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New York fashion designers might be feeling the heat this week, but they’re not alone: Jonathan Fensom has been given the rather intimidating task of creating costumes for the Roundabout Theatre Company’s upcoming production of “Pygmalion,” starting previews Sept. 21 at the American Airlines Theatre. And considering Eliza Doolittle’s image has been branded on the cultural psyche by Audrey Hepburn by way of Cecil Beaton in the film “My Fair Lady,” he has quite an act to follow.
“I try not to think about it,” sums up Fensom of his coping mechanism. “Of course, there are some wobbly moments.”
He may not have a Hepburn, but Fensom has as his live mannequin ever-stylish Claire Danes, making her Broadway debut as Doolittle opposite Jefferson Mays as Henry Higgins. And though Fensom has the occasional jitters, the British set and costume designer is very clear this is not going to be a stage version of the beloved movie.
“I think the creative team from the beginning has always felt that we must create something that isn’t ‘My Fair Lady,'” explains Fensom, who has a B.A. in stage design from Nottingham Polytechnic and made his own Broadway debut a decade ago, working on “The Lion King.” “Cecil Beaton’s costumes for the film were extraordinary and fantastic, but they were much more fantasy. I wanted to actually show how hard it was and how unfair and how socially unjust and how women were treated and all those things. Everything that was wrong with the Edwardian age, rather than thinking it was some kind of wonderful fantasyland where everybody looked wonderful.”
Fensom fully immersed himself in the play’s 1913 time period, creating a wall in his central London studio of photographic research he did in the Getty and Corbis libraries, among others, to search out “ordinary people” from every possible social class. One particularly striking image from the time shows groups of women sitting in circles in Covent Garden potting peas.
Once he had his inspiration, Fensom set out to create the 36 costumes in total. Eliza Doolittle herself has five changes over the course of the piece that gradually unfold like a Babushka doll.
“To me it’s all about silhouette and I love to play around with how it will change,” says Fensom. “So at first we see her in layers and layers of stuff and you can’t really see her form and you’re thinking, ‘Who is this mad bag woman?'”
She then moves on to a linen wrap paired with wet hair; a green and blue, fine wool herringbone walking suit; an opera gown, and for the final scene, a summer day dress. (“She’s feeling much more confident.”) The men get starched waistcoats for evening, with tails, white tie, top hats and capes.
But Fensom’s creations aren’t limited to the upper crust realm, as he hopes to evoke a “contrast of two worlds colliding.” In the opening, Mrs. Eynsford-Hill and her daughter, decked out in a georgette dress and vintage red velvet opera coat, take shelter from the rain, waiting for a taxi as prostitutes and drunken bystanders cloaked in dark colors meander around them.
“It’s not at all romantic. I would say it’s almost like a few years ago finding yourself in Alphabet City when you’ve just walked out of the Met and thinking: ‘I’m in the middle of a housing project,'” jokes Fensom.
Next up for the designer is another classic, and undoubtedly daunting, project: the costumes for the February 2009 San Francisco Ballet production of “Swan Lake.” But for now, he is just focused on keeping his Doolittle and her cohorts as accessible as possible.
“I’m more concerned with making them feel like real clothes than a fashion parade,” he says. “I want an audience to come away from it feeling that they have a greater understanding of what it would have been really like to live in London at that time.”