Stitch and Step: Fashion Designers Craft Statement-Making Costumes for Choreographers

By Karyn D. Collins

Costume sketch by Isaac Mizrahi for Mark Morris' "After You," courtesy of American Ballet Theatre

Costume sketch by Isaac Mizrahi for Mark Morris’ “After You,” courtesy of American Ballet Theatre

Fashion designers have had a long tradition of creating costumes for choreographers: Coco Chanel’s knit swimsuits for Ballets Russes’ “The Blue Train”; the bold, black-and-white striped Norma Kamali pajamas for Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room”; Halston’s numerous creations for Martha Graham works like “Rite of Spring” and “Tangled Night”; Stella McCartney’s fanciful costumes for Peter Martins’ “Ocean’s Kingdom.” Each of these designers crafted statement making costumes that didn’t simply clad the dancers, but enhanced the choreographer’s vision.

And let’s not forget about the number of designers who have offered fashion collections inspired by the dance and dancers — such as Geoffrey Beene, Vera Wang and Michael Kors.

Last season, audiences saw American Ballet Theatre’s production of  Mark Morris’s “After You,” featuring new costumes by designer Isaac Mizrahi, a frequent artistic partner to Morris. The Morris-Mizrahi collaboration continues a longstanding artistic relationship between the two that the designer said is grounded in a genuine friendship and years-long appreciation for the other’s work. Mizrahi’s other designs for Morris’s works include the costumes for the Morris Dance Group’s production of Handel’s “Acis and Galatea,” and Morris’s Metropolitan Opera production of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.”

“To me, Mark is the center of dance in the world. And I’m not saying that because he’s my friend, but because he’s the one choreographer I look at who is … the whole critical dialogue in one,” Mizrahi said. “You look at Mark and what Mark is doing before you consider anything or anybody else. I think he’s the greatest living dance monument who is actually alive and working.”

So when Mizrahi gets in the studio, he said, “I take all my cues from him. And I think that’s what he likes about working with me. He knows he can be extremely honest and say, ‘I don’t like it,’ and it has nothing to do with what I’m doing but just with what works or doesn’t work. That’s what makes it a good collaboration. We’re good at agreeing and good at disagreeing.”

When the curtain goes on any new collaboration, it becomes the audience’s turn to agree or disagree. Of course, instantly, there will be the inevitable murmur as viewers drink in the initial visual impact of what’s onstage. It’s not just about what the dancers wear, of course, it’s movement, staging, bodies, lighting, scenic design — a complete artistic package.

Costumes, of course, are an essential part of that visual experience. If it’s an in-house costumer or little known designer, the results — good or bad — are considered somewhat negligible. But increasingly, for major ballet and other companies, the costumes created by major fashion designers, are promoted as a key element of the artistic experience and have become a major draw, even a fashion event. Needless to say, expectations run high.

While audiences may debate the end results, the intertwining of dance and fashion is a process that those involved said can be equal parts exhilaration and inspiration, tinged with exasperation. Often the result of creative conflicts, misunderstandings about competing needs, visual versus movement capabilities, and scheduling constraints, artistic temperaments come into play. Even so, those behind the scenes said the process and end results — successful or not — are still a worthy, even necessary, undertaking.

When Choreographers and Fashion Designers Collaborate

“It’s a process that can be amazing even though it involves a lot of work,” said Marc Happel, director of costumes for New York City Ballet (NYCB). “It’s exciting to work with these designers and help them realize their vision.”

Marc Happel with Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony and Kenzo in the New York City Ballet Costume Shop, courtesy of Opening Ceremony.

Marc Happel with Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony and Kenzo in the New York City Ballet Costume Shop, courtesy of Opening Ceremony.

NYCB’s annual fashion galas featuring world premieres, the dancers clad in costumes by top fashion designers, were a relatively new venture when launched in 2010 at the impetus of board member — and fashion “It girl” — actress Sarah Jessica Parker. The 2015 collaborations, which received a range of reviews, both positive and negative, included a revival by NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins with costumes by Peter Copping of Oscar de la Renta, and a world premiere by National Ballet of Canada’s choreographic associate Robert Binet with costumes by Hanako Maeda of the label Adeam.

