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A Fashion Designer’s Otherworldly Costumes for the Royal Ballet

By Grace Cook

 
The Debrief | Thursday, 9:30 AM

On the first day of stage rehearsals for the new ballet “Corybantic Games” at London’s Royal Opera House, the designer Erdem Moralioglu, who created the production’s costumes, runs through the day’s agenda with the Royal Ballet’s director, Christopher Wheeldon. The ballet is dedicated to the late American composer Leonard Bernstein. Photograph by Jamie Stoker.

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Développé à la Seconde | Thursday, 9:55 AM

Royal Ballet soloist Tierney Heap warms up backstage at the Royal Opera House, before rehearsals start at 10 a.m. sharp. This is the first time the ballerinas have been in their costumes. Photograph by Jamie Stoker.

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In Pursuit of the Perfect Fit | Thursday, 1:05 PM

En route to the canteen for a cup of tea, the designer adjusts the ribbons on first soloist Beatriz Stix-Brunell’s bralette, which had been moving too much onstage. Moralioglu will later ask the wardrobe team to sew them down completely. Photograph by Jamie Stoker.

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Fourth Position | Thursday, 1:20 PM

A ballerina warms up her feet backstage. Crafted from pleated tulle with a velvet ribbon finish, the production’s tutus were inspired by Erdem’s spring/summer 2018 collection. Moralioglu’s muse for the overall look of the Royal Ballet project, though, was the music: He listened to Bernstein’s orchestral works while sketching the costumes. Photograph by Jamie Stoker.

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Waiting in the Wings | Thursday, 2 PM

At the side of the stage, Moralioglu catches up with his friend, the principal ballerina Lauren Cuthbertson, after rehearsals end. It was Cuthbertson who introduced Moralioglu to Christopher Wheeldon — the designer became friends with the ballerina after she wore his gown to the Olivier Awards in 2015. Photograph by Jamie Stoker.

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In Costume | Thursday, 2:10 PM

The first soloist Beatriz Stix-Brunell backstage at the Royal Opera House after the first day of dress rehearsals for “Corybantic Games.” The harness-like ribbons wrapped around the chest denote the principal dancers onstage. Behind her sit set pieces from previously performed ballets, waiting in storage. Photograph by Jamie Stoker.

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Cast of Three | Thursday, 2:20 PM

Dancers Harry Churches, Leo Dixon and David Yudes await a fitting backstage. The single ribbon on the shoulder demarcates dancers from the ensemble. Photograph by Jamie Stoker.

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Back Issues | Friday, 9:30 PM

In his East London studio, the designer reaches for an archival copy of the fashion magazine The Face. His alphabetically organised shelves and library carts are filled with art books and old issues of magazines. To Moralioglu’s right is a portrait of his mother, behind Wallis Simpson’s china tea set. Photograph by Jamie Stoker.

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Works of Art | Friday, 10 AM

An oil painting of Wallis Simpson sits on a windowsill in Moralioglu’s office. The designer bought the portrait at the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s estate sale. He is often inspired by women from history: For his spring/summer 2018 collection, he envisioned Queen Elizabeth II meeting the American jazz musician Duke Ellington in Harlem in 1958. Photograph by Jamie Stoker.

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Paper Planning | Friday, 1 PM

Moralioglu catches up with his pattern-cutting manager, Ayumi Hamazaki. They go over dress sketches for the forthcoming Met Gala in May, before Moralioglu’s meeting with his Met date later in the afternoon. Photograph by Jamie Stoker.

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Solitary Sketching | Friday, 5 PM

With Nina Simone playing over the studio’s speakers, Moralioglu sits at his desk to sketch looks for his resort 2018 collection. With a busy schedule pulling him in many different directions, he has to snatch a few hours to sketch whenever he can. Today, he will draw until his dinner reservation with his partner, the interiors architect Philip Joseph, at 8 p.m. In five days’ time, his costumes will debut on the Royal Opera House stage — and Moralioglu will be there, behind the scenes, tweaking them until the last minute. Photograph by Jamie Stoker.

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It’s midday at the Royal Opera House in London and some 12 ballet dancers are rehearsing. The auditorium is dark, the stage is lit and the renowned choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is in the circle, watching with a critical eye as the troupe performs a scene from "Corybantic Games", a new ballet dedicated to the late American composer Leonard Bernstein. He’s directing over a loudspeaker. “Can we lengthen those extensions?” he says. “And orchestra, we need to speed up the tempo a bit.”

Sitting in the stalls, dressed in his signature head-to-toe grey with round spectacles, is the British-Canadian designer Erdem Moralioglu. He created the production’s costumes — Moralioglu’s friend, the ballerina Lauren Cuthbertson, introduced the designer to Wheeldon — and he’s here to see how the garments move onstage. "We only have a few tutus,” he notes, “the rest of them are still being made.”

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for Moralioglu, whose namesake label Erdem, founded in 2005, is renowned for its exquisite evening dresses and decadent craftsmanship. He has just returned from presenting his fall/winter 2018 collection to buyers in Paris, and only two weeks ago, he staged his London Fashion Week show at the National Portrait Gallery. This week has been tied up with fittings for the ballet — a five-month project for which he is costuming 24 ballet dancers, including men for the very first time.

Backstage, Moralioglu asks dancers how the costumes feel. The long strands of ribbons need to be sewn down, he decides. “I wanted the ribbons to look like armour — a contrast to this idea of undressing I was exploring,” he says. “It’s about flesh, and youth, and life.” The costumes (translucent tutus with white bra tops and briefs) are intimate and ethereal — a blend of 1950s classicism with ancient Greece: “Serenade,” one of Bernstein’s most famous orchestral works, was inspired by Plato’s “Symposium.” “We also need to fit those body stockings,” the designer says of the men’s costumes. “We need to see the ripples of the muscles. They need to be tight, tight, tight.”

Even before this collaboration, ballet was a well-established part of Moralioglu’s world. He has been fascinated by the dance form since he was young — his twin sister used to take lessons — and he’s a regular at the Opera House and a former patron of Sadler’s Wells. He knows ballerinas by name and performance, and he counts some as friends.

His Royal Ballet costumes are woven with his distinct, romantic handwriting — the ribbon trims on the pleated skirts, for example, are an idea that Moralioglu first explored for spring/summer 2018 — but the tutus are starkly sober in relation to his decadent ready-to-wear collections, which brim with colour and texture.

“It’s such an ensemble piece, you have to really think about the people sitting at the back of the room and the legibility the costumes will have,” he says. “It has to translate graphically. It’s like taking a language and desaturating it, taking all the colour out. It’s almost like a silent film. It has to work collectively, not individually — it was a totally different exercise than designing ready-to-wear.”

“Corybantic Games” is on view through April 9, 2018 at the Royal Opera House, Bow Street, London, roh.org.uk.