If you're a professional costume designer at the moment you're definitely not harbouring good thoughts about the fashion industry. It wasn't rare in the past for a fashion designer to provide the wardrobe for a specific actress, but nowadays cinema, theatre, opera and ballet have been consistently infiltrated by fashion houses and designers claiming of having just created the costumes for this or that production.
Since Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby premiered a few days ago in New York and while movie fans await its arrival in Cannes, features about Miucca Prada's costumes for the film multiplied.
The latest news about costumes mainly focused on Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci working on the new production of Maurice Ravel's "Boléro" at the Opéra de Paris with choreographies by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet, and Marina Abramovic as set designer.
In the meantime, Joseph Altuzarra's costumes for the New York City Ballet’s spring gala (with choreographies by Christopher Wheeldon) will debut next week.
All these costume news proved a good excuse to recap further collaborations that happened in more recent years including Rodarte's tutus for Black Swan; Stella McCartney's costumes for her father's first ballet, "Ocean's Kingdom" (2011), and Jean Paul Gaultier's for "Le Nozze di Figaro" at the Opéra National de Montpellier last year; Valentino's gowns for the New York City Ballet, and, more recently, Vivienne Westwood loaning some of her Spring/Summer 2013 looks to the English National Ballet for the company's new campaign.
Lacroix's costumes for Bizet’s "The Pearl Fishers" for the Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg wil debut this May, while he's still working on the ballet costumes for Balanchine’s "The Crystal Pavilion" for the Paris Opera Ballet (to be staged next May).
In some cases such as Vivienne Westwood for the English National Ballet, famous fashion designers were enlisted to attract a younger audience or renew the image of a company; in others, directors and producers set on specific designers who have some connections with dance or theatre or a long-standing tradition of working for the stage. For example, Thierry Mugler was a dancer, Altuzarra studied ballet, while Christian Lacroix started working for the theatre in 1986 and designed costumes for productions both in France and abroad, winning twice the Molière Award, France’s national theatre prize for Best Costume Designer.
Yet there is one basic problems with all these contemporary designers and fashion houses suddenly turning costume designers: in most cases the designers do not have any passion for what they are doing or any basic knowledge of the disciplines practiced on that stage or behind that camera. An admirer of Maurice Béjart, the late Gianni Versace was one of the most prolific designers and creator of costumes, but we all know that his sister Donatella doesn't have the same passion or skills.
Designing a costume as we learnt from previous posts on this site is a radically different art from creating a fashion collection. A costume is an exercise in theatricality that must also take into account the movement, gestures and comfort of the wearer; a fashion collection is mainly a commercial exercise, the result of a series of factors, from trends to desirability.
While some designers lack the skills and humbleness to work for the stage, the main problem at the moment is that, rather than designing from scratch, most of these designers are mainly adapting costumes borrowing from their previous work.
Miuccia Prada's Great Gatsby costumes reference recent collections: the infamously famous chandelier dress seen in the film's trailer is for example taken from Prada's Spring/Summer 2010 collection.
Tisci adapted his Autumn/Winter 2010 collection for Givenchy with its memento mori themes in the costumes for Ravel's "Bolero", coming up with a flowing nude silk tulle skirt with underneath skin-tone tulle bodysuits covered in embroideries that imitate bones and reproduce the outline of a skeleton.
Apparently the main aim of the choreographers was pushing the eleven dancers - all wearing the same costume - to abandon themselves to the rhythm of the music, symbolically shedding their skins and turning into moving skeletons. This is why during the piece, from twirling dervishes in tulle skirts they become theatrical incarnations of Kriminal (ah, if only we could ask certain dancers or actors what they think about their costumes...).
One of the critiques moved to such famous collaborations focuses on the fact that a ballet, an opera or a theatrical piece shouldn't be about the costumes, since, unfortunately, in some cases the coverage given to costumes unfairly overshadowed the performance. Yet there is also another problem with these recent examples.
Recycling such themes and inspirations denotes a lack of imagination and of artistic vocabulary, something that became quite clear in 2011 when, interviewed by Newsweek about designing the costumes for her father's first ballet, Stella McCartney stated "I do performance wear and these dancers are athletes, so I have an understanding of that. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that you have to use stretch materials if you're working with ballerinas."
In a nutshell, clad them in Lycra and you're done, this is probably why you expected some of the dancers in "Ocean's Kingdom" to start singing "Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats" any minute, their tight suits confusing the boundaries between ballet and musical (yes, there is a difference there).
Talk to different costume designers and they will tell you amazing stories about finding a solution for a specific material, playing with metres and metres of plastic, spending entire weeks trying to turn pasta shapes and pan sponges into glamorously grand jewels.
Costumes create a theatrical illusion for the audience, help giving life and a personality to a character but also free the costume designer's imagination. Think about Bernard Daydé's PVC and lurex costumes for "Bacchus and Ariadne" (1967): they did echo in some ways the space age fashion trends so popular at the time, but they weren't borrowed from a specific fashion collection (and look at the details included in the sketch and at the notes of the designers).
According to reports, Tisci said he had made one of his dreams come true, "It is one of the dreams of a designer to design costumes for a ballet." You wonder why if it's your dream to become a costume designer you don't study for such a career. But then we all know that nowadays many careers aren't built on talents, skills or studies, but on connections and on the celebrities you know.
If you're a costume designer, don't despair, you will have your consolation one day: costumes made decades ago are still touring museums and being showcased at special events all over the world. After generating buzz, attention and advertising opportunity, contemporary costumes tour the windows of flagship stores, but, in thirty years' time, they will doubtfully be exhibited in contemporary art museums. After all Prada is not Umberto Brunelleschi.
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