Fashion fans are anticipating the upcoming fall gala not just because of the rarity of featuring two women choreographers among the four to be featured, but because of the high caliber of designers attached to this year’s gala. The September 2016 gala will feature works by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa with designer Rosie Assoulin; NYCB principal Lauren Lovette with designer Narciso Rodriguez; NYCB principal Justin Peck with designer Dries van Noten; and Peter Walker with designer Jason Wu.

Of course, collaborations between choreographers and fashion designers have a long tradition. Indeed, such collaborations abound in Europe. The House of Alexander McQueen, both before and since the designer’s death, has made it a point to work with choreographers.

In this country, partnerships between choreographers and fashion designers are a less frequent occurrence. This is especially the case in the modern dance world, although there have been some notable exceptions.

A 1997 collaboration between Merce Cunningham and avant garde Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, who founded the house Comme des Garcons, resulted in his “Scenario.” Audiences were able to see the piece and the original costumes in 2013 when the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis hosted the retrospective exhibition, “Dance Works III: Merce Cunningham/Rei Kawakubo.”

More recently, modern dance choreographer Stephen Petronio has made it a point to collaborate with a range of artists including fashion designers, most notably the award-winning American designer Rodriguez, whose A-list clients have ranged from First Lady Michelle Obama to Hollywood stars like Salma Hayek and Parker.

In the artist’s statement that has accompanied announcements of his various awards and appearances, Petronio has spoken of his belief in the necessity for collaborating with other artists, among them he included fashion designers. Said Petronio, “Dance can speak with candor and invention of a cultural moment most sublimely in tandem with other artistic disciplines — contemporary music, visual arts, fashion. I am inspired by the artists from these disciplines in an immediate way when we are face-to-face (and often head-to-head). We prod each other into new discovery.”

In the commercial theater world, fashion designer Emilio Sosa, a finalist on television’s popular designer reality show “Project Runway,” has forged a dual career designing for Broadway (“The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess,” for which he earned a Tony nomination; “Motown: The Musical,” “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” and the current “On Your Feet!”) while also working on ready-to-wear collections.

Yet even with its  long history of collaborations with major fashion designers, fashion and choreographic partnerships from classical ballet to Broadway have not been without their critics.

“It’s tending to be a gimmick now and when it’s a gimmick it doesn’t work,” said the Danceview Times’ critic Mary Cargill. “It’s a way to try to make a splash and raise some money. It’s trying to generate a little bit of excitement about something [beyond the choreography].”

She adds: “But bad choreography and bad costumes aren’t exciting.”

Not that there haven’t been some successful collaborations between choreographers and major fashion designers. Most critics lauded the armor-like costumes of black, layered plastic discs created by Iris van Herpen for Benjamin Millepied’s “Neverwhere,” for New York City Ballet’s Fall 2013 gala. “I know nothing about the fashion world, but I loved Iris van Herpen’s costumes,” said noted dance critic Wendy Perron, editor-at-large for Dance Magazine. “I was so surprised because so many bad costumes come out of those galas,” she said. “But that one, I felt, just had this slightly sinister feel to it, which was exactly right for Benjamin’s piece. And it also had some kind of boot that were pointe shoes, which was just very cool. I hadn’t seen that. And you could hear the costumes, which just added to the whole thing.”

And Millepied’s comments on the collaboration would seem to be what most observers would hope such a venture would be about. Said Millepied in a video about the collaboration, “You always want a collaborator that is going to take you some place you didn’t think about. And Iris, she’s designing a costume that’s unique and doesn’t really repeat the same things we’ve seen on stage.”

Fashion Collaborations Introduce New Audiences to Dance

While some critics cited the Millepied-van Herpen collaboration for “Neverwhere” as an exception to what they see as consistent disappointments, those behind the scenes laud the collaborations as beneficial and even necessary from a business, as well as an artistic, standpoint.

“[It’s] been a fantastic collaboration because it’s gotten us in front of all the fashion press and all sorts of different kinds of outlets,” said New York City Ballet executive director Katherine E. Brown. She pointed out that the designer collaborations featured during the company’s annual fall galas also have an historical link to City Ballet’s founder. Balanchine’s legacy and penchant for collaborations with other creative minds in other fields has long been noted and admired.

