The history of fashion features quite a few designers who created costumes for the stage and in particular for ballets. In just a few cases this collaboration produced great experiments and unique collaborations that genuinely celebrated the art of body in motion.
One of the most famous designers who successfully transitioned from the runway to the stage and perfectly combined and balanced his passion for fashion with his love for theatricality, is Christian Lacroix. The designer recently created the costumes and sets for George Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Opéra de Paris (until 29th March).
As a child Lacroix was deeply fascinated by fairground theatres and shows for children. After the performances he would usually imagine new costumes for the shows he had just seen and then draw them.
This first passion prompted him to become a fashion designer and, in 1986, he finally had the chance to work for the first time for the theatre when he met Jean-Luc Tardieu, director of the Maison de la Culture in Nantes, who asked him to design the costumes for Edmond Rostand's "Chantecler", a play with a group of barn animals as protagonists. Lacroix devised for this performance fantastically extravagant costumes that somehow echoed the animals' characteristics but did not represent them realistically.
Since this first show and from the next three decades, Lacroix designed costumes for theatrical productions both in France and abroad, winning twice the Molière Award, France's national theatre prize for Best Costume Designer, for his work in "Phèdre and Cyrano".
Lacroix always had a special talent for mixing the most disparate inspirations that in the course of the years included the Belle Epoque, Henry de Toulouse-Loutrec, the Moulin Rouge and Vincente Minnelli's musicals; in "Othello" (1995) he combined bits and pieces from flea markets such as biker jackets with luxurious fabrics; "Così fan tutte" (2006) featured streetwear such as jersey hoods mixed with historical costumes from the 18th century, while for "Carmen", staged in 1989 and directed by Antoine Bourseiller, he studied the shades and nuances used by Ignacio Zuloaga and Julio Romero de Torres in their paintings.
Lacroix first worked on these productions while designing also his fashion collections, but, in the last decade or so, after filing for bankruptcy in 2009, he has mainly focused on his theatrical career. In a way this was a natural transition: Lacroix studied art history and originally wanted to become a curator. His love for costumes eventually sidetracked him onto fashion, but he can now combine his historical knowledge and passion for the theatre in one art without getting worried about collection deadlines, sales and runways.
There are different things, though, that he has got to consider when working for the stage: collaborations with ballet companies mean that the costumes must absolutely be impeccable and must guarantee freedom of movement to the dancers.
This particular collaboration with the Paris Opera Ballet was encouraged by Benjamin Millepied who approached Lacroix two years ago while he was director of dance at the company (Aurélie Dupont, the former Paris Opera Ballet étoile who collaborated with Lacroix on her wardrobe in the "Rubies" section of Balanchine's "Jewels" in 2006, covers now this role).
Based on Shakespeare's play, this version of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" was created in 1962 for the New York City Ballet, it featured Balanchine's choreography, sets by David Hays and costumes by Karinska.
Millepied hoped for something even more opulent for this production, and, in a way, he got it: Lacroix designed around 200 costumes that incorporate metallic, white and pink lace from historical French company Sophie Hallette and decorations made with gems, pearls and over one million multi-coloured Swarovski crystals, also used for the headpieces that include around 90 crowns, tiaras, and diadems, and for the accessories such as the delicate insect and fairy wings. The costumes were made by a team of 70 people who worked on them for around 10,000 hours.
Before they could reach the stage all the costumes and sets had to be approved by the George Balanchine Trust in New York. Lacroix's tutus are therefore very classic, but the palette employed is a riot of soft shades of peach, peony and pink, bold and bright reds and blues, contrasting with bold shades of gold and with the dark brown of Bottom's donkey head.
The ethereal fairytale atmosphere is created by a dreamy use of the lights on Lacroix's sets that also include in some cases his favourite architectures of neoclassical palaces. Both in the costumes and in the sets it is possible to spot a sort of arty derivation that may be borrowed from colour lithographs from children's books of the 1890s, Victorian fairy paintings, and the works of Richard Dadd, Arthur Rackham, Estella Canziani and Richard Doyle.
It is indeed almost impossible not to spot Richard Doyle's massive long cape in his illustration "Fairy Prince in Love" (from In Fairyland, a series of Pictures from the Elf World) in the ample capes designed by Lacroix for the male dancers and in particular for Theseus, the Duke of Athens, with a cape made with six yards of sparkling and shimmering fabric.
Lacroix's enchanted world worked pretty well in this case, but creative minds willing to take this path should remember that not all fashion designers can be costumiers. A tutu is definitely not just a puff of tulle: there's indeed a lot of effort, passion and devotion in its flawless construction.