Gotham Knights Costume Designer Jennifer May Nickel Talks Outfitting The CW's Latest Series (Exclusive)

Gotham Knights is in full swing on The CW, with the new DC series taking viewers into a Gotham City without Batman as, in the wake of his murder, his adopted son Turner as well as Duela/The Joker's Daughter, and Harper and Cullen Row are accused of committing the crime. Trying to clear their name has the teens embroiled in a much larger mystery, one that is taking them into who really runs Gotham – the mysterious Court of Owls – and may put them in more danger than they can possibly imagine. It's an epic premise with in an iconic world, but it takes more than just story to bring it all to life. Costumes are a major part of this adventure. Enter Jennifer May Nickel, costume designer for Gotham Knights. Nickel, who is herself a Batman fan, is responsible for outfitting the character, bringing them not only to life in their own right but also throwing in some interesting details and impressive Easter eggs as well. recently sat down with Nickel to talk about the clothes that make the characters and there are a lot of fine details you may have missed – as well as some major The Dark Knight homages yet to come. 

Nicole Drum, Were you a DC Comics fan before getting involved with Gotham Knights? Particularly the Batman of it all, it can be very specific in terms of its aesthetic.

Jennifer May Nickel: Yes. So, Batman is and always will be my first love when it comes to the world of comics. It started with Michael Keaton because I am a child of the '80s and I'm also from Pittsburgh. And so, my parents were like "he's Batman and he's from Pittsburgh. Just think of the things you can do and become in life" and that's what first hooked me on Batman. And I became obsessed as kids do with things but that was my first and then I went on to Superman and started to broaden my scope. I then added Marvel into the mix with X-Men, I love Phoenix and Storm. They were like my heroines in my youth and then it became all encompassing.

I love your trajectory because it's very similar to my own, staring with Batman as a gateway drug and then onto the X-Men and beyond... I think interesting things about Gotham Knights is that while it is a Batman story, it really is more an original story that happens to be sent in Batman's playground without Batman. But the show also does a really good job of highlighting that this is Batman's world through references and Easter eggs that kind of go back to different parts of the legacy comics, movies, TV, and a lot of that's reflected in the clothes. Talk to me about how you've incorporated some of those references into the looks and I know there are moments when watching even just the first episode I got major The Dark Knight movie vibes.

It's one of my favorite movies ever and Batman-wise it is my favorite. I tried to like take all my knowledge of Batman and the whole world of Gotham and have it be like a peripheral reference because we are creating our own world. I want it to be an influence, but I didn't want it to be the definitive and so taking the comics as reference and taking a little bit of their essence from everything and just kind of letting it be an inspiration instead of a rulebook was important. We, the showrunners co-creators, and I we all wanted to pay homage to each respect but then also not copy it either. And we wanted it to be our own Gotham in our own universe. And so, there's all the Easter eggs sprinkled out.

The thing I keep going back to Duela's looks just because I just love her vibe. But I got Heath Ledger vibes, especially in that first episode.

So in in the pilot episode that was designed by Natalie Bronfman up in Canada and then episode two and on I took over, but in episode one, you see Duela with her head out of the police car, a very direct little Easter eggs to Heath's Joker there. And throughout this series, I have worked to just take little elements of not just the Joker, but specifically Heath's Joker, and incorporate it into her costumes. Because you know, she is the Joker's Daughter. And even though she hates him, she loves him at the same time. Like she wants to be a daddy's girl and there's this one episode, episode 109 which is I cannot wait for everyone to see it because it is hard for me to keep it keep it under my lid. I got to do a very direct specific, like no-doubt-about-it homage to [Heath Ledger's Joker] costume in her costume and what I was able to pull off is still one of those like, "I can't believe it was able to do this" moments. And I'm very excited for all the other comic book nerds to see it because I think, I hope that everyone has kind of that like me as a fan had a huge reaction to it. So, I'm hoping that everyone feels the way I do about it.

I also was going to say that I love her accessories so much. Like I've literally been rifling through my jewelry box going okay, what do I have that is similar that I can put this together? Do you have any like hope that people will start dressing as some of these characters as cons because I know that for a designer that's got to be at least a part of dream.

So, if people do start dressing like this, it will be the world's biggest compliment to me and knowing that the work of myself and my team has resonated with people enough for them to go and try to recreate it. That's the biggest compliment you can get you know, it's the same as a fashion designer's line selling out, it's very similar to that but it's even more meaningful because there's so much character and psychology to it. It's not just about looking cute, there's so much more to it and so it would be a huge compliment. I am going to be posting different behind the scenes close ups of her jewelry and stuff, as well as like the process for other characters, too. But for Duela we ended up customizing literally everything on her. If it wasn't custom made, which a lot of her stuff was if it was off the rack, we did what I started calling Duela-fying. In the comics she messes up her face, right? [She messes up her face] really something special because she thinks that's beautiful. That is, to her,  beautiful and so a way to kind of incorporate that in her character for the show, I kind of saw her doing that with her clothes. She'll go and steal these $1,200 jackets and $1,500 boots and she funks them up, she Duela-fies them, she cuts them up, she draws on them. She adds like trinkets to them because I also see her as a magpie and kind of a kleptomaniac. So, more is more for Duela, and so she'll have like three belts on, and five necklaces and she'll have gloves but then she'll have rings on top of her gloves. A lot of it we either custom made, the jewelry, or took different pieces of jewelry and combined. My poor crew and I would come in at like six o'clock in the morning. It did become like a little bit of a hurricane of jewelry. And then I would start pinning everything onto a form like one of those dress forms and then I would get it all exactly how I wanted it and be like "okay, guys, can you sew this together real quick or jewelry, clamp it together and then also sorry, you need to make five more of them because of her stunts." So, but people did really enjoy doing it because it's Duela and it's fun and funky.

