his entire past. But then goes back to being cool and heartbroken as well. I built all of that into the costume. 

In the anime, his fight style is described as water. I took that as has as a motif that can be seen on his trophy buckle in a beautiful moment of triumph. You get this flash of this trophy buckle where you can see t’s a tidal wave, a symbol of water. The trophy buckles, made by our in-house jeweler, also are a nod to the Cowboys. This followed through to the buttons that are engraved with the Japanese symbol for water.

Cowboy Bebop – Courtesy of Netflix

Then on the inside of the jacket, I ended up printing a tiny pattern of falling roses on the lining of his jacket as a motif for Julia. Julia has a lot of hand-painted roses in her costuming. The same person who hand-painted those roses drew the roses that we replicated inside of his jacket. That’s just a little secret in there. Spike has Julia wrapped around him because he’s a guy with a broken heart, and Julia is his lost love. 

Cowboy Bebop was all about finding the essence of the character and bringing the anime together to work out how it might work on a real-life person. Then from there, drilling down how to add as much storytelling in those signature costumes as I could. 

Spencer: That’s so magical and why I love costume design so much. All of the detail you put into everything from the lapel to the lining… It’s really inspiring.

Jane: The anime was really our concept art. You look at a lot of concept art for costuming, and often it really doesn’t make sense. The concept art doesn’t tell you how to make it. You can focus on design concepts, but it doesn’t always work when it comes to actually making the costume.

The anime gave me the concept art, and my job was to work out its design. How does it actually work? How is it going to function? There is a difference between art and design; created design has to function. As a costume designer, I want that artistic freedom, but ultimately it has to function.

Spencer: Moving on to our other main characters, the idea of function was something you kept in mind when translating them. Let’s talk about Jet Black, shall we? Jet feels as though he came right from the anime, but it still has that apparent twist you mentioned.

Jane: Right. Jet Black is more straightforward. He’s wearing overalls that are kind of utilitarian. The design lines you see in the anime I carried through. It is very similar, but there’s a lot more detail in the costume we made as we translate the anime into real life. 

Cowboy Bebop – Courtesy of Netflix

Spencer: It’s an interesting point because the anime is very flat in color; there’s not a lot of stitching detail. So that’s also part of the challenge too. 

Jane: I think it’s great if you think it’s the same as the anime because, well, that’s a job well done, isn’t it? Then he has that robot arm, which was a costume piece as well. We made that. We have a great costume department with and costume props area. The arm was made in the process of sculpting. 

Spencer: We have to talk about my favorite character. I love what you did with Faye Valentine because it’s reminiscent of the anime, but it’s functional, as you talked about earlier. Personally, I feel that her anime costume could not be translated onto a real woman and be functional. What you did with Faye’s live-action costume was functional but still mirrors the anime’s essence. Walk me through your work on this character.

I think it was clear to me that the Faye Valentine of the live-action series needed to do a lot more practically, functionally, than what that costume of the anime would allow her to do. I did the same with Faye as I did with Spike.

I took the character from the script, and I found the resonance. She’s a bounty hunter; she needed to be able to move, to fight, to kick! There was a whole function that was part of it, but there was also something about realizing the design lines of the animation.

Cowboy Bebop – Courtesy of Netflix

It might appear that I’ve moved a long way away from the anime, but actually, I haven’t. The top, that’s not that different. We did quite a bit of trial. We had a full yellow two-piece; and a full black two-piece with yellow stitching. So we’ve still got the color in there. It was about finding the gravitas of the character and what she needed to do. 

It was essential to me was that it shouldn’t be gratuitous and overtly sexualized. Those aspects of her character, that’s up to the actor to deliver rather than me imposing that restriction on her. We’re past that in terms of how we present a leading female character in a show. 

So the design lines are actually very similar. Like the stocking, she’s got those high leather leggings. She’s also wearing tights underneath. There’s a lot that is similar, and I pretty much guarantee that if she just shrugged that red leather jacket off her shoulders and struck a Faye Valentine pose from the anime, you’d say she’s exactly the same.

Spencer: I agree, one thousand percent. If the jacket fell a little bit, then viewers would’ve thought it was exactly the same. Faye doesn’t need to be stuck with being this overtly sexualized character. I feel like your costuming helped give Daniella Pineda the room to bring life to this character. What you did with that costume was quite brilliant. 

Jane: Daniella, she’s just so super cool. We needed something that’s got a little bit of street and a bit of sass. She had to be in something that she could do all of this stuff in.

Spencer: I love to hear that. Did you feel like you collaborated a lot with the actors and actresses on this project? 

