Trees in eerie colors, fairy tale flowers, and children outlined against the forest in a parade of prettiness… Even before the first step was taken, this A Midsummer Night’s Dream ballet was enchanting.
The applause turned into an ovation at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, but it was not only for the dancers, nor for this interpretation of George Balanchine’s ballet from 1962. It was also for the costumes of Christian Lacroix, who, since his couture house went into administration in 2009, has concentrated on costume design on an international scale.
From 200 dresses glowing in red or turquoise velvet, through intricate lace as delicate as a spider’s web, to one million Swarovski crystals twinkling in tulle or tiaras – this was an on-stage echo of the intensely decorative clothes the designer once sent down the runways.
But Lacroix himself, known for couture work as light, pretty, sweetly colored, and appetizing as a plate of macaroons, is quick to correct the theory that he took to the theatre after his fashion business closed. His interest in costume started back in 1985 during his early role as designer at the house of Jean Patou.
“I didn’t think about fashion; I thought about theatre,” Lacroix tells me. “Fashion was an accident.” After two decades of his own brand, where the effervescent effects and exceptional handwork marked fashion history, does the designer, more than 30 years on, really believe he was wedded to the wrong cause?
“Of course I loved couture as much as theatre. I think I took the path I did because the 1980s and 1990s were so very theatrical and operatic that everyone played their part,” the designer says.
“But I never tried to create a fabric, a cut, or a new silhouette. I just wanted to create ambiences that were theatrical or cinematic, starting with intimate images, historicism, and folklore.”
The surprise of the ballet was that instead of the usual stage sets, Lacroix appeared to use the same brush strokes and textures for the backdrops as for the costumes. So as tutus bounced to the rhythm of the dance, splashes of paint, the color of bougainvillea, appeared on the underside of the tulle in graduated layers of color – just as a similar shade could be found in the magic forest. There, flat flowers appeared to zoom in and out, as if they were digital projections, while the rich colors were set off by the mud brown of Bottom’s donkey head.
Add the effect of fireflies twinkling in the tree canopy at the finale and both set and costumes seemed like an artist’s canvas.
Lacroix explains the painterly effects: “The colors are dyed, like the rose-pink tulle under the tutus, occasionally repainted, often chosen from existing palettes – but it is the way the light is used that gives them a feeling of being unreal and dreamlike.”
The costumes had two major fashion supporters. First, sponsor Nadja Swarovski, who had worked previously with Lacroix in 2011, threw herself and her team of 70 into the task of “crystallizing” 210 costumes and 90 headpieces, including crowns, tiaras, and diadems. That involved 10 000 hours of work, weaving crystals and pearls into tulle and organza, including the creation of whisper-delicate butterfly wings.
The other collaborator in decorative art was the dentelle lace-and-tulle weaving by Sophie Hallette in Caudry, northern France. She works with international fashion houses and also teaches at Central Saint Martins school in London, and created the lace for the Duchess of Cambridge’s Alexander McQueen wedding dress.
“We worked for nearly three months on the ballet – with Chantilly lace, embroidered handwork, and metallic gold,” the couture lacemaker says.
The only thing constraining the orgy of gorgeousness for the ballet costumes was the New York-based George Balanchine Trust, which required all the costumes and sets to be approved before they could go on stage in Paris.
Xavier Ronze, head of couture at Paris Opera Ballet, was in charge of making sure that his team of 36 costumiers appreciated the importance of Lacroix’s vision for the success of the spectacle over the two months they worked on it. Every drawing, element of stage decoration, and outfit had to be approved and validated by the George Balanchine Trust. “It’s entirely a Lacroix universe – his propositions, his colors, his ribbons – but we were always thinking what Mr Balanchine would have wanted,” Ronze says.
So what had inspired Lacroix to create this picture-postcard vision of William Shakespeare’s 1595 play?
“For me, the ambience was in those old books you might find in the attic or at the flea market,” the designer says. “I was thinking about old illustrations, often the ones in 19th-century English children’s books. Like Alice, I wanted to go through the other side of the mirror. I adore old-fashioned pop-up books, too. Then there is the work from the 1840s to 1880s of the British artist Richard Dadd in the Victoria and Albert Museum. And there was an exhibition about paintings of fairies at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1997 and the Frick Collection in New York in 1999. I based a whole couture collection on that theme.”
So when did that moment come, when Lacroix switched his fascination with the performing arts – “music, decor, makeup, costumes, history” – towards fashion?
“When I was a child, I wanted to be a costumier: I didn’t think about fashion, but about the films of Fellini and Visconti,” the designer says. “It’s not that I couldn’t find a job in the theatre, but I was pushed towards fashion by friends already in the profession. But when I met with Karl Lagerfeld in 1978, he immediately saw the theatrical side of my portfolio and gave me contacts in that milieu.
With hindsight, it was the fashion shows as spectacle that remain my happiest memories of couture. But I have no regrets.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Le Songe d’une nuit d’été) runs for nine performances at the Opéra Bastille until March 29 2017