Fashion designers and dancers: a perfect fit

September 23, 2011

While New York’s Fashion Week has come to an end, the New York City Ballet is having its own fashion moment. For its new production, “Ocean’s Kingdom,” ex-Beatle Paul McCartney wrote the orchestral music and libretto — and daughter Stella, the fashion designer known for slouchy, oversize clothing, has created her first-ever dance costumes.

The 45-minute ballet, choreographed by Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, premiered Thursday and continues through the coming Thursday at Lincoln Center; it will be repeated there Jan. 19 through 29. (No word yet on whether it will be performed when the company comes to the Kennedy Center in April.) For his first assay in ballet, the former rocker stuck to traditional characters — a prince and princess — from warring realms of earth and ocean. The collision of kingdoms is somewhat akin to the merger of a pop star with ballet, no?

But as for the mixing of high fashion and dance, that combination has a long and fruitful history. Some of the biggest names on the runway have sketched and stitched for the far less lucrative performing arts arena. Stella McCartney is following in the well-heeled footsteps of Halston (for Martha Graham), Oscar de la Renta and Norma Kamali (for Twyla Tharp), Marc Jacobs (for Benjamin Millepied’s “Amoveo” at the Paris Opera Ballet), Isaac Mizrahi (for Mark Morris and Tharp) and Rodarte (tutu makers for the film “Black Swan”).

Going by sketches McCartney released just before press time, her costumes for “Ocean’s Kingdom” make a dramatic statement. In rich colors and fluid cuts, they echo the ballet’s watery theme and borrow from the V-necks, roomy sleeves and broad shoulders of her fall ready-to-wear collection.

In crafting the dance wardrobe, McCartney, 40, has undoubtedly drawn on her experience fitting active bodies for Adidas, for whom she makes a line of women’s sports and yoga apparel. She is also designing the uniforms that the British Olympic team will wear in the 2012 Summer Games.

But will her bold designs suit the New York City Ballet dancers? Creating costumes that allow for a range of motion and enhance rather than distract from the choreography — and can withstand the abuse of sweating and laundering — takes a knowledgeable hand. And a practiced eye.

Consider de la Renta, who appraised Elaine Kudo’s dimensions from a glance, the former soloist with American Ballet Theatre recalls. Kudo was fitted by de la Renta for the dress she wore in Tharp’s “Sinatra Suite” — which had its world premiere at the Kennedy Center in 1983. Kudo recalls that the designer famed for dressing first ladies absorbed what he needed to know about her body from a single fitting.

When she and an ABT associate met with de la Renta at his office on New York’s Seventh Avenue, Kudo says she didn’t change out of her street clothes and the designer barely spoke to her.

“He looked me over for size and for the general flavor of what I looked like,” she says. “We discussed the needs of the duet.” Because the dance contained different moods, the dress “couldn’t be so specific to one style or another, and it would have to fit into the tough duet as well as the romantic. He took some measurements, and that was it.”

A few weeks later, the dress arrived — a sheer black frock that fell in soft folds from a fitted bodice. It was made of a double layer of chiffon, with an underskirt of midnight blue.

“It fit like a dream,” says Kudo, speaking from the Washington Ballet, where she is the newly appointed ballet master. “I’ve never had anything fit so well.”

That’s high praise indeed, as it’s safe to say that dancers evaluate fit on a far higher level than the rest of us. “It didn’t gap, it didn’t buckle, it didn’t slip, it didn’t ride,” says Kudo. “It fit like a skin on my body. It felt like I had nothing on. I don’t ever remember it catching on my shoe or tearing.”

What’s even better, the glamour of the entire costume, which included dressy heels rather than pointe shoes, permeated her mood onstage. The feeling of primping for a special date started early, in the dressing room.

“You really didn’t feel like it was a ballet,” Kudo says. “I wore real pantyhose, not ballet tights. As you were getting ready to dance this piece, it was like you were going out.”

But it’s not only for the thrill of flaunting fine couture that fashion designers are prized in the dance world. It’s for their visual sense. Choreographers may have no more than a vague idea of what they want their dancers to wear, but they know when and where they want the audience’s attention focused. A canny designer who can make an outfit pop — whether on a Hollywood red carpet or in an opera house — is a highly valued collaborator.

Tharp has turned to fashion designers for so many of her costumes because “first of all, they’re addicted to clothes.”

“They’re consumed by clothes,” says Tharp from Chicago, where she’s creating a work for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. “They’re invested with every aspect of how the body is covered and uncovered. . . . Their primary focus is bodies looking fantastic from every angle.”

