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An iconic collaboration between the worlds of high fashion and dance

By Ann Binlot, CNN

(CNN) — Marc Happel used to turn the pages of glossy fashion books and magazines, wondering if he should have taken a different career path — into fashion instead of costume design.

But as it happened, his path grew to span both those lanes.

Happel was named director of costumes at the New York City Ballet (NYCB) in 2006. And following New York Fashion Week’s arrival at Lincoln Center — otherwise known as the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and also the home of the NYCB — in 2010, four year later, the ballet’s then master-in-chief Peter Martins and his friend, “Sex and the City” actor Sarah Jessica Parker, had a fateful idea: to invite fashion designers to create costumes for its star-studded annual fundraiser, the Fall Fashion Gala.

“With so much creativity and experimentation right on our doorstep, we decided to harness it,” explained Parker, a long-time NYCB patron, in a foreword for Happel’s new book documenting the collaboration, “and the idea of regularly inviting designers of high fashion into City Ballet was born.”

In 2012, Martins invited another old friend, Valentino Garavani, to design costumes for the inaugural Fall Fashion Gala. The iconic Italian designer, who had by then retired from his namesake label, agreed; Happel was asked to collaborate with him to create the looks for three performances, including “Bal de Couture” — a ballet Martins choreographed in tribute to Valentino.

“He was amazing to work with,” said Happel of Garavani, who visited the ballet’s costume shop for two hours every day during the design process. “He took great interest in details… It really inspired him to open up again and, and use his designer skills.”

Under Valentino’s direction, Happel and his team crafted costumes ranging from couture gowns to monochromatic tutus, using materials like tulle, lace, duchess satin, crystals, and feathers.

Since then, the ballet company has made an annual tradition of partnering with fashion’s elite. Happel has worked with more than 30 famed designers — including Virgil Abloh, Carolina Herrera, Thom Browne, Prabal Gurung, Giles Deacon (twice), and Sarah Burton — for the Gala, and its specially curated performances. And to commemorate its 10th anniversary, as well as the 75th anniversary of the storied dance company, Happel authored his very own monograph celebrating the collaborations: “New York City Ballet: Choreography & Couture.”

Fusing high fashion and dance

Happel honed his skills at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater for two years before setting off for New York in 1978 when he heard that the famed choreographer Bob Fosse was short-staffed and desperately hiring costume designers for “Dancin,’” a new Broadway musical. Happel drove from the Midwest on spec and was hired to work on the production. In the years that followed, he cut his teeth on numerous other Broadway shows as a freelance designer before landing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 2001 to manage men’s costumes, a role he held until his move to the NYCB.

For the most part, Happel and his 18-person team of seamstresses, patternmakers, and dyers update and restore costumes from the days of George Balanchine, the legendary choreographer who co-founded the New York City Ballet (with the impresario and philanthropist Lincoln Kirstein) in 1948 and served as its artistic director until his death some 35 years later.

“It’s about recreating the same costumes if they’ve worn out, or trying to rebuild parts to keep them looking fresh — like they did when they originally premiered,” Happel said.

The ballet’s costume department creates or refurbishes anywhere from 40 up to and 150 costumes a year. Lately, the team’s focus has been stitching together costumes for the holiday favorite “The Nutcracker,” which runs through December 31 this season.

Happel knows just how to manipulate a silhouette to best align it with a dancer’s needs. “During a fitting, we will ask the dancers to move and try steps from the actual choreography to make sure the costume is moving the way it should, and not restricting the dancer in any way,” he explained. “We have many tricks and strategies.”

When the NYCB collaborated with Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida of the London-based label Marques’Almeida in 2015, for example, the designers first envisaged garments that had ties and pieces of fabric attached — but in motion, the embellishments kept wrapping around dancers’ arms and legs, limiting their movement, so they had to be shortened or removed.

“Marc really listens and collaborates with the dancers, to make sure we feel comfortable and confident in what we’re wearing,” said Indiana Woodward, a principal dancer with the Ballet. “He is extremely talented at creating beautiful costumes (and) — even more importantly — creating costumes you feel beautiful dancing in. If it’s a flowing skirt, you feel like you’re floating, or like you can jump higher.”

Raising the barre

In the Fall Fashion Gala’s early years, Sarah Jessica Parker (who is now a vice chair of the NYCB’s board of directors) took responsibility for creating a short list of potential collaborators. Happel has since taken over, and NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford paid tribute to his “uniquely critical eye.

“In addition to maintaining and preserving the company’s existing costumes, he also creates beautiful designs of his own,” Stafford said. “He has worked with an amazing roster of designers over the years, always managing to bring their vision to life on our stage.”

Every designer who’s partnered with the Ballet has had their own way of working, Happel explained. Thom Browne was, “very hands-on and very much wanted to be a part of what was going on here,” he recalled. “He loved challenging the shop in creating details.” Iris van Herpen, meanwhile, sent a handwritten letter with sketches of her designs, which consisted of intricate, cut-out shapes. Happel then enlisted the help of an architectural firm to design a custom computer program that sped up the construction process. “It printed out all of these shapes for us, which was incredible, because it saved us so much time,” said Happel.

In 2016, when the ballet collaborated with Dries Van Noten, Happel traveled to Antwerp to meet the celebrated Belgian designer. “That was just for me heaven because to suddenly be immersed in (his) world was just incredible,” he said. Conversely, Happel never met, saw or talked to Raf Simons during their collaboration on costumes for the 2022 Gala, however, as the designer instead sent through finished designs. “The clothes came in and we had to do quite a bit of adjustments because although it was interesting, it masked the body too much,” he remembered.

Although he’s not a fashion designer in the traditional sense, Happel has certainly worked with the best. “When you have 10 years of an event that’s involved 30 world-class fashion designers, it’s something that I felt like needed to be recorded,” said Happel of his work and the “Choreography & Couture” tome. “Through photography, and through the sketches, which I thought were very important for every designer, you give an audience a closer look at these costumes.”

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