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NOVEMBER 8, 2017



 Get to know our featured and distinguished guest through this wonderful Vanity Fair article.

The Many Secrets and Sequins of William Ivey Long, Broadway’s Costume King

His costumes have shimmied across the stages of 71 Broadway productions, including Hairspray, Chicago, and The Producers. But this October, with his work appearing on Fox’s Rocky Horror Picture Show remake, it’s not the Broadway stage he’s after—it’s the world one.


William Ivey Long, photographed in his New York studio, in front of his mood boards for the Rocky Horror Picture Show TV movie.Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

On a damp day last winter, in Tribeca, 40-some blocks south of the flashing mega-screens of Times Square, where William Ivey Long’s costumes for Chicago and Disaster were shimmering on their respective Broadway stages, an infinitely lower-tech signboard hung from an 1852 cast-iron façade. At first glance, the heraldic device on the black plaque appeared indecipherably medieval. But on closer inspection the emblem revealed itself to be an erudite in-joke. The rampant animal depicted is a “yale,” a horned chimera holding, in its tufted fetlock, three cotton bolls. Concocted by Long, this fanciful coat of arms refers at once to the university from which he earned his M.F.A. in 1975 and to the crops his family has raised for more than 300 years in North Carolina—but not to the craft he has practiced in New York for the past 40. In the bestiary of Broadway, Long is almost as scarce a creature as the yale—a costume designer who, according to a colleague, “has managed to make a mint” in their rarefied profession. Director-choreographer Rob Ashford—who danced in Long-designed overalls in the 1992 smash Crazy for You—observes, “In our business, you’re lucky if you have one, maybe two big hits. William’s done it many times over.” Writer Paul Rudnick, a close friend since Yale days, says, “William’s constantly hungry. And for someone at the top of his field, he is pathologically modest.”Yet after six Tony wins, hundreds of shows, and four years as chairman of the American Theatre Wing, Broadway’s most prolific costume designer remains, at 68, a study in chivalric understatement. “There used to be a burlesque club here,” the designer says at the threshold of his studio in his chatty southern drawl. The only slightly unruly aspect of Long’s appearance—he is dressed in his work uniform of navy blazer, rep tie, lace-ups, and professorial spectacles (“like a well-groomed Hobbit,” the illustrator Hilary Knight says)—is his cap of graying ringlets. His curly locks form a kind of objective correlative around his head to the prodigious ideas pinwheeling ceaselessly inside of it.In a state of perpetual flux too are the people and objects inside the two-story studio. Against the right entryway wall are bulging wardrobe boxes headed for Long’s warehouse, a reconstituted school building in Massachusetts. Opposite them are open cartons into which have been thrust leftover bolts of fabric, including the charmeuse that Harvey Fierstein filled to capacity as Edna Turnblad in 2002’s Hairspray. Rotting gold damask curtains, salvaged from the North Carolina governor’s mansion, separate the front portion of the atelier from the rear, where longtime associates Brian Mear and Donald Sanders toil beneath a corroded pressed-tin ceiling and umbrellas suspended upside down to collect leaks. Sketches and swatches pertaining to each show on which Long has worked are collated into shelved loose-leaf binders, “our bibles,” Long says. The “bibles” are frequently consulted, as at any given moment about half a dozen productions of Chicago, for example, may be running simultaneously around the world.

“He knows exactly how to make tight gold pants not split when you’re grinding your hips on live TV,” Hugh Jackman says.

Also just behind the curtains is an antique farm table given to him by Jacqueline Onassis, one of the many grandes dames—C. Z. Guest, Lee Radziwill, Carolina Herrera—who have been his confidantes over the decades. (He loves hearing their stories, Cornelia Guest says, “because he loves history.”) Farther into the studio is a makeshift fitting room, where stars from Kristin Chenoweth to Emma Stone have been stripped, draped, and pinned.Stockard Channing, whom Long costumed for Six Degrees of Separation and Pal Joey, says, “William gives you confidence—and for an actor that is gold. He puts you in a Cadolle corset that really does the job and panty hose called Blue Heaven that give legs length and shine. It’s all a complete illusion, but that fairy-godmother fantasy moment that everyone dreams about actually happens with him.” Hugh Jackman, whose glitzy Boy from Oz studwear Long designed, says, “He knows exactly how to make tight gold pants not split when you’re grinding your hips on live TV.” Director-choreographer Susan Stroman, who collaborated with Long on Crazy for You (Tony number two), The Producers (Tony number three), and other musicals, says, “I actually see the whole persona of young dancers change because of William. They carry that sophistication onto the stage and then out into real life.”

