Opulent, ornate and ultra-theatrical haute couture may jump to mind when the name Christian Lacroix is mentioned. But the French fashion designer, who launched his house in 1987, was always a costume designer at heart — and professionally.
“As a child, I wanted to work in the theater,” said Lacroix, sitting with his legs crossed and looking trés Parisian with a red-and-yellow-print silk scarf, striped navy-and-white socks and sneakers accessorizing his cream cardigan, blue button-down and trousers.
He is the subject of the “Christian Lacroix Habille ‘Peer Gynt’ pour la Comédie-Française” costume exhibition at SCAD Fash Lacoste, the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Museum of Fashion and Film in Lacoste, France. Around 78 of Lacroix’s lively original illustrations and 40 costumes are on display, encapsulating the intersection of the designer’s life work over two floors.
“I’m very lucky because it’s my childhood dream coming true,” the designer shared at the opening, in conversation with SCAD Fash Director of Fashion Exhibitions Rafael Gomes and set designer, actor and director Éric Ruff. He explained that, at the time he was coming up, pursuing a career in costumes “was not possible in France, but it was possible to be a fashion designer.” But, he added, with a laugh: “I was lucky to start [fashion designing in] the ’80s, because the ’80s were an era when everybody was their own movie.”
While running his haute couture and pret-a-porter house in the late ’80s, Lacroix continued his theatrical aspirations, too. After receiving a call from a director impressed with his runway collection, Lacroix created black-and-white stripes with vibrant lilac top hats and oversize rosettes for the American Ballet Theatre’s 1988 production of “Gaiete Parisienne” — kicking off his passionate side hustle.
Around that time, Lacroix connected with the Comédie-Française to begin a decades-long collaboration with the Parisian institution, which dates back to the 17th Century, along with designing costumes for Opéra Garnier and The Metropolitan Opera. In 2005, LVMH, which owned Lacroix’s name and label, sold the brand to Falic Fashion Group. Then, in 2009, the new owners streamlined the business to perfumes and accessories and shuttered Lacroix’s haute couture operations, thus allowing the designer to go full-time into costume design.
So, when Gomes was planning the fourth SCAD Fash exhibit at the stunning Provence campus (following previous subjects Isabel Toledo, Azzedine Alaïa and Julien Fournié), Lacroix, and his distinctive fusion of imaginative costume storytelling and haute couture mastery, offered a world of possibilities.
“We met for just a little coffee,” said Gomes, backstage before the talk, recalling his before-times meeting with Lacroix, who hails from nearby Arles. “A coffee [turned into] lunch. From lunch to a bottle or two [of wine] and five hours later, we had all these ideas of projects we could do.”
The duo ultimately landed on Lacroix’s costumes for the 2012 production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt.” “It was very dear for Christian to have ‘Peer Gynt’ for our exhibition here, because he’s very proud of what he achieved with his illustrations and the costumes,” said Gomes. He further explained that Lacroix and the Comédie-Française always hoped to stage a revival, thereby preserving a majority of the costumes. (Usually, theaters will reuse and modify the ensembles for future productions.)
“I went to the archives and was floored,” said Gomes, about his visit to the historic theater. “It was impressive. We took the lift and went three floors down and it’s a museum in itself; with vaults and vaults of fashion.” (He also had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view costumes from Lacroix’s additional work with the Comédie Française, plus Thierry Mugler‘s 1985 “Lady Macbeth” creations and finery by Jean Paul Gaultier.)
In short, Ibsen’s 19th Century proto-existentialist play, inspired by a Norwegian fairy tale, is about the short-fused compulsive liar Peer Gynt’s literal and figurative journey through fantastical lands to find his true self. Lacroix’s costumes, which align with his folklore- and global culture-inspired couture design, also present a wealth of learning potential for students and visitors, alike.
Gomes, during an earlier press tour of the exhibit, stopped at the collection of costumes from the troll kingdom (above), where Peer Gynt begins his incredible adventures.
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“This is a feast for the eyes,” said Gomes, appreciating how Lacroix mixed a multitude of time periods and cultural influences, plus subverted gender norms. He points to a silver glitter-piped silk-satin jacket in purple (an en vogue color in Ibsen’s time), which is inventively combined with an 18th-century waistcoat and an Elizabethan-era under-skirt with an exposed bum-roll (or farthingale) that resembles an airplane neck-pillow wrapped at the waistline.
Gomes also gestured toward the troll king (below) in a medieval crown and an ornamented lace-trimmed, ruched and pleated lantern-sleeve gown with moth-eaten gauze overlay.
During the Q&A, Lacroix explained that he sketched out his visions and then mined the theater’s costume supply to repurpose some old pieces for the trolls. (Most of the costumes were custom-built by the theater’s fully-staffed in-house atelier.) Lacroix and Ruf also concocted a logical backstory for the trolls’ eclectic mix of style influences: The impish bunch raided the Comédie Française costume department and styled their stolen outfits to their own lively imaginations.
“I can see Lacroix with the mixture of textures and colors [in the troll costumes],” said Gomes. “You can really see his knowledge of fashion history, and the jokes that he put in. This is what screams Lacroix so much. And, of course, he’s a maximalist.”
Lacroix, himself, co-signed, but explained that leaning into maximalism is integral to designing for theater — and to dazzle the audience, even in the mezzanine and above. “You have to be a little bit louder than in fashion,” he said.
Gomes mused that students could “just pick one single [troll] character and just analyze and write about it.” He also shared that SCAD students helped stage the exhibit, from molding padding to fill out the costumes, to styling the mannerisms and gestures of the specialized mannequins. The team looked to photos and video from the 2012 production, plus ballet movement. “Because what you do with the hands can very easily look like scarecrows [or be] boring or look like monsters,” said Gomes. “It’s good to [direct] the students, ‘Okay, make it angry, make it demure, make it happy with the hands.’ It’s a really good exercise.”
On the first floor of the exhibit, Gomes pointed out the “dames de compagnie or ladies of the night” costumes (above) for highlighting Lacroix’s haute couture signatures. “The dégradé of colors, the shadows, and it’s all silk-dyed in-house with an emphasis on mauve,” said Gomes, reiterating the popularity of the 19th-Century color trend. Lacroix depicted years of toiling, aspiration and perseverance through iridescent ombré lace, asymmetrical draping, layering of contrasting pink floral embellishments with sequins on faded lilac and feathers fluttering off of decadent crystal work.
Gomes also pointed to a sheer puff-sleeve, illusion mesh-paneled and multi-lace embroidered wedding dress (below). Lacroix cleverly designed the gown with trick zippers for the frenzied character to quickly transform it — during the performance — into a strapless, corseted mini-dress with a jagged hemline. “It’s like full bride, to distressed bride, to very distressed bride, in three phases,” said Gomes. “It’s really intelligent.”
“Christian Lacroix Habille Peer Gynt pour la Comédie-Française” runs from July 1 to Nov. 1, 2023 at SCAD Fash Lacoste. More details here.
Disclosure: SCAD provided my travel and accommodations to attend the exhibit opening.