Byline: Robert Murphy
ANTWERP, Belgium — An Vandevorst and Filip Arickx have hit a snag: The costume they’ve designed for actress Joan MacIntosh, the lead in the upcoming production of Susan Sontag’s play “Alice in Bed,” is too tight.
“I’m afraid I’ll rip the back if I make a sudden movement,” complains MacIntosh.
With hardly a blink, Vandevorst spots a pair of silver scissors. She quickly snips a makeshift vent where the shirt pulls. “How’s that?” she asks. Swinging her arms, the actress nods in approval.
“Problem solved,” says Arickx, nonchalantly sinking his teeth into an orange.
This type of instinctive improvisation seems to characterize the approach Arickx and his wife — together, the Belgian design duo known as AF Vandevorst — took when asked for the first time to transport their clothes off the runway and onto the stage.
The play, directed by experimental Dutchman Ivo van Hove and featuring Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Marvel and Jorre Vandenbussche, opened in June with a six-day run in Antwerp and Amsterdam as part of the Holland 2000 theater festival. It will make its debut in the U.S. at the New York Theater Workshop in November.
When Arickx and Vandevorst agreed to do the costumes, they approached the task a bit like two students preparing for an exam.
“First we read the piece and then we started talking,” explains Arickx, seated behind a stark white desk in his Antwerp studio.
“For us, it was a process of conversation, an interpretation of ideas,” interrupts Vandevorst, who sits at an identical white desk directly in front of her partner. “We discussed how the play made us feel, and we instantly had the same vision of how the characters should be dressed.”
“We didn’t want to do period costumes,” interjects Arickx. “We wanted to make the play more timeless. Something that is not confined to a certain period in history.
“For us, the play is very symbolic, with most of the action taking place in the mind. So instead of making clothes evocative of the past, we wanted them to express the feelings that we think correspond to each character.”
Sontag’s play recounts the life of Alice James, the younger sister of turn-of-the-(last)-century intellectuals Henry and William James.
“It’s about a girl who decides to give up living in the world,” explains Vandevorst. “Because of her sex, her father restricted her from living the same life as her brothers. Instead, she decides to commit a type of suicide by creating a world in her mind and living in bed.”
Beds seem to be a leitmotiv in the designers’ work. Their 1999 spring-summer collection was presented on models in hospital beds. As the show began, each model rose from her feigned slumber and pranced down the catwalk.
“It’s a strange coincidence, no?” Arickx jokes.
The couple designed nine costumes for the play. While MacIntosh spends most of her time on stage in a flowing white skirt that resembles a bed sheet, the other actors are shown in video projection — an effect meant to replicate the dreamlike quality of James’s existence.
“We’ve always wanted to design for theater,” says Vandevorst. “It’s forced us to focus on an individual. Usually fashion is designed for a group of women. With this project, we concentrated on the character of one person.”
“And it’s not only about the clothes,” adds Arickx. “In a play, the costume is only an accessory to highlight the character. The clothes become a support.
“When we do a collection, we have complete control. With the play, there are certain restrictions. That’s not to say they told us how to design. There was a lot of exchange, though. That’s nice, because it brings new ideas to our designs.”
“Our clothes are meant to express emotion,” Vandevorst says. “Telling a story is a central part of our design process. With the play, we interpreted a story. It was exciting and a learning process, because we were brought into a different world full of new ideas that opened us to new possibilities.”