Ballet and fashion fans who were busy throughout September with the fashion weeks, may have missed the news about Olivier Theyskens, Prabal Gurung and Iris Van Herpen designing costumes for the New York City Ballet gala, so let's do a bit of catching up.
While proving that the fascination of fashion designers with ballet and with the process of creating costumes for the stage continues year after year (though it's mainly dictated by the hope of finding a new and younger audience for a very classic art...), this particular collaboration seems to be quite interesting for two main reasons: first, each designer was matched with a choreographer - Theyskens with Angelin Preljocaj, Gurung with Justin Peck and Van Herpen with Benjamin Millipied; second, the way some of the materials the designers employed challenged and pushed to the limit the New York City Ballet costume design unit.
The videos made to accompany and advertise the collaboration provide insights on how the designers proceeded in their difficult task of creating costumes and indirectly highlight the main differences between last year's collaboration with Valentino Garavani.
For Peck’s piece, "Capricious Maneuvers" Gurung designed flowing red, white and black minidresses incorporating black leather harnesses and feathers for the women, and white tank tops and black tights, again crossed by a black harness, for the men.
Unfortunately, Gurung didn't leave entirely behind his own style and kept firmly in mind his "American sportswear-meets-couture" roots, limiting in this way himself, missing the chance of being more creative, and finally breaking away from his runway vision.
Preljocaj’s "Spectral Evidence" was based on the Salem witch trials and Theysken's idea of adding symbolic red silicone Scarlet Letter-evoking marks on the nude unitards donned by the female dancers was convincing. Theysken quickly grasped the difference between fashionable clothes and costumes. The best thing about theatre, ballet or film is indeed the fact that, in these arts, you can create better illusions by employing unusual materials.
The stain-like red silicone shapes strategically placed on the back or on the arms and legs (mind you, it could have been avoided around the buttocks area since it created an unwanted baboon bum effect...) symbolically marked the witches with society's stigma, adding a touch of dramatic theatricality to the costumes that clashed with the conservative clerical suits the designer made for the male dancers.
Iris van Herpen's designs for Millepied’s ballet "Neverwhere" were probably the ones that challenged Marc Happel, the director of costumes at the New York City Ballet, the most (in this case computer technology was also employed to design the patterns).
The black unitard for the men and the strapless dress for the women with a skirt that highlighted the curves of the dancer were entirely covered in translucent strips of plastic that, forming a sort of scale armour (and vaguely resembling Iris Van Herpen's designs from her Spring/Summer 2011 "Escapism" collection) created the optical illusion of changing with the light on stage.
The Dutch designer also came up with a boot-like spat that, sewn over the pointe shoes, gave a futuristic and unusual shape to the ankle and the arched foot, while hinting at the empowerment behind pointed shoes or festishistic black boots.
The way Van Herpen's challenged the body (and the mental sanity of the New York City Ballet costume department...) reminds of other "dance" challenges: the Ballets Russes's "Parade" (1917) with its rigid costumes by Picasso representing skyscrapers and boulevards, and the choreograped geometries of the "Triadisches Ballett" (1922) by Oskar Schlemmer with human beings as machines and the body as a mechanism.
The doubt about such fashion and ballet collaborations remains, though: when fashion designers end up working on costumes for ballet they often forget function and practicality favouring highly visual effects. Besides, this particular collaboration with the New York City Ballet hints at the will to try and merge fashion week with the Fall season of the city ballet for marketing - and not arty - reasons (one of the designer involved, Prabal Gurung, was chosen by actress and New York City Ballet board member Sarah Jessica Parker - maybe the choice would have been dictated by technical issues and not by trendy marketing forces if she hadn't been in charge...).
That said, all the designers involved in this experience are quite young compared to other collaborations between an established fashion house and a corps de ballet, and this means they may have benefited from this experience, learning a couple of lessons.
Hopefully, these young creatives are now not just able to tell the difference between pret-à-porter and pas de bourrée, but may have understood a bit better what it means to please a big audience filling a theatre and to please a front row of glamorous women and famous editors, or what's the final difference between making a showpiece for a model walking down a runway for just a few minutes and for an athlete energetically dancing on a stage.
The really disappointing bit in all this? Iris Van Herpen's armadillo-like spats-cum-pointe shoes will never be on the market and that's almost a crime. They could have indeed attracted an entirely new generation of young girls (and grown-up women...) to the art of classical ballet.
You can keep updated with further New York City Ballet productions following their Facebook page.
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