I also must talk a little bit Misha Collins I have had so many fans already talking to me about his ties.

The ties have become a thing with the fans. I had no idea and it's good that I didn't because the season was just about done by the time anyone knew what we were doing. It didn't play a factor into anything. But as the season progresses, one of the things with Harvey Dent is his tie knots get more and more intricate and complicated and unhinged as a way of reflecting the dual personalities happening and the inner fight between them. I've said before it's like I looked at it as a way of getting ready in front of the mirror and like we all go on autopilot in the mornings as we're getting ready. You know, like when we put in our makeup on and you're like "oh, whoa, that's a lot of bronzer in there." And it kind of was that and he has his ties. Like he could have just been going for a little four in hand and then ended up with a fishbone, so it's one of those things where the ties have meaning into his psyche of what's going on in the episode. And the more put together we're the tie is the more Harvey is secure in himself and the more unhinged it is, the more like the tie he is and even the ties in and of themselves outside of the knot has meaning. Each tie has an intricate pattern to it that plays one way or another into him as Harvey Dent or Two Face. A lot of them have a duality to them or a two-tone aspect or a pattern that looks like a coin. You might not have thought those were coins, but when you look at it, those are coins. And his tie bars have literally two sides to them in the way of that as well and once we start to bring him into a cufflink world, you'll start to see like the little bits there, too, and even his belt buckles. And another thing is something no one's ever gonna see but there are details in his socks. It's something [Collins] and I just did for him, thinking about socks to work for the character because I always find that the shoes and the socks, that's kind of the grounding factor, but you're literally stepping in to it then. So, giving those little details for him, sometimes he would have on two different shoes, or they'd be laced in opposite directions. So that's kind of neat.

What's interesting about this show is that most of the costumes are street wear, people wearing regular clothes, but we also get supersuits and we get a wide range, like Carrie in her Robin gear and then we get Talon. Talk to me about the challenges of costuming all sides of this coin.

To speak directly to Robin first for her because for the younger actors with their characters, it's more of their origin story. So, with that, they're on the run and they don't have access to Bruce Wayne's money and toys to make the sophisticated things. That doesn't mean they can't have things that are sophisticated, but they are homemade. They are scrapped together from elements around their world that they've picked up on. So for Carrie, we wanted to make sure that it felt very grounded for her. She's a teenager who lost her own father when she was young. She looks up to Bruce as a fatherly figure and he just died. She's going through a lot of grief. And while Bruce had given her a few things he hadn't fully indoctrinated her into the whole world of vigilantes. It really was a kind of pulling back and going "what would Robin have or have access to that is both form and function?" because while we all love everyone to look cool at the same time, it has to make sense in the items and the things that they're wearing. She's fighting so it has to have a purpose. There's a reason why she has these armed gauntlets. They're not just for protection. They have gadgets on them, like compasses, they have light. They have little, tiny knives on there to cut through things. There's lasers and there's communicators so her gauntlets have like 10 different purposes to them. She has the bandolier that is something like the gauntlets. The bandolier, we custom made all of that because that is something she would have had to make herself. So, while it's cool and sophisticated, it doesn't look like something that costs $10 million. It doesn't also look scrappy.

She also might get some new goggles later in the season. There might be a story behind that too when it happens and shows a little bit of our other heroes' abilities in it, but a lot of it is taking things she might already have for function. It's a tech suit and she's wearing this cool jacket and these pants and these boots but they still have a function and purpose to them. Yeah, they're cool. They're also something a teenager would possibly still have in the closet, but it's transformed into this what I call pseudo supersuit.

And then of course you get a real supersuit with Talon.

For Talon, he has such a rich history from the Court of Owls comic line and then we start to see him in other comics as well. And so, it's got a rich kind of history, not a long history, but a rich one and in a bunch of different comics so we are bringing some of those elements in. He comes from the Court of Owls, which is even more wealthy than Bruce Wayne so a lot of wealth was brought to this costume. It's also the Court of Owls, so it's a little weird. He's their executioner and so his hood has that executioner element to it. The suit itself I really wanted it to be the kind of super suit where if it was worn completely on its own without all the accoutrements, it would still look cool, scary, and powerful. And I feel like I achieved that, you see a different glimpse of it. The gold that's running throughout it was to be a conductive material because you know, the Talon is supposed to be this older villain, whose origins we're still trying to find out and discover. There's the origin from the comics, and then there's ours. And so, to me, the gold there was a conductive heating element keeping them going kind of thing. And so, playing with those different elements of "okay, how old is he? What is his origin, he comes from a whole lot of money" taking a lot of those elements, and bringing them all together and giving him a little bit of historical feel while still being like a modern-day kickass villain. It was varied and had a lot of different ideas.

Is there a look or a detail from one of the looks in the series that you were most excited about or most proud of?

I would say the Duela look that is a direct homage to Heath Ledger.  Oh, I did just remember one fun little, tiny tidbit. I am actually now canon in DC. In [this week's] episode, they mention me as the designer for Stephanie's dress at the Gala. It's a May Nickel.

Gotham Knights airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on The CW.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.