For the last four years, New York City Ballet’s Fall Gala has showcased an intimidating constellation of guest costumers, which includes designers from houses as vaunted as Valentino, Alexander McQueen and Rodarte. Joining their ranks this year is young couturier Hanako Maeda, CC ’10, whose designs will appear in an original piece choreographed by the National Ballet of Canada’s Robert Binet.
With Gala chairwoman Sarah Jessica Parker serving as cupid, choreographer-fashion house couples include NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins paired with Oscar de la Renta and Resident Choreographer Justin Peck paired with Opening Ceremony and Kenzo. Unconventionally, Binet ignored NYCB’s preselected list of collaborators to handpick Maeda, according to Marc Happel, director of the NYCB costume workshop.
Maeda’s innate sense of fantasy is grounded in her Columbia-honed knowledge of art history, allowing her to pull from such sources as the art of Edo Japan and New Realism artist Yves Klein. “When I first started reading about [Maeda], she had a lot of ideas about blending art and fashion…[she] understood fashion’s relationship to other art forms,” Binet said. He also cited the innovative power Maeda’s historical knowledge affords her. “You need to know what the past was if you’re attempting to create something for the future,” Binet said.
A self-professed “art nerd.” Maeda credits her time at Columbia in part for her wide-ranging inspirations. “I feel all of these references stem from the formal education I had at Columbia [and from] being able to take Music Humanities and Art Humanities. Also, as an art history major, I feel like art history is not just about the concepts of art within itself—it’s the music, the different cultural events within that time period,” Maeda said. “Being able to make those connections is an important thing I’ve learned from my liberal arts education.”
The NYCB costume department’s collaborative hand first began to manifest itself when Maeda came to Happel with research on the ocean; she soon began to consult him on all matters of balletic design. “As time went by, she became much more involved in the costume shop and the workings of how to make actual costumes instead of making fashion,” Happel said. He and Binet also aided in the final decision between Maeda’s three very different design concepts.
The final costume design was influenced by the “aquatic feeling” Maeda sensed in the piece’s score, a composition for piano by Maurice Ravel. “I made these fish scales using different shades of blue—it almost looks like the scales are growing on the dancers’ bodies,” said Maeda, who collaborated with Swarovski to give the scales their sheen.
Principal dancer Rebecca Krohn, who has performed in previous Fall Galas, said she enjoys working with designers from the fashion world for their wild-card qualities that keep her on her toes. “It’s always something unexpected, something completely new. You’re never going to get a traditional tutu with these designers,” Krohn said.
Though unaware of Maeda’s work prior to their collaboration, Krohn said she finds the designer to be in synesthetic tune with the piece’s movement and score, which play with “fluidity and sharpness and tension.”
“There are times where it just really flows, kind of just twinkly, and then there are really sharp accents to it,” Krohn said. This “place between soft and hard” manifests itself, according to Krohn, in the costume’s juxtaposition of a fluid blue-gray colorway with a choppy, asymmetrical skirt. Binet also appreciated Maeda’s understanding of juxtaposition. “I’m really happy with it because it shows a lot of the body … but there’s still a lot of movement and texture to it, which is a hard combination to nail.”
Ballet costuming offers a thrilling symbiosis: The design and the movement enhance each other in unexpected ways. This brings with it technical design restraints necessary for ballet’s athletic demands, Krohn said. “It’s easy for [designers] to create something beautiful and fun and exciting, but then we put it on, and we have to be able to bend this way and that way.” Maeda treated these guidelines less like impediments and more like “a different adventure,” according to Binet. Happel said Maeda handled the “quick learning curve” with aplomb.
After this fruitful exploration of the nexus between dance and fashion, Maeda looks forward to poking around the art world. “Collaborating with someone that works in that realm would be wonderful.”