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By Khara Hanlon
Dancers know what looks good. Be it their line, the quality of their movement, or how a leotard flatters their body. So it’s no surprise that more and more dancers are taking to the sewing machine to design fashionable and functional clothing. Dance Magazine spoke with several dancers turned designers. They all agree: To make it as a designer you need the perseverance of a dancer.
Marisa Cerveris danced with New York City Ballet, Nacho Duato’s Compañia Nacional de Danza, and in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. With no formal design training, Cerveris used the sewing skills her mother taught her to found ByMarisa dancewear. “I started cutting up and putting things back together in an effort to see what I wanted to wear,” says Cerveris. “I’d go home and make a leotard. Then I started making things for friends.”
When stumped by a design difficulty, she sought advice from costumers at the NYCB costume shop. While in the cast of Phantom she had the opportunity to delve deeper into the fashion world. “The garment district was right around the corner,” says Cerveris. “Between the matinée and evening shows I’d shop for fabric. For years I was dancing and designing at the same time.”
Then came the leap—or push—from dancer to full-time designer. She’d just retired from Phantom and had a new baby when director Robert Altman tapped her designs for his movie The Company. “The costume designer called me and I ended up designing Neve Campbell’s dancewear,” says Cerveris. “It kind of launched us before I was ready. I was still nursing.”
Today Cerveris lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and bikes to her workshop. Local laborers make her garments now, but her design process is nearly the same as when she started. “I think of the line first,” she says. “I see something like a painting and have to figure out how to take it from my mind’s eye. I drape on a mannequin and do flat patterning. Then I make sure that it holds its shape without extra fabric—that the bottom stays down and the straps stay up. Every pattern has to be specific to a certain fabric.”
Attention to detail is key to Cerveris’ success as a designer. “I take each leotard for a test drive in class and go through many versions before I set a design in stone,” she says. “It’s just like tendus at the barre—over and over.” Getting it right is a must. After all, says Cerveris, “these are for dancers who are wearing them all the time.”
Sylvie and Michel Mesnier danced together at the Paris Opéra Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet. In Seattle they noticed “a lack of comfortable knitwear in pretty colors,” says Sylvie. Working together, with Sylvie knitting and Michel designing, they began to make legwarmers. “We saw a need and decided to retire and create our own company.” But before establishing Harmonie, the married couple took a two-year pit stop at a little company called Microsoft.
“It happened only by chance that we learned about real business,” says Sylvie. “When you stop dancing it’s a shock that you don’t have stage lights. When you’re a principal dancer everything is done for you. It’s a cocoon. You only have to work hard at dancing. At Microsoft we had a normal life. We had people to direct.”
They drew heavily on the work ethic their dance training gave them. “A dancer at every level is extremely dedicated,” says Sylvie. “They’re the most resourceful people on earth.” Tapping that resourcefulness, the Mesniers saw Harmonie take off. “We had a signature legwarmer in four different color combinations,” says Sylvie. “One day we went to a studio and saw four girls, each wearing one of the combinations. It was so satisfying.”
The demand for Harmonie’s products was hard to keep up with. So when Capezio wanted to incorporate knitwear into their lineup, the Mesniers jumped at the opportunity. “As a small business it was hard to deal with every issue,” says Sylvie. Now with Sylvie as Capezio’s brand design manager and Michel as the assistant vice president of product development, they draw on their earlier experiences to solve new problems. “There are still issues,” says Sylvie. “Like when I plan the colors, I plan them based on the market. I might love blue but it has to be available.”
In the 1990s Noémie Lafrance’s dancewear company Unity was sold in Equinox gyms, dancewear stores, and nationally via mail order. Like Cerveris, Lafrance’s early designs were the result of experimenting. “I would cut my dancewear so that it would fit my body better,” she says. Initially she focused on unitards—and not just for fashion reasons. “I could feel my body as one,” says Lafrance. “They helped me develop technically. I started connecting my upper body to my lower body.”
With her friends begging for unitards and fighting over color swatches, Lafrance saw an opportunity. “I was studying at the Graham school and I started putting little posters up around the city. People would order by mail and I started to build a reputation. Next thing I knew we were selling in stores.”
Lafrance took pattern-making classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. “I wanted to be more within industry standards,” she says.
“When I was a kid I would lay down on the fabric and cut it to my body. I didn’t make patterns. But when I started to make different sizes I needed to learn.”
For Lafrance designing was a means to an end. “I wanted to have a dance company,” she says. “I loved sewing, but my dream was to choreograph. There was never enough time to do both. It was a way to make money, and the experience I gained from it helped me start my non-profit.”
Now she uses her skills to create costumes for her company, Sens Production. For Rapture, a series of site-specific works on Frank Gehry architecture, the costumes have transparent and reflective material. “The dancers will look like balls of light,” says Lafrance. For Melt, the costume melts during the piece. “Without the costume the piece doesn’t exist.” In Noir 10 dancers go through six costume changes for a total of 60 outfits. “I got suits at a thrift store, then changed the cut and buttons to look like it was from the 1940s.”
Lafrance has also designed costumes for other companies like MOMIX but plans to do less of that in the future. “The dance world doesn’t have money to pay for costumes,” she says. “It’s not like opera. It’s not something I can afford to spend time doing.”
Candice Thompson designs for her own business, LOLAstretch, as well as costumes for companies like the Milwaukee Ballet, Charleston Ballet Theatre, and Eugene Ballet. A dancer with New York’s Ad Hoc Ballet, she feels that making clothing is second nature to her. “I can wear something and have a good idea of how it’s put together,” says Thompson. “Sewing makes sense to me.”
Thompson thrives on being a trendsetter. “I’m always looking for feedback and taking it into consideration,” she says. “But I’m also very interested in being a leader and in setting a new tone in dancewear. I like to find new things and get people to like them.”
She also thinks about what a dancer needs from her clothing. “One of my leotards has an oval back cutout. It’s deliberately high up on the leotard so that, when partnering, a guy’s fingers won’t get caught in the holes.”
Her asymmetrical leotard is a best seller. “I like to create something off-center and have it be satisfying like a symmetrical leotard is.” As for color? “I love purple and green and use a lot of bold oranges, dark plums, lime, and avocado.” For fabric she goes for nylon, tricot, and milliskin. “It dries the quickest. Plus it’s slimming fabric. I also love to detail with mesh and trim in velvet.”
It’s a critical time for LOLAstretch. “I’m trying to meet demand because it’s really taken off in the last year,” says Thompson. “My challenge now is to find reliable manufacturing that will give me the combination of quality and timing that I need to keep going.”
A dancer first, Thompson says the lessons she’s learned give her an edge. “In dance you get rejected,” she says. “Designing is the same way. Often it feels like Murphy’s Law tends to apply at the 11th hour. You get samples back and they’re wrong. If you can’t have it made to your specification in the time you need, it’s a problem. And even if things aren’t my mistake, I end up fixing it myself. It takes more than skill: It takes hard work and grit.”
Khara Hanlon is an associate editor at DM.
Photo by Frank Bevan, Courtesy LOLAstretch
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