Fashion Designers doing costumes? But, Isn't that too theatrical?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

La Source at the Opéra National de Paris with Lacroix costumes
The New York Times published an article on Halloween called "What Christian Lacroix Did Next" (by Suzy Menkes), about the famous fashion designer's work in a recent ballet since his fashion house closed down.  It's an interesting article in which he explains what the difference is between working as a fashion designer and working as a performance designer.  He says, "I was often accused--when people did not like my work--of doing couture that was too 'theatrical'...  Yet when I was a child, I never thought about fashion but only about making costumes."

I've heard of other designers who have worked in theatre, ballet, or movies. There have been quite a few--fashion and costuming are closely related fields. Zandra Rhodes did a very famous version of Mozart's The Magic Flute for the San Diego Opera.  Jean-Paul Gaultier has done movies, most notably The Fifth Element that featured some 934 different costumes.  Even the late Alexander McQueen worked for the theatrical costumer supplier Angels and Bermans in the 1980s.

I've often lamented the derision that is communicated when one calls a fashion piece "too theatrical".  I've heard Michael Kors use it many times on Project Runway.  I've never understood how one can summarily classify things so easily when attire is so obviously such a matter of personal taste.  In the end, I have to suppose that making a statement like that is informed by his understanding of the industry and sales and such.   

The Magic Flute with costumes by Zandra Rhodes
But I don't put too much stock in his opinion anymore since the traditional way the fashion industry works is, as a whole, dying...  I'm not sure anyone can truly "know" the fashion industry anymore or describe what works and what doesn't.  It's beginning a big shift from what it was for the 20th century into something new for the 21st.  I'm not sure what that's going to be, but being able to say anything as a "surety" about the fashion industry is a rather risky venture...  It's changing too quickly for anyone to be able to predict where it's going.  The advent of the internet has "democratized" fashion in a way that nothing has before, and taken the major distribution channels (that were the advantage of brick and mortar stores) and turned them on their heads...  

Perhaps Mr. Kors can speak to what sells in stores, but I am not sure he can speak to what people are choosing to wear.  There are many many people out there that aren't impacted by the fashion dictates of Fashion Week in New York City, London, Paris, Tokyo, or Milan... Since World War II, young people have followed the dictates of what they like over what they are told to like, and that spirit has grown stronger with each generation.  Witness the 1960s hippie look, then punk, then grunge, then goth, then hip hop, then retro, then emo...  I would venture to say that there might be many more "style tribes" out there today than there are shoppers of current trends!  Mall stores have their place, but they're far from the overwhelming influencers on attire that they used to be.  Believe it or not, today's kids look at the major store offerings as a "stereotypical" look all it's own...  It's left the fashion industry in a tailspin, unable to sustain itself...

With today's economy the way it is, I feel people are more apt to purchase one of two styles.  The first is the essentials that they need as a base--t-shirts, pants, shoes, etc.  These are the things that might be subject to slight shifts and changes in looks but are basically staples for anyone's wardrobes.  The second style are the "interesting" pieces that people will buy to flesh out their closets--the nice pieces that are more expensive, or unique, or that they wear for special occasions. I.E. the "Luxury Items".  There's a range of course--more expensive basics and less expensive luxury items--but the two extremes still create an axis around which everything rotates...

Alexander McQueen from "Savage Beauty"
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC
So my question is, if you're going to spend the money for something special, don't you want it to be something you can't find at a mall?  Isn't the newest direction for the fashion industry really anti-fashion and reinvention?  Isn't being theatrical, dramatic, unusual and unique actually a selling point?  To some extent?  

We celebrate the unusual and dramatic in attire all the time--from Madonna's cone bra to McQueen's museum exhibit, Savage Beauty.  We may not be "brave" enough to actually wear these things (or actually have anywhere to wear them to), but we appreciate and marvel at their uniqueness and allure.  Finding the line, finding the balance, finding the personal appeal that empowers us (rather than embarrasses us) is what it's all about.  And there are more and more people taking more and more chances in attire all the time, choosing to embrace the empowerment rather than succumb to the judgement.  "Theatrical" is becoming relative, I think.

Live Life with Relish.

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