The No. 1 Ladies' Costume Designer - BDV Interviews Jo Katsaras
I recently discovered the charming 2008 HBO series “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” based on novels by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. Jill Scott plays Mma Precious Ramotswe, a fledgling detective who opens her own agency in Botswana's capital city, Gabarone. She's joined in her adventures by quirky secretary-turned-junior detective Mma Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose) and stalwart suitor, mechanic Mr. JLB Matekoni (Lucian Msamati).
Beyond the appealing characters and fascinating setting, I was taken with the clothing. And I'm not alone. I’m honored that costume designer Jo Katsaras took the time to speak with BDV about her Emmy-nominated work on the show.
With a degree in art from the competitive National School of the Arts in Johannesberg, and a certificate in fashion from Leggatts Fashion Academy, Jo ran her own design studio, then worked as a personal stylist. She has since become internationally known for her extensive body of work designing, styling and manufacturing costumes for an impressive range of projects, including music videos, commercials, television series and feature films.
She answered our questions via email from Dubai, en route to her latest project.
Better Dresses Vintage: You were born in Cyprus and raised in South Africa, giving you first-hand experience of the region. Can you tell us how your personal history came into play on this production?
Jo Katsaras: My family emigrated to South Africa when I was 5 years old and I know that the visual experience of Africa hit me then. We landed there in the early 70s and Johannesburg was so vibrant at the time, with so many different cultures. As a child, I recall insisting on sitting on the upper deck of the then Apartheid (whites only) buses, right in the front seat, so I could watch everyone from above.
I know that I absorb everything around me, as I am so creatively sensitive, and this is what I did from a very young age. On "No.1" I got the opportunity to express absolutely everything I have absorbed over my years on the continent. I created characters that you really see on the streets in Africa. From the seamster outside Mma Ramotswe's office to crazy Happy Babetsi's daddy and everything in between.
It was a script so suited to me, coupled with the most gracious of directors -- the late Anthony Minghella, who loved everything I presented him with -- and a dream cast who devoured my choices and wore them so well, that I had so much fun with it.
BDV: I find the sheer diversity of the clothing fascinating. In Gaborone, we see Western garb that spans decades, as well as traditional African dress. Is this your personal vision, or is individual style the only fashion rule in this part of the world? Does the hodge-podge reflect availability or choice?
JK: It reflects the essence of Africa. They call it "Belgium clothing" because it's aid Western clothing that originally came from Oxfam in Belgium. The clothing comes from all over the world to ... dress the African population. However the bales get bought by traders for very little and they sell it at markets. People then buy that clothing for very cheap and an industry is created. In those bales, you will find diversity from top end brands to vintage pieces.
People then mix it in with traditional garb and I simply love the way it's styled. I, of course, pushed that styling to an extreme. Those markets are where I shop for many reasons. One, my eye finds the most incredible pieces; two, it's all perfectly well worn; three, I love the energy at the markets and it's not unusual to find me in the mountains of clothing digging, it's such a high for me; and four, I'm helping the community in some small way.
BDV: Intentionally or not, our clothes make a statement about our place in society and give others a glimpse into our actual or desired socioeconomic status, our religious affiliation, our aspirations, even our political views. What do the clothes in this show say about their wearers?
JK: I think clothing is your first aura, it's what the world sees of your personality. My characters in the show all reflect that. The cheating husband costume on the character that David Oyelowa plays, for example. His costume just spelt man-on-the-prowl:
Mma Grace Makutsi's quirky ensembles just made the Anika Noni Rose character reveal herself within a second of screen time, even when she wasn't talking:
Of course both examples used here would not have for one minute been so impactful had the actors themselves not been so talented. So credit must go to them first for wearing so incredibly well the costumes that I designed.
BDV: Detective Mma Precious Ramotswe (played by Jill Scott) is described as "traditionally built." This label seems to carry no pre-defined value judgment -- sometimes it's a compliment, other times a slur. Can you tell us a little bit about body image in this part of the world, and how it relates, or doesn't, to clothing choices? Does Ramotswe's traditional build inform her decision to wear mostly traditional dress?
JK: African women embrace the "traditionally built" body and African men love big women. It is for me such a refreshing concept that a woman in Africa will show off her body rather than hide it if she isn't "perfectly" built. However, with Mma Ramotswe and her choice of traditional dresses, I saw it as more rooted in her culture and value system. For example, as a detective, she had no mobile phone and gave Mma Makutsi a hard time about having anything technological in the office. So it had more to do with her value system than her body shape.
BDV: I most enjoyed the colorful, cleverly matched vintage-inspired looks worn by agency secretary and assistant detective Mma Grace Makutsi (played by Anika Noni Rose). How did you go about outfitting this character?
JK: I had so much fun with this character and Anika was so game to the pieces that I chose to create the quirkiness. I started off with the shoes. Anika had communicated to me that her one foot was slightly bigger than the other and that I should buy two pairs of each choice and she would wear one of each. I, however, gave her two of the same size, and that immediately gave her the character's signature walk.
Then I have a huge love for vintage. I found some incredible pieces at the markets, made a few items in traditional fabrics but with vintage styling, and of course her glasses -- they had been sitting in my personal collection of glasses for years waiting for the perfect moment to use them.
As for her scarves, they were also a combination of finds at the market and from my collection. The scarves and the way I tied them just polished the character for me. It's like they kept her contained in her world. I created a wardrobe for her and I would mix and match the pieces and it all worked beautifully.
BDV: Thank you very much for taking the time to chat with us, Jo. We enjoy your work, congratulate you on your success, and look forward to seeing more from you in the future!
JK: Thank you, too, for looking me up.
Jo Katsaras with some of the her Emmy-nominated work from the series.