Inside Carolina Herrera’s Historic New York City Ballet Commission
As the first fashion designer ever commissioned by the world-class company to create costumes for a ballet by founding choreographer George Balanchine, creative director Wes Gordon brings a 70-year-old production to life with the fashion house’s signature joy—and respect to the dance great’s legacy.
Last night, Carolina Herrera creative director Wes Gordon had the honor of dressing “the greatest athletes in the world,” as he describes the dancers of New York City Ballet—along with the lion’s share of attendees of the company’s Fall Fashion Gala. Now in its 11th year, the event founded by Sarah Jessica Parker and inaugurated by a collaboration with Valentino has seen the likes of Christopher John Rogers, Hanako Maeda, and Herrera herself collaborate with the dance company to envision new costumes for contemporary ballets by living choreographers.
To commemorate its 75th anniversary season, the company took its gala evening in a different direction by staging two existing ballets by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, its late founding choreographers. The latter’s Glass Pieces, staged alongside excerpts from Balanchine’s Who Cares?, is an ode to the city that gave the choreographers and their company a home. Set to an ebullient score by George Gershwin, Who Cares? makes Gordon the inaugural fashion designer the 75-year-old company has commissioned to design costumes for a Balanchine production.
“It felt like the perfect ballet for a fashion designer to take on,” Wendy Whelan, the company’s associate artistic director, says of the commission. “It’s very metropolitan; it’s very upscale, like New York City. Wes even said, ‘I’ve heard it’s like martinis at the Rainbow Room.’ He felt perfect with his elegance and New York sophistication.” Gordon, who was appointed by Herrera to helm her namesake fashion house five years ago, has a deep love for New York City. The brand, of course, was founded here in 1981, and he matter-of-factly calls it “the greatest city in the world,” divining seemingly endless inspiration from its architectural marvels and artists—including those within the dance company. Gordon is no stranger to the repertory as a longtime audience member, but the leap from watching in the first tier to working in the costume shop is a big one.
Designing new costumes for Balanchine’s works is a complex task. For one, the late choreographer’s signature technique is famously demanding of its dancers—he prized precision, speed, and musicality. Broadly speaking, turns are faster, jumps and lifts are higher, and the timing of it all is exhilarating. The company’s current principals are often coached on proper execution by retired dancers who were trained by Balanchine himself. An errant finger here or a gaze too low there can make or break the lines created by a dancer’s body and risk throwing off the performance. To see one of his ballets is to witness a rigorous showcase of artistry, power, and athleticism unlike any other.
Since 1987, the Balanchine Trust has overseen the rights to his works and has played a pivotal role in preserving his creative vision. Gordon’s commission for Who Cares? required him to collaborate closely with the company’s costume shop, overseen by director Marc Happel; the dancers, who are best equipped to advise on whether they can execute the choreography in the garments; and also the Balanchine Trust. “I find it to be quite fun and thrilling to work that way,” Gordon says of continuing the precedent set by the costumes first designed by the legendary Barbara Karinska, and then Santo Loquasto. “We had to match the original color palette, the same silhouette length, the same idea and attitude. Then it all had to be done with the approval of the Trust,” he says. “It’s an extremely different assignment than in past years, where the designer just kind of does their own brand statement onstage.”
Eagle-eyed viewers may notice that, under the stage lights, the blue of Gordon’s new costumes recalls the shade and tone of those Karinska designed for Serenade: the first ballet Balanchine created in America and a repertory favorite of the company, which still stages it with Karinska’s costumes from 1952. Gordon’s other costumes adhered closely to the original work’s hazy “sunset palette,” albeit with a touch of “Herrera brightness” in their tone. “I wanted these [costumes] to feel more spectacular, richer, and more beautiful, and to be magic on stage,” he says, “all the adjectives I use for our Herrera clothes: joyful, optimistic, happy.”
“There was a little give and take in finding the right and perfect balance for this collaboration,” Whelan says. “It has to sort of resemble the past a little bit, yet stay very fresh for what we want to present in 2023—because this ballet was from 1970.” To bridge the divide, Gordon combed a familiar archive: his own.
Blooms of tulle, from Carolina Herrera’s Pre-Fall 2021 collection, bring the skirts of each dress to life as dancers twirl; handmade flowers, seen in his Spring 2022 collection, and handmade in Manhattan’s Garment District, adorn the bodices. High-pitch necklines and tulle embroidery embody elegance, while a version of the house’s signature boyshort peeks out from the hem during “the turning girl variation,” as principal dancer Indiana Woodward refers to her part in the performance. Beading, executed in plastic paillettes, dazzles under the lights, but is weightless, according to Happel. “Something I have to be very upfront about immediately is that we have to think about weight,” he says. “Fortunately, the beading for Gordon’s embroidery is all paillettes; they’re plastic, so they don’t weigh anything.”
In a fitting leading up to last night’s debut, the costumes were deemed to have passed the ultimate test: “You’re happy?” Gordon asked Woodward. “I love it.” she replied, smiling.