Last week Attila, Verdi’s dark opera classic, opened in New York at the Metropolitan Opera House – with costumes by Miuccia Prada, whose autumn/winter women’s wear collection debuted two days after the premiere. As far as shows go, the combination has been a creative and PR windfall for the house. Not to mention a challenge.
“My favourite thing about this project was experimenting in a different field, and such a difficult one,” says Mrs Prada. “I wanted to work as a fashion designer rather than a costume designer. The starting point [with costume] is quite different, because the story is already there and there are some real restrictions given by the set and the opera itself.”
Attila, based on on Konig de Hunnen, or King of the Huns by Friedrich Ludwig Zacharias Werner, is set in mid-fifth century Rome as the empire crumbles under barbarian invasion. Its themes centre on love, betrayal and war (Attila is stabbed by his love interest Odabella at the end in vengeance for him killing her father). The look, as defined by Prada could be termed apocalyptic meets Milan via Braveheart. Army boots decorated with small bones share the stage with long leather capes, full-length leather trench coats, and belted dresses that would not look out of place on Prada’s runway.
“My challenge was to find a balance between classicism and Prada, to do something meaningful and contemporary but with a sense of timelessness, to find fabrics and decorations that I like now but that could express feelings beyond time,” says Mrs Prada. And that does not even begin to address the logistical demands of the discipline, says Fay Fullerton, head of production and costume at the Royal Opera House.
“Costume designers always start out with the character in mind, designing the costume for the character. Whereas fashion designers often focus on bringing the fashion to that character,” explains Ms Fullerton. Indeed, Prada hit the headlines recently for complaining about the generous figures of Attila’s singers.
“Designers always start focusing too much on the detail when in fact with the stage you need to paint with a very broad brush to read to a far away audience,” says Helena Matheopoulos, international editor at large of Greek Vogue, and author of several books on fashion and the stage, including the upcoming Fashion Designers at the Opera (Thames & Hudson).
“You don’t do couture detail, but that’s what many start out concentrating on,” adds Ms Matheopoulos. “But ultimately, costume sets designers’ imaginations free.”
Hence the historic synergy between the fields. Indeed, Prada is the latest in a long line of designers to have crafted theatrical costumes: Alber Elbaz designed costumes for Patricia Kass’s Kabaret tour last year, while in January, couturier Valentino Garavani designed costumes for The Vienna Philharmonic New Year concert. The late Alexander McQueen, Tom Ford, Christian Lacroix, Isaac Mizrahi, Manolo Blahnik and Rupert Sanderson have all stepped into the theatrical spotlight, creating looks for ballet, opera, film and stage. (Sanderson’s footwear designs for Aida are set to be unveiled in April at the Royal Opera House.)
Before them, Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani designed costumes for the Royal Opera House in the 1990s;Yves Saint Laurent also frequently created costumes for stage and film; and in the 1920s, Gabrielle Chanel designed costumes for the Le Train Bleu ballet in 1924 and famously met Sergei Diaghilev.
The appeal is easy to see for both parties. With costume, fashion designers are able to explore creative impulses free from commercial control. They can experiment and test the boundaries of the craft. On a branding level, it connects them to high-brow consumers and is brilliant publicity.
For historic institutions teaming with a well-known designer name is clever way to access new audiences, attract publicity and raise a production’s profile. “When Versace did the costumes for the Royal Opera House, there was an extraordinary crowd there, many of whom had never been at the theatre before. It created a real buzz,” says Ms Matheopoulous. “Everyone benefited.”
‘Attila’ runs until March 27