Long at work at Yale, 1974.Courtesy of The William Ivey Long Studio.

Costume Drama

Long draws every one of his designs himself “with whatever I can get my hands on,” he says, and taps out memos on a 50s Royal manual typewriter. He has three more such superannuated contraptions—about one for every two houses the peripatetic designer owns. There are five residences in his hometown of Seaboard, North Carolina; two in Manteo, North Carolina, where his family spent summers; another in north-central Pennsylvania; and a compound in Chester, Massachusetts.Beside one of the studio’s basement-level worktables are Long’s astonishingly fluent renderings of the car-mechanic coveralls for the “Greased Lightning” sequence from Fox’s January broadcast of Grease Live!, for which Long has received his first Emmy nomination. Thomas Kail, director of both it and Hamilton, says, “Fox had never seen anything like William. He could own L.A. in about five minutes. He is a wizard and an artist.” A monolithic mood board for Grease Live! (a re-purposed foam insulation panel) is incongruously collaged with reproductions of Basquiat paintings. “I used Basquiat’s palette for the prom scene,” he explains. (Still standing nearby is the board for 2013’s Cinderella—Tony number six.)The mood board most exciting him now, however, is the one he has assembled for Fox television’s remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, starring Laverne Cox, to be broadcast in October. Director Kenny Ortega’s instructions to the designer “were to make Laverne 60 percent Grace Jones, 30 percent Tina Turner, and 10 percent Beyoncé,” Long explains. “I go where the heat is. Today it’s from television.”Several nights later, Long is at the Nederlander Theatre, watching a preview of Disaster: “Just to prove I am not too full of my big self I take on a little show,” he says. Jerry Zaks, who worked with Long on La Cage aux Folles and Guys and Dolls, says, “William’s range is limitless. Whatever he does, getting it right is a matter of life and death.” Afterward, over a spaghetti dinner at Orso, Long explains, “Tonight when I get home I will play back the whole show in my head and figure out what needs to be fixed.” Caroline Kennedy and Edwin Schlossberg, at Orso too, for a post-Hamilton dinner with their daughter, stop by to pay tribute to the master. “I did her bridesmaids’ dresses and was an usher at their wedding,” Long says after they depart. “When I was having a tough time getting established in New York, Caroline took me for dinner at 1040 Fifth. I told Mrs. Onassis how I was trying to get rid of my southern accent and become sophisticated. And Mrs. Onassis said to me, ‘William, you have to remember Fred Astaire was from Nebraska.’ ”Long, however, was not so much of a hayseed that he couldn’t hold his own that night with “the Queen of the World,” as he puts it. Direct descendants of one of the Virginia Colony’s 17th-century royal land grantees, Long’s family was so inbred “my father was born with an extra thumb,” he says. His mother taught high-school drama, and his father, a playwright, founded the department of dramatic arts at Winthrop University, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where Long lived from the age of six.While Long was attending art-history graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and a playwriting fellow at U.N.C., advised him to pursue theatrical design instead. “I finally found my place,” he says, among the students at Yale School of Drama, where, during his first year, he roomed in a yellow Victorian house with classmates Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep. In time, he befriended Wendy Wasserstein, one class below him, and Paul Rudnick, an undergraduate. An unusual sight in 1972 in blazers, ties, shirts from the New Haven Hadassah thrift shop, and shoulder-length blond curls, he “looked like a full-sized Victorian child-doll,” Rudnick recalls.

A sketch and costumes for the musical Hairspray, with Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein, 2002.Right, by Paul Kolnik, both courtesy of The William Ivey Long Studio.