Jane: Yeah! I think that they’re critical relationships. They are to me because it’s a very intimate space. I was lucky, being in New Zealand and being so far away, that I was in the states right at the very beginning. I was in Los Angeles, and John Cho and Daniella were in Los Angeles. While I was there, I met both of them. I measured them. We talked about the characters. John and I sat down in a café, and we just talked about concept. We talked about ideas, the feeling of the character, and specifically what the costume would be. I think it was very valuable.

Cowboy Bebop – Courtesy of Netflix

When I arrived in New Zealand, we had to work fast. When John arrived, we had put the suit on. There were so many things we talked about. From the beginning, and maybe in that first conversation, we talked about how Spike stands; it was really important to him. There’s a particular angle with his hand in his pocket. A classic anime pose!  It’s the more information you have to be working together, the better.

Spencer: You’ve talked about aging and dyeing a little bit. There’s a lot of blood, dirt, and action in this show. I’m notoriously obsessed with aging and dyeing. Can you just give me a little vision of this fun project?

Jane: *laughs* There’s this thing where you kind of build this beautiful costume. Then the first thing that happens to it is that they have to walk out, get hit with a bullet, and now there is blood on it. They trash it completely.

The trashing of the costume is part of the beauty; it’s another angle to costuming. It’s part of the craft. You have your pristine new thing, and then how do you make it look lived in? There is such an art to that. The textile artists who work within that have a painterly approach. There’s very little that ends up on screen without going through the aging and breakdown department.

Spencer: What I appreciate, especially when I think of space-oriented movies and television shows, I think of very minimalistic, clean, futuristic silhouettes. But you made Cowboy Bebop feel very real through the aging process.

Jane: It’s suspending disbelief, isn’t it? I mean, there’s a theatricality to any show that is not a representation of daily life. So what happens is Spike goes out, and he gets completely roughed up, and then next episode, he’s sort of clean again. We staged it where Spike has a closet on the Bebop where he opens the closet, and there’s a whole line of blue suits. That’s what you buy into with costume. It’s part of who they are. If they change out of that, there’s a reason. There are a few moments where characters are in a different costume, and there’s a reasoning behind that. But they come back to that signature costume as a place of comfort.

Spencer: The last character that we’re going to want to talk about is Vicious. I loved his black suiting. It’s, I think, one of my favorites.

Jane: When you look at the anime, you’re trying to work out what something is. It can be difficult because, a lot of the time, it’s pretty abstract. There was reference; you can see the design lines that come from the images of the anime. There’s a theatricality to him in the tailcoat that I interpreted.

I tried to find a musical kind of resonance with everybody. I found myself in a bit of a punk world with Viscious, but more heightened and stylized. I ended up drawing from real-life for Viscious by looking at the Antwerp six, such as Ann Demeulemeester, all amazing designers.

When Alex put on that costume, I wanted him to feel the power of the costume. Vicious has that straight leg and these big boots with this beautifully tailored coat. It’s got movement to it, so when he fights, there’s movement. The detailing of the chains that hold the coat together, they were made by our in-house jewelers.

Cowboy Bebop – Courtesy of Netflix

He’s got a trophy buckle as well. His trophy buckle has the cormorant because, in the anime, he always has a cormorant on his shoulder. So I took that cormorant and put it into his costume and on his ring as well. 

Spencer: This has been so much fun, and I’ve had such a good time talking with you. I feel like I’ve learned so much, and I just feel like rewatching the series now. What can we see you doing in the future? 

Jane: I hope for a second season! There’s so much ground to break. The second season is always where it feels like you start to take flight. I mean, you’ve got a warehouse full of stuff, a whole load of reference. It’s such a fun show. I mean the world-building… just oh my God! We had so much fun mixing vintage pieces, mixing different eras. There’s so much more that I want to do with Cowboy Bebop if I have the opportunity!

Spencer: It’s almost like every episode is its own movie. There’s always something different. World-building sounds like an understatement to me. 

Jane: It’s a crazy train! It is exactly like that. It’s like doing movie after movie, and it just doesn’t stop. That’s traveling as well. This is the fun part of it, to create the look of that world. 

Outside of Cowboy Bebop, we’re just finishing off this beautiful half-hour drama piece, which is a Māori supernatural story. Filmmaking and storytelling on a much more personal level, which I’m interested in doing as well. So I’ve kind of got this other little world alongside my career as a costume designer. 

There’s a film that’s just come out in New Zealand called Juniper with Charlotte Rampling in it. There’s always some storytelling to do. 

Spencer: Jane, thank you so much for joining me. This has been a lovely interview, and I’m really happy and excited for you. Cowboy Bebop was incredible, and the costumes, peak storytelling! I just want to thank you for your work on this project.

Jane: It was really great meeting you and nice to talk about the process. The creative process is such a fun thing. I mean, that’s the beauty of it. 


The live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop is now available on Netflix!