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Exclusive: Tour the New York City Ballet's Designer Costume Workshop

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A ballerina practices in her Mary Katrantzou costume after a fitting. All images by Driely S. for Racked
A ballerina practices in her Mary Katrantzou costume after a fitting. All images by Driely S. for Racked

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When the lights go down and the curtain goes up at the New York City Ballet, all eyes are laser-focused on the graceful dancers. As they float across the stage, pirouetting with ease, their impeccably constructed costumes can sometimes go unnoticed—but not at tomorrow's fall gala.

An incredible amount of work goes into NYCB costumes, and they are one of the most anticipated aspects of the company's big event thanks to a handful of fashion's elite designers. On the heels of collaborations with Valentino, Prabal Gurung, Iris van Herpen, and Olivier Theyskens, this year's pieces will be made by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, Mary Katrantzou, Thom Browne, and Carolina Herrera. NYCB's costume team of 17 was entrusted with the daunting task of making their designs a reality, and Racked took a visit to the workshop with less than a week until showtime.

"This is always a very stressful time of year, but we're working hard and pushing," Marc Happel, the ballet's costume director explains. "It's a lot of pressure because the gala coincides with the Fashion Week shows of the designers. I'm well aware that I'm on the back burner for them until their show is over."

Adjustments are made to a piece designed by Mary Katrantzou.

Inside the studio overlooking Lincoln Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side, half a dozen people are getting down to business. In one corner, an older woman carefully stitches swatches of purple and orange lace onto a Mary Katrantzou dress; behind her, strips of silk are being affixed to a pleated Thom Browne skirt. A few sewing tables away, a young man measures pieces of fabric he will later cut and turn into fake blazer cuffs. A delightfully pink Carolina Herrera dress made of dreamy chiffon and bejeweled layers hangs on a mannequin, while an appliqué bodice—part of Sarah Burton's still-to-be finished costume—hides in a nearby nook.

"Stress is part of our job," shop manager Jason Hadley says, looking up from a mannequin and then taking a pin from between his lips to adjust a dress's dainty shoulder straps. Moments later, he hovers over another costume, this time worn by a blonde dancer. It looks perfect to the untrained eye, but the masters fuss with the zipper and hemlines. "She looks nude!" Happel eventually gasps in satisfaction.

Felt blazers designed by Thom Browne hang on a rack.

The idea for the blockbuster fashion collaborations came from Sarah Jessica Parker, the vice chairman of the ballet's board of directors. Parker thought the company could ride off the excitement of New York Fashion Week by incorporating designer creations. Once Happel talks through the basic concept with each designer, he gives them deadlines for sketches and sample fabrics; there are two to three fittings, as well as a dress rehearsal before the event.

"The fashion designers approach us with what they envision the costume will be in the best-of-all-possibilities world," says Happel, whose colleagues call him a 'magician.' "They do push the envelope, especially Thom Browne, and so the process includes them giving me what they hope for and me telling them what's possible, what will and won't work."

Most of the materials come from local shops in New York's Garment District, but Happel prefers to leave some sourcing to the experts: tulle comes from Italy, stretch fabric from Germany. Some designers create completely original costumes, while others draw from their own previous designs. This year Katrantzou chose lace appliqués she used in a recent collection, while Herrera picked sequins from her own studio.

The ballet's costume department is among its most expensive, Happel notes, maintaining that while it's a costly endeavor most other companies can't afford, it pays off for the New York City Ballet.

"Casts change, injuries happen, and there has to be a place they can call on a Tuesday morning and say, 'We are swapping someone and need a costume,'" he explains. "We drop everything to create something new or do alterations."

New York City Ballet costume shop manager Jason Hadley and a seamstress tailor a costume designed by Carolina Herrera.

Following the fall gala, this particular show will be performed a few times over the course of the season, after which the costumes will be boxed up and sent to storage. When considering the short lifespan of these pieces and the many hours of skilled work it takes to construct them—some complicated ensembles can take 40 hours to create—Happel believes the process is still worth it. However, he admits there is certainly a dance-world debate about just how relevant costumes are to a ballet.

"Some choreographers think costumes can retract from the ballet and that it's just about movement," Happel says. "That's why we have a Balanchine ballet with simple black and white costumes, and then other choreographers like Justin Peck love costumes, love to talk about it with designers, and love to go to fittings. Of course, it's easier for us if a choreographer wants to get involved than if someone shows up to a rehearsal and says, 'What is this costume? I've never seen this before.'"

As for Happel himself, it's clear what side he's on: "I firmly believe costumes can add to a ballet. They can tell you about the style of the ballet, the feeling of it—whether it's a glamorous evening, or abstract and modern, or if its a classical tutu ballet. It gives the audience an idea of what they are looking at."