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Broadway’s Fairy Godfather: William Ivey Long

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“I’m in charge of all the magic,” says costume designer William Ivey Long—a veritable Broadway legend—of his latest project. Having been in the biz for over thirty years, Long is in the midst of finishing the costumes (over three hundred of them) for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, which, starring Laura Osnes, will go into previews on January 25. His studio—a former strip club in Tribeca—is lined with reference images of Catherine de Médicis (she’s his muse for the wicked stepmother), sketches of the flower-, butterfly-, and vegetable-inspired outfits, and material for his fairy-tale looks, like faux fur, rich green brocade, and silver neoprene-lined leather that will be made into suits of armor. “These can’t be everyday clothes!” he quips.

Of course, little about Long is “everyday.” He’s won five Tony awards, created all the costumes for Broadway’s revival of Chicago—now in it’s eighteenth year—including the saucy Roxie Hart dresses for Brooke Shields, Christie Brinkley, and Robin Givens. He designed the flamboyant space suits for Siegfried and Roy’s Mirage Hotel show, dressed the cast of The Producers, and created the playful fifties ensembles for Hairspray. Modestly styled in a navy blazer and khakis (hailing from North Carolina, he’s a Southern boy at heart), Long sits down with Style.com to talk about working with couturier Charles James, living next door to the late artist Louise Bourgeois, and realizing the fantasy that is Cinderella.

Have you always worked out of this studio?
I used to work out of a brownstone in Chelsea. I moved in here three years ago, on Halloween night. I sold my last house to my next-door neighbor, Louise Bourgeois, for her to turn into her museum. She was fantastic and so supportive. She used to come and see the costumes, and near the end, I had to bring them to her. She would give me assignments and ask me to bring her specific things from my travels. I was so excited when I was able to find ancient tapestries, because her family, the Bourgeois family, for centuries restored and cleaned tapestries. She loved looking at all the fabrics, and she would use them to make various things, her little totems. She loved turning existing clothes that she had worn into her sculptures.

Let’s talk slippers. Did you know that, allegedly, Cinderella’s shoes were supposed to be ermine instead of glass? Some say it was an error in the seventeenth-century transcript.

No! Fur slippers would have been very surreal. And comfy. But guess who’s making my glass slippers? Stuart Weitzman! They’re made out of clear plastic. Apparently, in the seventies, when Weitzman first started, he had glass Cinderella high heels in one of his collections. Well, they were plastic made to look like glass.

How did you come to work with Stuart Weitzman?

It’s a complicated thing with producer connections, etc. Usually I don’t have such exalted playmates. Stuart is so charming. He fit the shoe on Laura Osnes’ foot for the first time the other day, and he was just like the prince. But I’m working with eight shops on the actual costumes. I’m in charge of the “magical” dress transformations, so my shops have to be knowledgeable about the intricacies of this and that. Nobody comes onstage to help the actors. They do it themselves. And it doesn’t black out, there’s no puff of smoke. They really do the magic in front of you.

What did you most enjoy about making the Cinderella costumes?

I’m just a kid. I love the magic of the theater. Years ago, I designed the costumes for Siegfried & Roy at the Mirage Hotel, and it ran for eleven years, until that accident with the tiger. And what I learned from them is that magic is right there in front of you. Anyway, this is the first time I’ve been in charge of all the clothing transformations, and I love seeing people change. That’s what costume designers do: We help people become other people. So to answer your question, the most exciting thing is transforming the Fairy Godmother. She starts out as an old crone and, within a few seconds in front of your very eyes, you see the process. Her dress has pins that pull out and make the panniers pop up—they start out as baskets that she’s been collecting toadstools in.

You have images of Catherine de Médicis and her gowns pinned up on your concept board. Do you often look to fashion history for inspiration?

Yes! We always stand on inherited memories, and you learn from people of the past. Whenever young people tell me “Oh, look at this!” I smile and say, “You cannot tell me Schiaparelli didn’t do this first.” Anyway, I have three degrees—an undergraduate degree in history and graduate degrees in Renaissance and Baroque architecture and scenic design from Yale Drama School, where I studied costumes. After that, I apprenticed myself to the couturier Charles James. I moved to the Chelsea Hotel to be near him. It took me six months of stalking him, and then I worked with him until he died, which was three years.

Why did you end up choosing costume design over fashion?

I love storytelling. And the difference between fashion and costume is quite simple. Costume is about helping an actor become someone else and helping them show the arc of development within the play. Whereas fashion is the fashion designer imagining the people they want and encouraging people to be the best they can be.

I heard that you designed your first costume for your dog. Can you tell me about that?

I was very interested in making things. And I’ve never been interested in wearing anything myself. It’s never been about me. But I was studying the Elizabethan period and someone had left some ripped-up pillowcases lying around. I just got my needle and thread, started sewing, and I thought I had “invented” pleating. Because I was 6. And as soon as I had finished, I thought, Oh, this looks like a little Elizabethan ruff. That’s the kind of child I was.

At 6 you knew what an Elizabethan ruff was?

I did. And my dog, a black-and-white mongrel, sat very patiently while I put the Elizabethan ruff on her neck.

Between Anna Karenina, The Heiress, and the upcoming Great Gatsby film, there seems to be a fixation on costumes—particularly period costumes—right now. How, in your experience, do costumes trickle down and affect fashion and the way we dress?

Well, if you look at the history of film, people would go to the movies and want to dress like Joan Crawford. Or they’d want to wear a dress like Norma Shearer wore in something. Or, for heaven’s sakes, Katharine Hepburn. And then Macy’s or someone like that would have a designer do a knockoff. So people have been copying what they see on the stage for years. I think it’s monkey see, monkey do. Anytime someone is successful and looking empowered, or at least extraordinary or divalike, you want to be that person.

What’s it like merging your creative vision with that of the director? And how has it been on Cinderella?

Sometimes, exquisite. Oftentimes, painful. And I guess every now and then, disaster. With Cinderella, it’s been fantastic. [Mark Brokaw] comes to as many fittings as he can. And I like that. Even when I have a director who doesn’t appreciate it, one of my greatest thrills is watching them go, “Ohhh.” I love that as much as gushing. I’m not in great need of praise. But I do like it when someone gets it. Starting with the actor. The actor must get it, or they can’t wear it. I always say, “No tears after a fitting. Only smiles. No crying.”

Is there a “dream play” you’d like to work on?

I sometimes think it’s Romeo and Juliet. I have designed one Midsummer Night’s Dream. I try not to dwell on things that are impossible, but oftentimes I dream about something, and then I get to do it.

Photo: Stephen Chernin

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