In addition to de la Renta (who also made the witty cocktail dresses for Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs”), Tharp has turned to such garmentos as Ralph Lauren, Gianni Versace, Geoffrey Beene and Isabel Toledo, designer of Michelle Obama’s inauguration dress — and most frequently, to Kamali.

Don’t these brand names come with a hefty price? Tharp says no.

“Some in the dance world say, ‘Oh God, she’s being so chi-chi; think how much that’s got to cost.’ But some of them were working at no fee; they’ve given their time.”

For “Ocean’s Kingdom,” Stella McCartney made “her resources available at a very reduced level,” according to a statement from New York City Ballet Executive Director Katherine E. Brown. Paul McCartney donated his services.

In 1986, Kamali created the striking black-and-white pajamas and lipstick-red dresses for Tharp’s “In the Upper Room,” one of the choreographer’s most famous works. It is also the one most closely associated with its set and costume design — when you think of the piece, you see smoke, stripes and slashes of red.

It was Kamali’s idea to add the jolt of red on some dancers, in leotards, pointe shoes and a few little dresses much like ones on the rack in her midtown Manhattan boutique, Tharp says. The color was just the accent to underscore the work’s concept of stripping down, and of culture clash (as in, ballet and modern dance colliding in Philip Glass’s aural plane).

Kamali is also making the costumes for Tharp’s new as-of-yet-untitled piece, which Hubbard Street is premiering next month, with music by Domenico Scarlatti. Tharp describes the work’s wardrobe as “phantasmagoric, with pattern and color flashing through space.”

It was the late fashion photographer Richard Avedon, one of Tharp’s closest friends, who introduced her to Kamali. A designer of comfortable, practical clothes, she makes choosing costumes easy, the choreographer says.

“I go to her shop, I poke around. I say, ‘Norma, this is really nice, let’s do some costumes from this.’ What she has on a hanger, with a nip here and a tuck there, we put on the stage.”

It’s not surprising that the designer’s fashions would translate well to the stage, for Kamali is known for lightweight parachute-silk creations, stretchy jersey separates and, most of all, for her swimsuits. (She made the red one-piece Farrah Fawcett wore in her famous 1976 pinup poster) Kamali says her body-conscious designs reflect a sympathy with dancers that goes back to her youth.

“I love dance,” says the designer. Wearing a slim navy pinstripe suit with a nude mesh top peeking through the lapels, Kamali is greeting well-wishers at the launch of a 3-D film of her spring 2012 collection during Fashion Week one recent morning, at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium. (Her Web site, www.normakamali3d.com, also features the film.) With her curvaceous build, wide smile and glossy dark hair, Kamali projects a sense of vivid physicality and outright sexiness. (Much like her clothes.)

“I studied anatomy and was really wanting to be a painter. When I transferred my psyche to fashion, any time I could work with dancers. . .” She sweeps an arm through space. “I mean, Rudolf Nureyev was on my wall in my childhood!”

Making clothes for bodies that will bend, leap and be tossed around by their partners is not that different from designing the ruched bikinis that sell at Bergdorf Goodman, Kamali says.

“The clothes I do are for the body. It’s what I do. If you make swimsuits, it’s all engineered. It has to be able to accommodate the body.”

The proof of this is on the overhead screen, where models in 1940s pompadours wearing retro-influenced styles — gold lamébathing suits, body-hugging gowns and fringed crop tops — are spinning and swaying to Imelda May’s sultry “All for You.”

“Every hook, every clip,

every twitch of the zip,

yeah, it’s all . . . for . . . you . . . ”

For the runway world, the dancing in Kamali’s presentation of her collection is a unique look. On the catwalk, most models simply stride by, stone-faced and, depending on the height of their footwear, somewhat stiffly. To the delight of those who crowded the atrium to watch this irresistible film over and over, the same fascination with bodies in motion that brought Kamali into the theater realm has infiltrated her native element.

“You’ve got models who can dance!” exclaims Ken Downing, fashion director for Neiman Marcus. “The casting is fantastic.”

What he and the rest of the viewers drawn to Kamali’s display of spring looks and springy steps have discovered is this: Dance and fashion are a natural fit.

But then, quite a few choreographers have known that for ages.

“They’ve been unbelievably generous because they love dance,” says Tharp of her famous-label collaborators. “They love the body in movement.”

kaufmans@washpost.com

8 For more dance-inspired runway fashions, go to washintonpost.com/ style.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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