New York City Ballet Puts High-Fashion Costumes In Motion

Photo: Gabrielle Celeste/NYCB.
Monse costumes.
There's a rumble in the industry, and it sounds a lot like a fashion crowd who craves more than just clothes that walk down a runway. Some would go as far to say that New York Fashion Week is dead, but if you look to other parts of the city, you'll find that once a year, fashion unfolds on an even bigger stage. We're talking about the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, where each season, a handful of designers create costumes for the New York City Ballet, giving choreographers the opportunity to bring their vision to life, and fashion vanguards the chance to set their designs in motion.
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Each season, Sarah Jessica Parker, the vice chair of the NYCB's board of directors, sends Marc Happel, their director of costumes, a list of designers that is presented to the choreographers. They then familiarize themselves with the collections and aesthetic of the designers, and make their selections on who to collaborate with before beginning work on the premiere of both their works.
For this year's fall lineup, audiences will see choreographer Justin Peck team up with designer Tsumori Chisato, choreographer Lauren Lovette and designers Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim of Monse, choreographer Troy Schumacher paired with designer Jonathan Saunders, and choreographer Gianna Reisen and designer Virgil Abloh of Off-White. It's quite the list, and it includes some of the most talked about names in fashion right now, with most of the designers having recently taken over the helm of famed fashion houses, in addition to founding their own successful, eponymous labels. It's the NYCB's most high-fashion night yet.
"As a shop I would say we don’t pay too much attention to the runway shows and collections. It’s hard to say how much runway fashion references what we do here in costume design and creation, but I’m sure on a subconscious level things take root and stick in the back of my head," Happel tells Refinery29. Despite maintaining a separate focus, the couturier admits that fashion plays a hand in recreating iconic works of ballets past. "In 2012, I redesigned the costumes for George Balanchine’s Symphony in C. For that I went back to runways shows of Dior in the 50s for inspiration. They’re very different worlds, but there can be moments of overlap that can be quite beautiful."
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Photo: Erin Baiano/NYCB.
Marc Happel conducts a fitting of a Tsumori Chisato costume.
Designers Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim behind Monse and Oscar de la Renta are no strangers to fitting clothes to models, of course, but dancers were another story." We wanted the pieces to feel like they were made specific to the dancers and move with their bodies. This was a key element for us," they tell Refinery29. "The costumes are a hybrid of our first resort collection and this current spring collection, where we combined our (now staple) lacing detail with another one of our staples, the asymmetrical hemline."
Past seasons have seen designers such as Thom Browne, Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, Jason Wu, and Dries Van Noten all collaborate with the NYCB. And, despite the affair sounding a lot like a typical runway show during Fashion Month, the goal is to create something independent of both worlds — costumes that stand out on their own, each completely customized to the dancer. "One of my main jobs throughout this process is to keep the costumes from looking, being, or acting too much like a runway dress. I essentially have to take a designer’s vision and create a dance costume out of it, without compromising the integrity of their design," Happel reveals.
So, what's the highlight of the entire process? Well, for the dancers, it's a chance to use their talents to straddle two sectors of the art world that, surprisingly, don't often meet. But for Happel, who's spent the greater part of his career finding the perfect balance between the two, it's the finished product. "For me, personally, the most magical moment is when a choreographer looks at me and says 'It’s perfect.'"
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