In 1975, Long moved into a $400-a-month apartment at the seedy Chelsea Hotel, two floors below his idol, the eccentric couturier Charles James. Without pay, Long walked the aging dressmaker’s dog, Sputnik, and watched the designer work. In 1980, priced out of the Chelsea, he relocated into a 6-by-12-foot room on West 75th Street. “Luckily, a few things came along,” he says—most notably, in 1982, when Tommy Tune’s team hired him to design the wardrobes of all nine leading ladies ofNine.On June 6, 1982, Long’s younger brother Robert watched the Tonys on television with Caroline Kennedy. When the moment came to present the outstanding-costume-design award, Hal Linden looked at his notes and said, “Theoni Aldredge”—designer of *Nine’*s box-office rival, Dream Girls. “And then Linden announced, ‘Excuse me—William Ivey Long,’ ” Robert recalls. “The whole world had spun around in those few seconds.”Long’s tour de force for Nine brought him a steady stream not only of theatrical work but also of pop acts. Kenny Ortega tapped him to create looks for the Pointer Sisters’ 1988 Caesars Palace appearance, and Mick Jagger commissioned him to do the Stones’ 1989 Steel Wheels tour. But Long did not collect another Tony for 10 years—not until 1992’s Crazy for You, the all-Gershwin extravaganza that The New York Times apotheosized as “a second coming” of the American musical. Susan Stroman, the show’s choreographer, remembers, “We had a whole great decade after that.” Together, Stroman and Long did The Music Man, Contact, and, most memorably, The Producers.While Long’s public collaborations were compounding his fame and fortune, one private partnership was chipping away at his time, his money, and, ultimately, an old friendship. In 1992, Wendy Wasserstein approached Long about fathering a child with her. For nearly a decade the pair visited fertility specialists, and after one doctor questioned the safety of using a gay man’s semen, Long, who was paying for half of the escalating medical bills, decided to become celibate for the duration of their undertaking. “It probably saved my life,” he notes. (Long says Wasserstein’s daughter, born in 1999, is not his.)As the recession approached, the glittering world Long had built around him began to spin out of orbit. In spite of its critical accolades, Grey Gardens (Tony number five) closed less than a year after its 2006 opening. The Producers, which had been a primary source of income, “would have kept going but 2008 hit,” Long laments. Resourcefully, Long replenished his finances by selling his elegant 1864 Chelsea brownstone to his next-door neighbor, artist Louise Bourgeois, and downsized to his current Tribeca studio. “William creates infinite luxury,” Rudnick observes, “but doesn’t require it.”

The Rocky Horror Picture Show mood board.

Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

From Tonys to Television

‘Right now I am in a populist mode,” Long declares on location at the ornate Elgin Theatre, in Toronto, where filming of the new Rocky Horror Picture Show began in early February.Watching, via monitor, as “Transylvanian” dancers in glam-rock gear leap and tumble, Kenny Ortega says, “I have never seen such movement, stretch, line, design. William is a genius.” Between takes, one Transylvanian, in a harlequin-patterned ensemble, tells the designer, “I feel like I was born in this.” Long says, “Dancers are their bodies. The costumes have to respect that.”Laverne Cox is sitting on a folding director’s chair at the back of the theater, awaiting rehearsals for her frenzied “Wild and Untamed Thing” routine. “A few months ago I was in prison scrubs, and now I am in opulent clothes!” the Orange Is the New Blackstar exclaims. “It is a complete dream come true. William is such a beautiful collaborator—he works with such love with the actors, the director, our producers.” Long, who has meanwhile slipped away to his wardrobe trailer, says, “I seduce and conquer. The talent most sensible people use for mating, I use in my work,” the designer (who is single) says.Reeve Carney, cast as the hunchbacked butler, Riff Raff, enters the trailer to be fitted for the finale’s villainous-spaceman getup. “There is no too much,” Long advises him. “Let’s add a bicycle chain. Now let’s take a garter and drop it in front to be extra saucy. We have to support your character and your backstory,” he patters on soothingly to Carney, whose demeanor, bit by bit, transmogrifies malevolently along with the futuristic fantasy drag. “That’s why we have a fitting with a human being in it,” the designer remarks, stepping back to assess his handiwork. “We watch them change and become something else. At the end, that’s the reason I’m a costume designer.”Fingers flying, he slices a wedge out of one outsize embossed-leather sleeve, instantly making the disjointed jumble of metal and cowskin resolve into a convincingly menacing intergalactic warrior’s suit of armor. Exhilarated by his achievement, Long reflects over a dirty-vodka-martini nightcap, “You know, this is exciting me. I’m just a farmer with flair.”


William Ivey Long, photographed by Jonathan Becker.Photo: Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

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  • October 30, 2017

    Went to the exhibit last month when I was in Charlotte. You will love the accompanying book for the exhibit as it talks about WIL and his creative process as opposed to the Vanity Fair article that’s more interested in the famous people he works with. Very inspiring exhibit. Thanks for posting this Holly!

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