"The Most Beautiful Thing": Tony Award Winner Gregg Barnes Designs Kinky Boots' Signature Looks

By Adam Hetrick
May 9, 2013

When the costumes are referenced in the title of your multi-million dollar Broadway musical, you better hire the best to design them. Such was the case with Kinky Boots, the new high-spirited musical by Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein, which opened to acclaim on Broadway earlier this spring.

Costume designer Gregg Barnes, who conjured the ghosts of Zeigfeld Follies past in the 2012 revival of Follies (and walked away with a Tony Award for his work), stepped up to the plate with a series of dazzling looks for Kinky Boots, which earned him his fifth Tony nomination.

Based on the 2005 film of the same title, the Northampton, U.K.-set musical has a new book by Tony winner Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage aux Folles, Newsies) and music and lyrics by Grammy Award-winning "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and "True Colors" songwriter Lauper. Tony Award winner Jerry Mitchell (2004's La Cage aux Folles, Legally Blonde, Catch Me If You Can) directs and choreographs Kinky Boots, which stars Tony nominee Billy Porter (Grease, Angels in America, Smokey Joe’s Café) as outgrageous drag performer Lola, who in an upended Cinderella moment, accidentally knocks out her hero with a stiletto boot.

Barnes spoke with Playbill about creating the fantasy and reality of Kinky Boots, the divas who inspired some of Lola's looks, and his well-heeled cast. He also offered a guided tour through some of the costumes from the Tony-nominated musical.

"It's called Kinky Boots, so you know that if you don't get those boots right, you're in trouble," Barnes laughed. "When you sign the contract, it has to register that, 'I better deliver on these boots. If nothing else, I have to get that right!'"

While the in-demand Barnes isn't facing a shortage in work supply like the central character of Charlie Price in Kinky Boots, the designer faced similar challenges.

"Our story, with my little team of people who worked on the show, completely parallels the story in Kinky Boots," he said. "How do you make a boot that can have a small stiletto heel and support the weight of a male dancer and not break? It was a very tricky experiment. I can't take complete credit for it. The shoemakers, they've made a lot of stiletto heels and dance shoes, but to make them for a man is a different thing. During try-outs in Chicago two heels broke on different nights. That's your fear, that someone's going to get hurt when one of the heels breaks. So, we kept a chart of how many times it happened, and it's never happened again. We went back to the drawing board after those two pairs broke. My hat is off to T.O. Dey, who did a great percentage of the shoes along with LaDuca, who did Billy's shoes. You're only as good as the people who make the clothes with you and who you collaborate with."

Billy Porter and Stark Sands
photo by Matthew Murphy

Among the key collaborators Barnes cites is leading man Billy Porter, who stars as indefatigable drag performer Lola. Throughout the evening, Barnes clothes Porter in a nearly-endless array of styles that range from men's dress clothes, to knock-out runway couture.

"Billy Porter, how can I put this. I can't imagine having done this with anybody else - he's the most incredible collaborator. He's very smart, very intuitive about himself and also about the character. It's rare," Barnes said. "Of course actors have certain ways they like to dress, and certain parts of their body they love, and parts they don't like as much, but for him to be able to put that aside while we talked about Lola and who she was... Even during our out-of-town changes, he was never rattled. He was always gracious - he would say, 'I wanna be the best Lola I can be, and if this is a step towards that, let's do it.'"

But before Barnes discussed the details of his designs with Playbill.com, he had a confession. "I wasn't all that familiar with the world of drag," he admitted. "I hadn't seen any of 'RuPaul's Drag Race' ironically, but I thought, 'Well, I'm doing this show where drag is in the back story, so I should know more about this world.' So I rented all the seasons, and there were so many things I learned about the art of doing drag!

"It's a real tradition in the drag world to give a nod to couture or runway fashion, but very often it's divas. Because a lot of drag performance is lip synching, we thought that it's appropriate that we think of celebrity tie-in that maybe Lola might have been looking at and wanted to channel."

Click through for a tour of Kinky Boots costume sketches, in which Barnes reveals in his own words the story behind his designs, including the iconic divas who shaped Lola's style. 

Porter's first costume in the show
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The very first thing Lola wears in the club is a one-shoulder beaded mini dress. We had actually designed a different costume for the show when we were in Chicago, and for a myriad of reasons, it wasn't working. So we said, "Let's put ourselves in Lola's head and get ourselves out of our Broadway head." So we went shopping and looked at things the character would realistically find out in the world. That dress is a Herve Leger dress and we actually bought the dress for Chicago, but we re-made it for New York to make it really fit Billy's body. We covered it with these jewels that we bought. Leger would probably look at it and say, "I don't know what he's talking about that's not my dress." This look also came from the thought, "How would the character have sourced a dress and then decorated it?," which is what we did. Of course, for Broadway, it's hand-beaded and its custom-made.

