Broadway Meets the Runway: Couture Designers Bring High Fashion to the Stage

By Anika Chapin
08 Jun 2014

Audra McDonald in <i>Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill</i>
Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

Jean Paul Gaultier, Isaac Mizrahi, Tony nominee Isabel Toledo and ESosa's high fashions are high-kicking it on the stage.

A willowy figure steps into the light. Graceful and impeccably styled in the latest creation from one of the world's top fashion designers. No, she's not on a catwalk, nor is she a model. She's a performer.

Recently, so many fashion designers have worked on theatre and ballet projects, that the line between catwalk and stage has become increasingly diaphanous. With ESosa's designs colorfully illustrating the passing decades in Broadway's Motown and Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, beaded finery by Isabel Toledo sparkling on the dancers of After Midnight, and fashion's enfant terrible Jean Paul Gaultier bringing the glam to Grimm in Ballet Preljocaj's Snow White at the David H. Koch Theater, buy a ticket to a show and you might think you're in the tents of New York's fashion week.

They are in good company. Throughout history fashion designers have been drawn to the theatricality of the stage. From Chanel designing costumes for Little Miss Bluebeard in 1923, and through to Halston, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Isaac Mizrahi and others, couturiers have sometimes opted for dressing characters over customers.

This shift brings its own set of challenges. In the offstage world an item of clothing rarely has to survive being worn (and washed) eight times a week, let alone athletically danced in. "So many tailoring and dressmaker secrets are involved in pulling this off," said Isabel Toledo, whose shimmering art deco gowns and elegant tailcoats in After Midnight must remain pristine through Warren Carlyle's energetic choreography. "To see one of my gowns dance through the air and then do a split and bounce back and look gorgeous is a real thrill."

Toledo also found she had to shift how she imagines her designs. In fashion, she favors adaptability: "I like to design clothes that are versatile enough that every woman can transform them and wear them according to her personal style," said Toledo (whose frequent customer Michelle Obama wore a Toledo design for husband Barack Obama's first inauguration). When designing for the stage, however, "costumes have to very specifically help define the character, nothing should be extra, no caprice allowed." As Mizrahi put it, "you're always trying to help an actor bring a part alive." Or, in other words, "you're always the shrink."


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