The Glamorous Life

February 28, 2016

Les Child puts fashion in motion.

Les Child worked with model Arizona Muse and students from the Royal Ballet School for a British Vogue shoot. Photo by Patrick Demarchelier, Courtesy Streeters London.

One morning in 2011, London-based choreographer Leslie John Bryant, known professionally as Les Child, awoke without any plans; he showered, shaved and was about to run errands when he got an emergency call from his agent. Fashion designer Miuccia Prada was arranging 45 models for a runway show, and it wasn’t going well.

“They had a huge set with staircases,” Les Child explains. “They were having trouble relaying information to these girls about how to be equidistant, how to have rhythm. They were panicking.” So he took the next flight to Milan to sort out the staging, coach the models and give them a pep talk. It was all in a day’s work for Les Child, a 50-something choreographer who specializes in making movement for fashion.

His career has always been tinged with glamour. Musicians from Eartha Kitt to the Rolling Stones have relied on his movement expertise; he has also run a company of voguers and choreographed for musical theater (Boy George’s
) and film (Kinky Boots).

But the glam factor is highest in the print campaigns and runway shows he has done for fashion clients including Armani, Gucci, MAC Cosmetics and the late Alexander McQueen, who once asked him to move dancers around onstage like chess pieces. (“Do you know how to play chess?” McQueen asked him; when Les Child said “no,” McQueen replied, “You’ll learn.”)

Les Child began as a dancer, performing with Michael Clark’s company in the 1980s. “It was a brilliant time for dance in London,” he recalls. “There were commercials, pop groups. There was always work for us—we could go from one job to another.” That breadth of experience exposed him to different styles, directors and producers with whom he stayed in touch. “They’d say, ‘Can you do a bit of choreography?’ and I’d say, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a go.’ ”

Although he occasionally worked on ad campaigns and runway shows, “I didn’t consciously seek out a career in fashion,” he says. He fell into it after casting director Russell Marsh, a longtime colleague, introduced him to Beverley Streeter, whose agency, Streeters, supplies talent to the fashion world. As the sole choreographer on the Streeters roster, Les Child has grown to understand the particular challenges fashion presents.

“With dance, you choose the dancers, the steps, the music, the costumes,” he says. But in fashion, your choices are limited. On editorial shoots, “you have a director who knows what the client wants. There’s not often freedom to experiment. It’s a more commercial enterprise.” 

Wardrobe and styling can also limit movement—at a Wella shoot, models wore rubber outfits and elaborate hairstyles six hours in the making. And when it comes to setting movement on nondancers, patience is critical. Part of Les Child’s job is boosting models’ stage presence, whether he’s walking them through steps or coaching them on theatrics. “Sometimes you have to give them a character or manipulate them into an interesting shape,” he says. “I try to evoke some sort of attitude that may already be there.”

For Les Child, one reward of fashion is the collaboration with directors, photographers, hairstylists and makeup artists to create what he calls “a captivating story.” He aspires to bring back the emotion of ’80s and ’90s runway shows, when models were freer to show some personality.

But ultimately, to succeed in fashion, “you can’t be precious about what you want,” he says. “It’s not your idea, so you have to relax.” But it’s a mind-set he’s enjoyed adopting. “I’m still a creative,” he says. “I live like an artist.”