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Bathing Suits, Straight from the Ballet Studio

Costume — and now swimwear — designers Reid & Harriet on the challenges of collaboration, and why their suit costs so much.

A dancer stands en pointe in a striped leotard.
The New York City Ballet’s "Scherzo Fantastique,” choreographed by Justin Peck and costumed by Reid & Harriet Design.
Photo: Paul Kolnik

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On a late afternoon in April, the ballerina Isabella Boylston and the costume designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung wound their way through the halls and up the narrow stairs of the American Ballet Theater, peering into studios until they found an empty one. They were there for a fitting. Not minding the reporter present, Boylston slipped out of her leotard and into the garment Jung handed her, a bathing suit with a low back printed in mottled bands of dusky blue, peach, algae green, and coral.

“Guys, this looks really good!” said Boylston, spinning to look at herself in the mirror. “It does have tight legs.”

“Yeah, there’s no stretch for some reason,” Bartelme said. “Do you feel it pulling down on your shoulders?

“No, up here feels good. The legs are too tight,” Boylston said. “But I love how low the back is.”

Jung took some photos of Boylston, who giggled while posing in the window, and after she changed out of the suit, the designers looked the sample over. Given a firm tug, the seams had almost no elasticity. If it didn’t sit right on a dancer coming off an intense work season — not the only body type they tested it on — it definitely wasn’t going to work for a human of larger proportions. They planned to go back to their manufacturer the next day and get the stretch issue fixed.

Isabella Boylston wears the “Bella.”
Photo: Reid & Harriet Design

This bathing suit (“The Bella”) and its more modest counterpart (“The Harriet”) are now available for preorders on the Reid & Harriet website, marking the pair’s first foray into making and selling everyday clothing to the general public. Bartelme and Jung, who share a quietly witty conversational dynamic, met while studying womenswear at the Fashion Institute of Technology and for the last six years have designed dance costumes for the New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theater, the Pacific Northwest Ballet, and individual performance artists. (Bartelme, who was profiled in the New York Times last June, is a trained dancer himself.) They work out of a space in Abrons Arts Center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that Bartelme jokingly compares to a dungeon.

There’s overlap between Bartelme and Jung’s clothing and costume practices. Swimwear is as similar to a leotard as can be, and the suits’ watercolor print originally comes from a range of candy-hued costumes that Bartelme and Jung created for the New York City Ballet last year. They’re manufacturing the bathing suits at a factory in Greenpoint that they used when overseeing production for Hagoromo, a puppet-heavy opera staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2015. In general, Bartelme and Jung’s costumes look more like everyday clothing than they do wearable art.

Dancers in candy colored striped unitards.
"Scherzo Fantastique"
Photo: Paul Kolnik

But ready-to-wear already has some advantages, like giving Bartelme and Jung an outlet for their love of muted, neutral colors that don’t track onstage. It also gives them total creative control.

“There’s no back and forth of us having to explain and convince [a choreographer] why a certain piece is okay or why a certain color works,” Jung says. “It’s just me and him being like, ‘Do you like that?’ ‘Yeah, I like that.’”

“We have clients who we love our discourse with,” Bartelme adds. “They get us and we get them and it ends up being really exciting and has wonderful synergy, but we also have clients where it’s really difficult. Sometimes we have to do those jobs for money, and that’s okay, knowing full well that it’s going to be challenging.”

Sometimes a director asks to change the costumes’ shade after they have already been digitally printed, or a lighting designer’s color selection overrides the hue of the costumes. Such is the reality of collaboration.

The designers pose together.
Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme.
Photo: Reid & Harriet Design

Some of the difficulties in designing for dance boil down to deadlines and logistics. For one show, the fabric Bartelme and Jung chose for the dancers’ skirts draped weirdly and stuck out in the wrong places, so the night before, they decided to remake them all by hand. The dancers weren’t available for a fitting because of their union’s scheduling limitations, so Jung put on every leotard and had an assistant stitch her into the new skirts.

But the fashion business, with its focus on capitalizing on trends and boosting sales with new accessories and fragrances, can be limiting in its own way. Jung, who worked in the industry before entering the dance world, describes her experiences as “a little stifling, creativity-wise.”

“I don't think either of us is particularly keen on entering into the world of fashion,” Bartelme says.

While their plan to create a tight edit of clothing doesn’t match with the prevailing retail practice of flooding shoppers with options, they have confronted the inevitable economics of running a small label. They’re doing a production run of just 100 swimsuits, the small scale of which puts the manufacturing cost at around $100 each, which translates into a $248 price tag. Digital printing is expensive, and asking the factory to make sure the stripes match up perfectly at the seams is an expense of $7 per suit. Getting a sample made costs $200.

To save some money, Bartelme and Jung are planning to cut out each swimsuit themselves and then send the fabric out to be sewn.

“Do we have to cut the lining?” Bartelme asks, turning to Jung.

“No,” Jung says, before turning to me and laughing in mock frustration. “We’re making it work!”