Those who saw singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens only on his solemn “Carrie & Lowell” tour last year may have been shocked by the kaleidoscopic explosion of color, wings, balloons and other flights of fancy that accompany his summer tour this year, which stops at Wolf Trap on Friday.
The wild costume design is due in part to New York fashion designer Adam Selman, known for his work with Rihanna.
Selman, 34, is a rising name, having been picked as one of this year’s finalists in the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund (the winner will be announced in November). Selman cut his teeth on concert-costume design after graduating from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, and he has worked with Stevens since 2010. We spoke recently with the designer from his New York studio.
Q: Do you and Sufjan go way back?
A: We do, actually. He reached out to me a little over five years ago. I helped him with “The Age of Adz” tour, and we clicked and became good friends after the tour.
Q: What was he looking for in that tour?
A: A friend of his set us up because I’m sort of known for doing pop stars, as far as the costumes go, and “Age of Adz” was his experimental pop album. So I think he wanted full circle with his costumes as well. I think it was an experiment on his part, too. That’s what he wanted. He wanted, like, an explosion of costumes. So we looked back and we started elegant, and it just turned into a massive rave party toward the end.
Q: Is that the idea this summer as well?
A: It actually is really similar to that in a way, but it’s just sort of modernized for 2016. He reached back out and we took “The Age of Adz” ideas and re-tweaked to them make them a little bit fresher. He said he’d been on a longer, quieter tour and he wanted to have fun this summer.
Q: Did he bring some of his own elements into it?
A: He had been sewing. We had been texting and keeping up and stuff, and he’s like, “I’m making these pants. I’m calling them ‘soft pants.’ ” And then when he asked me to do the tour, I said, “Why don’t we dress everyone in the band in soft pants?” So we did that, and added neon to everything and lots of patterns — pattern, pattern, pattern — just to amp everything and take everything over the top.
Q: And what are “soft pants,” exactly?
A: They’re just elastic cotton track pants, basically — all one big pattern piece that he would turn into a pair of pants. So I took a pair that he had made and just copied them and made them in different sizes for all the band members.
Q: It seems like there are balloons and streamers involved as well.
A: Yes, they’re actually all attached to a clear trench coat. Then every night before the show, Sufjan takes it and adds balloons and streamers and just does whatever comes to him. And then he leaves things that were on from the last show, and just keeps adding to it, so it’s just the bigger the better. It’s a methodical process for him. So I provided the vehicle, and he changes it every show.
Q: Are there things you have to keep in mind when designing for concerts rather than the runway?
A: For me, it’s really about telling a story from start to finish, and then also keeping in mind, in the age that we live in, those pictures that live on from that story. . . . So the beginning of the concert is when all of the photographers are there, and the biggest impact. You want to make sure that the whole story is told, and it can unravel and go where it wants to go, and let the show live and breathe.
The clothes themselves — obviously, things have to be really light and things have to breathe, and then there’s secret stretch panels that normally in fashion you wouldn’t need because you’re wearing them day-to-day. But onstage, it gets really, really hot, or you need to move, you need to dance. So I have little tricks on how to incorporate that without the audience knowing necessarily, and still looking like fashion.
Q: Is it usual to have this much collaboration with an artist on costuming?
A: It is. I mean, for me that’s the best part of it — that their vision is really seen through and just to make sure that the clothes don’t detract from the music, but enhance it instead. The wings — we had done that like five years ago, and we just took them and added on to them a little bit and made sure they were reworked.
Q: You started your career in concert costuming?
A: Yes, I actually worked for a designer named Zaldy [Goco] for about 10 years, and he really did a lot of costume design. . . . So we worked on everyone from Michael Jackson to Britney Spears to RuPaul, Rufus Wainwright, Lady Gaga, and then toward the end of working with Zaldy, I did my first “Age of Adz” tour with Sufjan. And then right after that I got poached by Rihanna, and never went back to Zaldy. I love that that’s my background. I shifted and got into fashion, but my heart and base is really in costume.
Q: Rihanna is your other concert client?
A: I did the “Anti” tour with Rihanna, and she’s got some performances coming up in August that I’m working on as well.
Q: Does she bring a fashion sense as well when you’re working with her?
A: Oh, yes, she’s got her own thing, and she’s got her own point of view. And I love working with her because of that. It helps. It makes it easier when I know what she’s going to like, but she wants to push the boundaries of what people expect from her.
Sufjan Stevens With Thao & The Get Down Stay Down on July 22 at 8 p.m. at Wolf Trap, 1551 Trap Rd., Vienna. Tickets: $35-$65. 703-255-1900. wolftrap.org.