Barnes' sketch for the "Black Widow"

This dress was made for a number that doesn't exist anymore in the show, called "Black Widow." The coat is like a black widow spider. When the song was cut, we kept the costume in the show for the "Land of Lola (Reprise)."

The whole story hinges on that particular boot getting broken, and setting up that Lola wears boots, so there's a scene in between "Land of Lola" and "Land of Lola (Reprise)" that gave us a chance to do an onstage shoe change. It's the first time we see her in boots. In fact, the costume was kind of designed after the fact to showcase the boots, there's a split all the way up to the waist, so the legs come out and you see those black boots.

Barnes' sketch for this costume

We have to tip our hat to Mariah Carey for this look. Jerry Mitchell had a clip, and she jumps up from the table on "American Idol" and she's wearing a beaded silver mini dress. He said, "I want it to have this kind of impact." And ironically the hair is a nod to that too, but we make everything our own.

There's a Thierry Mugler fashion show he did back in the 1980s, and he had a piece like this in one of his runway shows. It was the kind of thing I thought the character of Lola would have seen and maybe emulated in her own creation. We tried to bead the dress in almost a crocodile pattern, because the boots are crocodile. We used a lot of big shapes, because Lola says with a hot glue gun she could make the world a pretty place. So, I thought, for a person in that circumstance, I wanted to give the sense that someone who is very crafty and clever could make a dress like that.

"Sex Is in the Heel"
Photo by Matthew Murphy

This is the "Sex Is In the Heel" costume. Every time Lola enters the stage there's a set up that's just inherent in the playwriting – we quickly came to realize that every time that door stood open, you'd be holding your breath waiting to see what she's wearing. Of course, it pays off ironically in one scene when she enters dressed as a man.

We know that Lola says red is her signature color. But we thought, what color would look really good on African-American skin, but also be a bit surprising? We were talking about blue, and then Jerry found a picture of Mary J. Blige in a blue outfit that was similar to what we did.

To give you an example of the lengths we go to: we found out that the blouse Mary J. Blige wore was an Yves Saint Laurent design. We found another photo of it, and scanned the fabric so we could duplicate the quality of the blue and the quality of the pattern exactly.

The Angels arrive.
Photo by Matthew Murphy

We talked about the reality of each scene as we designed the show. When the Angels first arrive at the factory, Jerry said, "It's important that they look like they've traveled on the train. We have to believe that they didn't get beat up on the train, so it can't be too over the top. They somehow 'passed' to get to the shoe factory."

So we took the idea of a very English-looking trench coat. Then we slit all the seams on them to make it not only a great dance costume, but more in the world of drag.

A nod to Rosie

At the end of the first act, we knew that they were coming back to the factory to see the unveiling of the boot. So, in my head, I imagined that they thought, "Oh, we're gonna go help in the factory so we should look like Rosie the Riveter." So, all of the first act costumes for the Angels are a nod to the 1940s Rosie the Riveter look. Even the heels are a high-heeled work boot.

Barnes' sketch

The dress that Lola wears in "Hold Me in Your Heart" is almost an exact copy of a Whitney Houston dress [when she sang "I Didn't Know My Own Strength" at the American Music Awards]. There's something about it that feels right, because it's that kind of song – this power ballad that Billy sings, and with Whitney's passing there's this bittersweet part of her life that ties in.

The Union Jack

The finale is an abject lesson in building a number. We have the backstory of Charlie trying to save the day, but then Lola arrives in Milan, [and saves the runway show] – the bond that they developed throughout the evening pays off. Then you have a fashion show which is always thrilling! There's a light cue that they do, that lifts your spirit even more, you see the clothes more clearly, and the factory workers come in. Each step of that number that Jerry Mitchell created brings you closer to the edge of your seat.

During the fashion show, there's a Scottish-looking costume at the end that does quote Alexander McQueen. Jerry just said, "It needs to look runway worthy, but also very British." So, one of the things we did, the very last costume, is a Beefeater. There's also a Union Jack. They bookend the fashion show and it's very funny, because everyone I know who comes to the show falls in love with that Beefeater. It's got a naughty french maid quality. They all want that costume!

View more of Barnes' sketches:

View the Entire Photo Gallery
Photo by Gregg Barnes