Dress to Win: an interview with Borg vs. McEnroe costume designer Kicki Ilander

Ahead of the release of Borg vs. McEnroe, we had a chat with costume designer Kicki Ilander to talk about the painstaking work of creating the film’s ubercool early '80s courtside fashion look for the film.

Director Janus Metz with Shia LaBeouf as McEnroe and Sverrir Gudnason as Borg

How did you go about recreating the look and feel of the era?

Since this is a story about existing and well-known people, of course I started by looking at a lot at photos, footage and documentaries from the era. I think I have watched the whole Wimbledon final at least 6-7 times - each time I was looking for different details! The film we made is NOT a documentary but we felt that strongly the Wimbledon part in particular should be true to the original, it’s such a well-documented event. When it came to the more "private" scenes we were free to create our own idea of this period. I think it’s important to make choices when you do period movies, not just to use everything that was (and sometimes has remained) fashionable from that time. My preferred way of working is to identify a style to represent these years, and work that into a blueprint for everything, then start layering in each detail. There were lots of challenges: for starters, every day at Wimbledon we had around 400 extras to dress! Besides that, the film moves between distinct eras: the flashbacks are from the late ‘60s and mid-70s, then there’s the very early ‘80s setting of the match. Not to mention that the story moves across seasons and takes place in different countries - spring in Monaco, summer in England, winter exteriors in Sweden, some interiors in the U.S. The characters are from different social backgrounds and group of people - from working class from Södertälje to disco celebrities at Studio 54. All these eras, backgrounds and elements have to overlap and coexist in the production design to give the world of the film a consistent look and feel. In essence, designers working on a period movie have to make their own interpretation of this era. These were our choices to tell the story of Borg vs McEnroe. I am sure that if someone else made this film it would look quote different because they would inevitably make other choices.

How do sports clothes differ today from the ‘80s?


The biggest difference I think is in the materials and cutting, the way sports clothes fit has changed quite dramatically. For example, most of the actors were a little bit shocked/surprised by really short legs when it came to tennis shorts in the beginning. They had to wear very skimpy white underpants and felt a bit ‘naked’. Their own suntan started just over the knee!

Do you think the fashion for all things vintage/retro makes it easier to design "period" costumes for films set in the recent past?

Perhaps. It’s certainly easier to find costumes, because you can still buy some original items in vintage shops or have clothes newly made in a retro style, and you can find more things to rent. But when you make a film set, let’s say in 1760, or at the time of the Vikings, no one can accurately say “this is the wrong shape”, or complain “this doesn’t work for me”... So for me it is easier to make older period movies - I have more freedom to make up my own "universe". When you make a film from a period closer to us in time, people have their own very specific idea of how it was - they remember it, or they have their own old albums with personal photos and so on. So in a way for me it’s more of a challenge to recreate Björn Borg than Marie Antoinette.

Borg is presented in the film as meticulously tied to routine and obsessive about the smallest details. Was the same level of attention given to the smaller props and items?

Absolutely. I have hundreds of different photos from Björn Borg’s life. When it comes to his public and well-known tennis life we worked hard to get the tiniest details right, such as the wristband (with the colours of Sweden) and headband, his necklace, watch, bracelet, rings and so on. It took a lot of detective work to find it. Some of it you can still buy, some we had to recreated based on the photographs. Of course it was the same with McEnroe - his t-shirts, shoes, socks and headbands.


Did you have to work with specific shoe brands and did you recreate the tennis trainers as they would have been at the time, or using the same technology as today?

Shoes are a very tricky aspect of this kind of period sports movie. We had actors whose shoe sizes could range from 37- 48, wide feet, narrow feet and everything in between. In the early days Björn used an old Swedish brand of sneakers called Tretorn - luckily for us they started making them again! Later on he used Diadora, and they were very helpful providing us with the right models, colours and sizes they had brought out back then. But when actors started practising tennis they used modern shoes because of the better support existing now. No professionals today would play in these old trainers!


Did you enjoy breaking away from sportswear and into ‘70s disco for the Studio54 sequence with its glamorous costumes, feathers and glitter?

Oh yes! This was like a gift to me, not a single tennis outfit as far as you could see! I would gladly have skipped a game of tennis for more disco.


Borg vs. McEnroe is now playing at Curzon Cinemas.



Stellan Skarsgård joined us on the Curzon podcast to discuss his amazing career - from Lars Von Trier to Mamma Mia! - and his latest role as Borg’s coach Lennart Bergelin.