Luc Besson's sci-fi gem The Fifth Element debuted at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. Imbuing the movie with splashes of color and theatricality, The Fifth Element costumes have been hailed ever since. The $80 million deep-space thriller stars Bruce Willis, and follows a race to save the universe that hinges on a perfect specimen known as the Fifth Element, played by then 19-year-old Milla Jovovich. The cosmic realms dreamed up in Besson's imagination could only be brought to the screen with the help of a talented melange of style experts.
It's no surprise Besson partnered with French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier to make his Fifth Element wardrobe design dreams come true. "I wanted the best and that is Jean-Paul,” Besson told an interviewer after the film's release. ”He knows the color, he knows the flavor of New York," where the movie is set. Gaultier's motto of "equality, diversity, perversity" when it comes to fashion design is set against the kaleidoscopic landscapes that make The Fifth Element stand out from other genre films.
This list pulls together the behind-the-scenes details that made the movie such a stylistic success.
In order to bring Besson's spectacular vision for The Fifth Element to life, Gaultier designed over a thousand unique costumes. His penchant for detail extends far beyond the main cast: you see his touch in even the most minor characters. Curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot explained just how much work this entailed for Gaultier:
...a thousand costumes is like 10 collections but all for one movie. It’s an incredible amount of work people don’t even know about. For a thousand costumes, he may have even done 5,000 sketches before narrowing it down.
Gaultier felt like he was a good match for Besson because of the graphic way the director conceived of the movie's characters. "Before they said a single word, you could read [the] character’s psychology just from their look," Gaultier said. The fashion designer created outfits for the year 2263 that were both playful and opulent, with he and Besson agreeing on saturated, bright colors and reflective fabrics.
Growing up as a fan of comic books, Besson immersed himself in the works of science fiction artists like Moebius and Jean-Claude Mezieres. Based on their works and others, Besson was quite young when he began developing the movie. "This had been Luc’s brainchild since he was a teenager. He had been thinking about The Fifth Element, Leeloo, the story, and the language - you could say he’d been preparing his whole life for that moment," Jovovich told Vogue.
His dedication to conceptualizing his ideas paid off once he had the financial backing and support to make the movie. "I got there and he shows me he's built all the models already. He already has the costumes. He had all the creatures. I was just blown away. His imagination was incredible," screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen shared about an early meeting with Besson.
By the time Gaultier was signed on to The Fifth Element, he already had a reputation as the enfant terrible of fashion. Before teaming up with Besson, he'd worked on movies for acclaimed directors Peter Greenaway and Pedro Almodóvar. A streetwear connoisseur, Gaultier's runway looks had been defined by the everyday people around him. He had a reputation for subverting these casual looks into something alien or strange, and he broke into the the mainstream when he was hired by Madonna to engineer her iconic early '90s cone-breasted bustier.
From cheeky work wear with bondage accents to structured ensembles that exist out of time and place to backless men's wear, Gaultier's approach to costuming was a perfect fit for The Fifth Element.
Leeloo's bodysuit of sorts is the product of her regeneration in a genetic recovery machine, where straps from the device conveniently secure themselves around her body in just the right places. Gaultier's idea for Leeloo was to have her appear "nude, but not nude."
Meant to symbolize her newness and exposure to the future world she finds herself in, this bandaged look presented Jovovich with some logistical problems. “There was a lot of skin showing, so I got pretty bruised up because I couldn’t wear pads and things that other people could wear,” she told Vogue. “It was like wearing a bikini, you know? Especially at that point, I was 19, and tiny. I just really got into the character and I definitely didn’t feel constraints.”