Meet the Speaker: Leonard Choo

Author: Arkansas Arts CenterFiled under: Art of Fashion, Events, Meet the Speaker

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Leonard Choo

THURSDAY, JUNE 7, 2018
Art of Fashion: Leonard Choo
An Exquisite Pursuit: Shopping and Design in Ballet Costuming
5:30 p.m. Wine Reception | 6 p.m. Lecture

Barbara Streisand once sang, “Everything is beautiful at the ballet”…and it has to be. The quest for beauty in ballet extends beyond the sweeping grace of its dancers – to the complex, fascinating, and often intricately specialized costumes that contribute to the wonder of its mise-en-scène. How do these dimensional garments begin their lives? What are the various components, and how do they make their way to the stage?Leonard Choo, principal Shopper for the New York City Ballet, will discuss all this and more in his upcoming Art of Fashion lecture. We caught up with Leonard before his visit to learn a little more his work.

What is your current role at the New York City Ballet?

I am the principal Shopper for the costume department of the New York City Ballet. I am responsible for swatching, sourcing, and purchasing all the fabric, trims, stones, accessories, and even tools that go into the making or refurbishment of the costumes that go on stage at NYCB.

How did you first become interested in fashion?

I have always been somewhat interested clothing, but really developed a keenness for fashion when I was pursuing my MFA in costume design. I particularly love the craft and art of clothing construction, and of couture…it reminds me of a childhood obsession with origami, actually. Well-made and thought out clothing design is so exciting to me that I am that person who will watch shows purely for the joy of watching the costumes’ design and details.

How does art influence your work?

Art influences my work is such a multitude of ways that to be honest, so it’s quite difficult to pinpoint one primary motivation! Aesthetically, I often turn to art for color and mood (such as the impressionists and Henri Rousseau), for line, movement and figure (renaissance sculpture and Rodin), and for general love and celebration of intricate detail (16th-18th century European portraiture). I also find it very useful to observe how artists visually addressed social/political/economic contexts and messages in their art – particularly useful when creating designs that can effectively respond to the context of a performance. It is a nebulous, constantly evolving pool of inspiration.

How does fabric shopping or designing for the stage differ from shopping or designing for the runway?

Designing, shopping, and building clothing for the stage and performance is such a wildly different job from designing for the runway — it is something I feel quite passionately about. Our process must take into account an entire context (character, plot, movement, space, time, mise-en-scène), exist within it, and work semiotically and pragmatically with the requirements of actual performance. For the the stage, I prioritize scale, repetition, contrast, and movement — especially the way a fabric hangs or relates to a body. It is all often bigger, more heightened, or more prominent than on the runway.

Do you have a favorite look that’s appeared on stage at the New York City Ballet?

I wish I could pick just one, but in fact I have several because they are all wonderful in their separate ways.

Most recently, for a group of 1940’s style dresses for a Something to Dance About designed by Toni-Leslie James, I worked with a French textile company to create a selection of flocked nets from scratch – watching fabric you have helped create come to life on stage is thrilling.

I also really love watching rebuilds on stage because the process of remaking these costumes is always such an exercise in balancing creativity and fidelity. For example, the fabrics for the ladies in Serenade and the snowflake corps in The Nutcracker are all new, specially developed fabrics that bring life back to Karinska’s iconic designs.

Lastly, I would say one of the most wonderful costumes I’ve seen move about on stage was our rebuild of Carabosse, the evil fairy in Patricia Zipprodt’s design for The Sleeping Beauty. It was an incredibly elaborate costume that required weeks of work, and when it finally hit the stage and the light, it came to breathtaking life and truly embodied and extended the dancer and character.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

I try and find inspiration in the visual or aesthetic context of the work I’m doing. It might be furniture and décor from certain period, clothing from a certain place, or paintings by a certain person.

I also tend to find a lot of great visual inspiration in nature… in colors, or shapes, or even moods. For a recent dance design that featured dock workers, for example, I drew the color palette from algae and lichen growths on the underside of docks.

Do you have any advice for aspiring young costume designers?

Analytically see and experience as much design as you can, to learn from great artists and designers. A curatorial eye is extremely beneficial to learning what works and what does not, and why. I really believe that learning the form and craft provides a strong foundation for meaningful, innovative, exciting design.

Tickets for Art of Fashion are available at arkansasartscenter.org/tickets.

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