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

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09 May 2013

Gregg Barnes
Gregg Barnes
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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. 

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