Behind the Scenes of Costume Design with N.C. Native William Ivey Long

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Why This Matters: The Mint Museum exhibition William Ivey Long: Costume Designs 2007-2016 offers backstage access to the art of costume design and is the first of three exhibitions during the museum’s “Year of Fashion.”
William Ivey Long in his studio with inspiration boards for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again,” 2016. Photograph by Jonathan Becker.
William Ivey Long in his studio with inspiration boards for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again,” 2016. Photograph by Jonathan Becker.
By Rebecca E. Elliot
The Mint Museum

For more than four decades, The Mint Museum has been building, conserving, and sharing its renowned Fashion Collection with the global community, recognizing fashion as a universal art form offering insights into our shared passions for identity and beauty.

The Mint’s “Year of Fashion” officially launched on Sept. 23 with the opening of “William Ivey Long: Costume Designs 2007-2016,” the first of three fashion-themed exhibitions throughout the coming year. It will remain on view through June 3, 2018 at Mint Museum Uptown at Levine Center for the Arts. Later this fall the Mint will debut “Charlotte Collects: Contemporary Couture and Fabulous Fashion,” from Oct. 14-Feb. 4 at Mint Museum Randolph, and next spring will bring the long-awaited “The Glamour and Romance of Oscar de la Renta” to Mint Museum Randolph.

But first, the Mint puts theatrical costume design at center stage with North Carolina native William Ivey Long, winner of six Tony Awards. Long answered a few questions from the show’s co-curator, Rebecca E. Elliot, assistant curator of Craft, Design, & Fashion at the Mint:

Q: You have mentioned that your experience at the Manteo outdoor drama “The Lost Colony,” where you worked in the summers during your youth, taught you much of what you know professionally.

A: I learned all of the most important things about life and about theatre at “The Lost Colony.” I learned how to meet a deadline, how to work within a budget, and perhaps most importantly, how to take responsibility for not only my work—but for the work of the teams I was leading. I learned to treat every project as if my name is on the door. I continue to abide by these philosophies to this day.

Nikki Ferry (Queen Elizabeth I) and Terry Snead (Governor White), “Queen's Chamber" scene, “The Lost Colony,” 2008. Photograph by J. Aaron Trotman.
Nikki Ferry (Queen Elizabeth I) and Terry Snead (Governor White), “Queen’s Chamber” scene, “The Lost Colony,” 2008. Photograph by J. Aaron Trotman.

Q: The exhibition focuses on work you did from 2007–2016, but you have several projects in the works in 2017. Could you describe some?

A. I am currently working on “Prince of Broadway,” which is a retrospective of Harold Prince’s career, directed by the master himself, Harold Prince,” opening on Broadway this fall. I am designing the new play by Paul Rudnick, “Big Night,” directed by Walter Bobbie, which will premiere at The Kirk Douglas Theatre in Santa Monica. I am also working on the world premiere of the new play by John Patrick Shanley—“The Portuguese Kid”—starring Kyra Sedgwick and Jason Alexander at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Q: Do you have a favorite production?

A: “Crazy for You” was my first collaboration with Susan Stroman and Mike Ockrent, and they let me go crazy with Art Deco shapes and textures. “Guys and Dolls” was a cacophony of color led by the great set designer Tony Walton. “A Christmas Carol” was a Dickensian bounty of rich shapes, colors, and textures, and a lesson in morality for the ages. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” is the quintessential fairy tale magic, and I got to explore costume transformations in a way that I had yet to cultivate.

Laura Osnes (Ella), Santino Fontana (Prince Topher), and ensemble, “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” 2013. Photograph © Carol Rosegg.
Laura Osnes (Ella), Santino Fontana (Prince Topher), and ensemble, “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” 2013. Photograph © Carol Rosegg.

Q: You apprenticed with famous couturier Charles James. Could you describe how studying with a fashion designer informs your costume designs?

A: Charles James was the ultimate costume architect. Fashion design and costume design are similar in that both involve mounting shows whose story is told through clothing. Mr. James was both my fashion mentor and hero, and he taught me a great deal about how to tell a very effective story through garments.

Q: Who are some of your other favorite fashion designers/muses?

A: I am great friends with Lee Radziwill, and was very close with the late CZ Guest. Carolina Herrera is also a close friend—and one of my fashion heroes. Stepping outside that aesthetic, I am also close with Anna Sui.

Q: What haven’t I asked you that you would like others to know?

A: I was trained as an art historian and set designer, and have only taken one class in costume design during my years spent at William & Mary, UNC Chapel Hill, and the Yale School of Drama.

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