“It goes back to what I was saying before: trying to maintain the integrity of what we we’re doing,” Brown said. “These projects have been successful because they follow the tradition of new work and commissioning and collaborating with artists outside of the dance world, which Balanchine did.” So while newcomers to the high-fashion, red-carpeted ballets may not realize it, Brown noted:“It’s really very much a part of the organization’s DNA and we’re building on that; it’s come naturally to the company.”

Still the critics remain — in and outside of the dance world. Among them, surprisingly, is Mizrahi. The problem, he said, can arise in the approach. In his case, he said he makes a point to approach his dance projects as a costume designer, not as a fashion designer. “I remember when I was a kid and there was this Geoffrey Beene show. He did a [fashion] show with ballet dancers and I left thinking, ‘Oh no.’ It was such a bad compromise. And that’s the problem sometimes,” Mizrahi said, referring to 20th-century American designer Beene. “Fashion is fashion and ballet costumes are ballet costumes. You have to separate.

“Look, I’ve been to a lot of bad fashion shows and I’ve been to a lot of good ones. And I don’t want that near my ballet. I don’t think ballet and fashion are always good together. For me, I have those two sides to my work. But I usually don’t put them together. I think they’re at odds with each other.” Mizrahi noted some exceptions to his rule, including the athletically influenced costumes for Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” designed by Norma Kamali and Oscar de la Renta’s elegant costumes for Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs.”

“But otherwise, I say leave the dance costumes to Karinska, a William Ivey Long, or one of the great costume designers,” he said, alluding to George Balanchine’s long-time tutu designer Barbara Karinska, and popular Broadway designer Long.

A 2014 fashion exhibit celebrating the intersection of dance and fashion looked at the bright side of the tradition. Called appropriately enough “Dance and Fashion,” the exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum in New York City, featured a vast assortment of costumes, mostly from the ballet world, along with dance-inspired fashion and artifacts like pointe shoes. A smattering of pieces also represented the modern dance world, featuring designs by Halston, Francisco Costa of Calvin Klein and actress/designer Tara Subkoff.

Many of the newer costumes were accompanied by placards boasting quotes from designers about their inspirations and creative process. The quotes showed that while many designers were enraptured by the pleasure of watching movement through space, some designers had a firm understanding of the specific needs for a dance costume.

“The key difference between fashion design and costume design is one of perspective,” designer Gilles Mendel, a fifth-generation French designer, was quoted in the exhibit. “In dance, the garment needs to register from twenty feet away. But the true alchemy comes down to the dance, whose grace and athleticism bring the costumes, quite literally, to new heights.”

So yes, at last some of the fashion folks understand. The fashion tail should not wag the dancing dog, so to speak. And when these creations do work — visually as well as from a functionality perspective, there is excitement and buzz such as the van Herpen creations generated for “Neverwhere.”

So what’s the answer? Have our eyes been spoiled by the austere Balanchinean look of practice clothes for the stage? Robert Greskovic, dance critic for the Wall Street Journal and author of Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet, said he’s definitely not advocating for plain or safe costuming. “The thing that I really hope not to see any more of is the workaday outfits when a company has those designers that they always rely on,” he said. “I just find that what these handy people do is often dull and it’s boring and I do not find that at all enhancing to any new work.” He continued: “I think there has to be some real imagination in the designer’s idea. But that imagination must be tempered by whatever the choreographer feels will or won’t enhance what he or she devises for movement.”

Karyn D. Collins

Karyn D. Collins has been a journalist for more than 30 years. A native of Chicago, Collins specializes in feature writing including dance, fashion, entertainment, and diversity. Her work has been published by the Associated Press, Jet Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, Dance Magazine, Dance Studio Life Magazine, Inside Jersey Magazine, the Camden Courier-Post, Nia Online, The Root, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Newark Star-Ledger, Dance Teacher Magazine, Life and Beauty Weekly Magazine, InJerseyMagazine, and the Asbury Park Press. Karyn is an editor-at-large for She is an adjunct professor at Rutgers University, William Paterson University, and Bloomfield College in N.J., and a faculty member at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque and Mahwah, N.J. She is a former chair of the Dance Critics Association and the founding chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Arts and Entertainment writer’s task force.


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