PARIS• For 30 years, French couturier Christian Lacroix spent every fashion week sequestered in a studio in Paris, diligently conducting last-minute fittings and approving final looks for a runway show.
This month, just as the Paris fall 2017 shows were about to begin, he spent his days at the Opera Bastille, carefully studying the costumes and sets he designed for a different kind of production: the Paris Opera Ballet's new staging of George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which opened on March 9, two days after the Paris collections came to an end.
"You know, the butterfly wings have to be the right height to the millimeter so the dancers don't hit them," he said. "And the dancers have to be able to move. If something is uncomfortable or doesn't work, we have a week to fix it for opening night."
Nearly a decade has passed since Lacroix retired from fashion after the bankruptcy of his namesake couture house. "It was awful" at first, he said. "But since then, I have taken a path that is far more personal. All these passions of my childhood and youth are now my occupation in adulthood."
Namely, stage design.
Growing up in Arles, a centuries-old city in Provence that once served as a Phoenician port, Lacroix studied art history, with the idea of becoming a curator. But his first love was costuming.
"I remember when I was 11 and I first saw Visconti's The Leopard," he said, referring to the 1963 film by the neo-realist director Luchino Visconti about Sicily's decadent 19th-century aristocracy. "That was it. To reconstruct that epoch was my passion."
When he moved into fashion in the 1970s (because, he said, "costume was dead") and opened his couture house in 1987, his timing was spot on: "Fashion was very costume-like, with great eccentricity and characters such as socialite Marie-Helene de Rothschild still hosting masquerade balls."
Still, even as his brand took off, he continued to work on costume projects on the side, such as La Gaite Parisienne for the American Ballet Theatre in 1988 and Balanchine's Jewels for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2000. "For me, fashion and theatre are the same metier," Lacroix said. "To put women in the spotlight."
Two years ago, Benjamin Millepied, then the director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet, approached Lacroix about its new version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Created in 1962 for the New York City Ballet and based on Shakespeare's charming comedy about the transforming power of love, the two-act work was Balanchine's first original full- length ballet and, with sylvan sets by David Hays and sugarplum-like costumes by Karinska, a stylistic departure from his spare, modernist oeuvre.
Initially, "Benjamin wanted something less 19th century" than what Balanchine had first mounted, Lacroix said. As a starting point, Millepied gave Lacroix videos of a New York City Ballet performance in the early 2000s, when he danced the role of Oberon, the king of the fairies, and Peter Hall's 1968 feature film based on Balanchine's original production.
Millepied wanted "something more opulent than what's usually done", Lacroix said. There was one obstacle: the George Balanchine Trust in New York, which has stylistic approval of all Balanchine productions.
"The trust is quite vigilant," Lacroix said. "It requires the use of certain materials because that's what Balanchine said was best for movement and to follow the composer's music. Balanchine made very precise notes - what sort of skirt should be in organza, things like that. He often designed himself and he would always be on hand to make sure the choreography and decor and costumes were as they should be."
"I did not find this confining at all," Lacroix said. "In fact, I found it inspiring. It harks back to my youth, when I first learnt of Balanchine. I loved taking it all in and adding my own ideas."
He sketched sets inspired by the romantic Pre-Raphaelite movement of late 19th-century England, "with a magic forest with green and blue trees, and a tableau with giant flowers, like in Victorian books", he said. For the wedding scene, he conjured a neo-classical palace, "like in an ancient lithograph, very rococo".
For the costumes, he proposed "big chiffon dresses with lots of draping, in peach and rose" and "tutus all white and classic" and "lots of gold, like Louis XIV at Versailles. It must be gleaming. It must shine".
A final selection was approved after several back-and-forths with Millepied; Aurelie Dupont, the former Paris Opera Ballet etoile who is now director of dance; and the trust.
Two weeks before the premiere, the ballet's costume director, Xavier Ronze, showed off the 200 costumes being readied for the production by the atelier. In one large workroom, nearly two dozen seamstresses busily hand-pleated bubblegum-pink chiffon bodices, affixed sparkling crystals onto white tulle tutu appliques, attached lace cap sleeves to embellished corset tops and veiled silver lame panels with ivory tulle "to tone down the sheen", Ronze said. "Otherwise when we shine a spotlight on the dancer, the silver blazes from the stage."
At the Bastille theatre a week later, Lacroix was thrilled with how it had all turned out.
"It has been an enormous amount of work, but I loved every minute," he said. "You know, I've always been a costumer in my heart."