Award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long was happily living up to his reputation as a workaholic when it suddenly hit him. Long, his staff of 13, his racks of costumes, his library of research books, his 14 framed Tony Award nominations, his scruffy antiques and all the other necessary bits and pieces that go into being a famed designer could soon be out on the street.
He'd sold his last studio/home and he had only three weeks to find a new place. But he hadn't even begun to look. "When you're working on a show, your brain is totally on that," he says.
So he not only had to find a new studio fast, he also had to fulfill certain must-haves. "I was looking for a place that could be all work all the time," Long says. "I wanted it to be street level because, when the electricity goes out, I didn't want elevators that didn't work. And I didn't want elevator strikes. I didn't want anything getting in the way of me delivering the costumes."
Miraculously, he only had to check out four places when, he says, "I fell in love with the lower two floors of a four story cond-op in TriBeCa."
The building started out in 1852 as a button factory. ("How appropriate is that?") Later it became a theatre and a burlesque house. But as of Halloween, 2009, two floors — 4,400 square feet with 14-foot-tall ceilings that he says are falling in — became Long's design studio.
The staff and their computers would take over the upper level, and Long and his research books would have the lower level with its 24 X 95 workroom all to himself.
"I didn't do any restoring," Long says, "except to tear down walls. And I've turned it into modular work spaces."
Some of the work spaces are cordoned off by racks of clothes, and some by hanging long pieces of sailcloth that's held together not by stitches but by rows of neatly placed safety pins. The dressing room is kept private by rolling clothes racks and a curtain from the North Carolina Governor's mansion. "There are three stage lights and a mirror," Long says. "What else do you need?
"It's all nice and sort of falling apart so it's very supportive of our process. It's not pristine. I find, when you go to pristine places, you can't drop things on the floor. This place is shabby chic. Everything doesn't have to be perfect."
After tearing down most of the walls, he kept one just to hang his framed 14 Tony nominations (he's won the Tony six times so far, plus too many other awards to count) and photos dear to his heart. A lookalike Anita Morris mannequin in the sensational, barely-there costume she wore in the original production of Nine is on display in that corner — ("That was a big deal for me") — as well as the famous yellow dress from Contact.
His floor is full of bookcases, 4 X 8 boards covered with photos, artwork and research of each of the projects he's working on as well as a big old table.
"I wanted a big room and a big table," Long says. "The big table so that it would be like a Mad Hatter's tea party. I can work at one end for a while, and then I can come back and work at the other end.
"I also wanted antique-y type things. I didn't want it to look industrial chic. My workspace has to be sort of funky. You can imagine things in a place like this. I think it encourages imagination."
And Long's imagination runs rampant.
How else could he keep up with all the projects he's working on? Currently that's a Kennedy Center production of Little Dancer; The Merry Widow for the Metropolitan Opera's New Year's Eve gala; The Belle of Amherst; the national tour of Cinderella (asked if he could reveal the secret of Cinderella's magic onstage change from a scullery maid's outfit to a beautiful ball gown, he grins wickedly and replies: "If I told you, I'd have to kill you"); preparing the outfits for the new Cinderella cast; costumes for Emma Stone, Cabaret's new leading lady; and the upcoming revival of On the Twentieth Century.
With all of that, The Belle of Amherst is his most front burner project. Creating the costumes for Joely Richardson, who plays Emily Dickinson, involves that big table covered in research materials about Dickinson with photos of her, her home, her different outfits, and there are even photos of her entire family. All that adds to his designs for her costumes. Out of all that, he did four sketches of suggested outfits, and Richardson picked the one she liked the most.
"Joely Richardson has to become Emily Dickinson," Long says. "So she knows what she needs from me to help support that process. That's actually the definition of a costume designer."
With so much work, Long sometimes has to sleep at the studio. "When I was in college," he says, "I used to pull all-nighters and think nothing of it. My all-nighters now include four hours of sleep. That's about the least I can go on. So I do sometimes stay here on a fold out bed. After all, this is my creative home. "What is a home? Is it just where you have your bed and your toothbrush? Or is it where you're really being you and doing your work? I think that's what counts. And that's what this studio is for me."
See more of Long's studio and designs here: