Opera ballet

At the Paris Opera Ballet, Changing the forms of couture

PARIS — Couture, those handmade, bespoke garments that regularly sell in the six figures, is the upper stratum of fashion for the wealthy. Short glimpses on the slopes aside, for most of us it’s a hidden world.

But couture also exists in another more accessible universe: the theater costume departments. Most notable – and perhaps one of the oldest – is the Paris Opera Ballet, housed in the Palais Garnier Opera House. There, at the back of the 19th century theater, a maze of workshops, like there are any multi-storey fashion house, each dedicated to a specialty: tailoring, soft construction (called “flou”), knitting, accessories , millinery. and embroidery, as well as dyeing and painting.

And like in the workshops of the fashion house, the seamstresses cut and sew stiff linen mock-ups, called canvases, to perfect the design before cutting it into the final fabric, and producing embellishments, like silk flowers made by hand and gold braiding. Since, as Xavier Ronze, head of the ballet’s couture department, explains, they work “with a classical repertoire and have to repair or redo old costumes in shades that are no longer available on the market”, they mix pigments and they dye the fabrics themselves. .

And they still know all the tricks of old-school costume, like expertly layering tulle to create stiff stage tutus and manipulating soft piano or guitar wires into lightweight tiaras.

However, not everything in this particular workshop is so traditional.

In a move that may have unexpected implications for the wider world of couture, in 2014 Mr Ronze visited a fashion show outside Paris and came across an exhibition of models based on 3D body scans. human, produced by Alvanon, the global apparel consultancy that normally makes tailored designs for brands such as Diesel, Levi’s and Nike. He thought: why not use them for dance costumes?

After all, the Paris Opera Ballet’s costume department often has to produce 100 new bespoke looks in a matter of weeks. The process includes multiple try-on sessions with each of the troupe’s 154 dancers to ensure that each ensemble not only looks good, but also adapts to body movements. Additionally, department heads watch dress rehearsals from theater seats to see if costume colors and flourishes show up in the stage lighting as the designer intended. Otherwise, other tweaks are made, like painting a shadow next to a lapel or applying a few extra sparkly rhinestones, “so the audience can read the costume better,” Ronze said.

He pitched the idea to Benjamin Millepied, the company’s director at the time, and when Janice Wang, Alvanon’s chief executive, was in Paris for the Hong Kong family business’s annual meeting, they invited her to visit to see if the models could be adapted to their needs.

Ms Wang recalls: “I was looking at what they were using” – traditional Stockman brand fashion forms that were padded to try to mimic the shape of a dancer – “and I thought, ‘They can’t not work that way.’ She noted that dancers usually have large ribcages and defined rears, a “completely different shape” from the fashionable standard figure.

Ms. Wang offered to 3D scan the company’s dancers and create new standard-sized mannequins based on an amalgamation of those scans. And, since the cost of 250,000 euros, or about $280,000, was more than the public company could afford, Alvanon offered to do the project for free.

Last year, the team traveled to Paris and scanned more than 100 adult and child dancers at the theater, producing prototype heads and bodies of men, women and children in generic sizes small. , medium and large – about three dozen in all.

Alvanon mannequins are now being used to fit costumes for the ballet’s new productions, including the 18th-century Viennese-inspired creations Karl Lagerfeld created for George Balanchine’s ‘Brahms-Schönberg Quartet’, on view until July 15 at the Opera Bastille.

Mr Ronze described the Alvanon mannequins as “tremendous time-savers”.

“The first cut is fairer, so we need fewer fittings,” he added.

Several other dance companies have been in contact with Alvanon; the same goes for some Parisian fashion houses (but the company won’t reveal names).

“It’s a niche product,” Ms. Wang said. “But we said to ourselves: if we don’t help in one way or another, one day all this know-how could disappear. It’s our way of supporting artisans. What they do is magic.