4 Times Couture Fashion Designers Took Their Talents to the Stage

Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series Halston culminates [spoiler alert] with the fashion designer creating the costumes for Martha Graham’s 1987 dance work Persephone at City Center. Halston had previously sold his brand to Esmark, Inc., and in doing so, was prevented from releasing any designs branded as a Halston. Earlier in the series, the character of Halston sneers at the world of theatrical costuming—both with his colleague Joe Eula’s costume design for Got Tu Go Disco and when meeting John David Ridge, the costumer turned fashion designer who would eventually replace Halston as the head of the brand bearing his name. However, this Episode Five collaboration with Graham (played by Mary Beth Peil) wasn’t his first foray into the field. Not only had Halston had a years-long friendship and working relationship with Graham, his deep friendship with Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez in the series) led to his sole Broadway credit as costume designer for the 1977 John Kander, Fred Ebb, and George Furth musical The Act, starring Minnelli decked out in Halston sequined jumpsuits. (Fun fact: The Act also happens to be director Martin Scorcese’s single Broadway credit.) Click through the gallery below for a look back at Halston’s designs.

Read on for a few other times couture designers turned their spindles toward Broadway for costume design. And not just for Josephine Baker’s gowns (looking at you, Balenciaga).

Pierre Cardin
Paris couturier Pierre Cardin once designed suits for The Beatles, and was well-known for his avant-garde flair and Space Age fashion. He favored geometric shapes and created the “bubble dress.” But in 1963, Cardin was credited for the execution of the ladies’ costumes for the period romance The Lady of Camellias, adapted by Terrance McNally from Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias (also the source material for Verdi’s La Traviata). The production was directed by famous film director Franco Zeffirelli and starred Susan Strasberg as Camille. Despite three Tony nominations, including one for Marcel Escoffier’s costume design, it only ran for 13 performances.

Susan Strasberg in <i>The Lady of the Camellias</i>“><figcaption> <span class= Susan Strasberg in The Lady of the Camellias Friedman-Abeles/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Christian Dior
Just after WWII, Christian Dior founded his own Paris design house and created what became known as the “New Look.” His designs were more voluminous than women had worn during the fabric-rationing war years—incorporating wasp-waist corsets, with hip padding and petticoats under fuller longer skirts. In 1960 he is credited for the Women’s Costume Designs for the Broadway adaptation of Giraudoux’s Duel of Angels, starring Vivien Leigh. The play is set in southern France in 1868, but Dior infuses the gown designs with his own “New Look” adding pleats and volume to the period pieces.

Isaac Mizrahi
American designer Isaac Mizrahi attended the High School of Performing Arts before going on to Parsons School of Design, so it’s no stretch for him to step into the theatre world for costume design. He launched his first couture collection in 1987 and had a multi-million dollar diffusion line at Target in the early 2000s. His first Broadway costume design was for the 2001 revival of Clare Booth Luce’s 1936 comedy of manners The Women, winning a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Costume Design. He added two additional Broadway credits in 2006 with designs for both Barefoot in the Park and The Threepenny Opera.

Amy Ryan, Jennifer Coolidge, Lisa Emery, Cynthia Nixon and Lynn Collins in Broadway's <i>The Women</i>, 2001″><figcaption> <span class= Amy Ryan, Jennifer Coolidge, Lisa Emery, Cynthia Nixon and Lynn Collins in Broadway’s The Women, 2001 Joan Marcus

It’s Reversible
Special mentions must go to two costume designers who also made names for themselves in the fashion industry: Bob Mackie and Emilio Sosa.

Bob Mackie
Mackie’s career began as a sketch artist for the costumers at Paramount Studios, but he quickly moved to designer. His work in the film industry led to an invitation in 1966 from Mitzi Gaynor to design her costumes for upcoming Las Vegas cabarets and television specials, which in turn led to his hire by The Carol Burnett Show. Mackie remained costumer designer for all eleven seasons of the series, creating everything from the sequined gowns Burnett wore in the show closings to the Scarlet O’Hara parody curtain(rod) gown. His first costume for Cher was her appearance on The Carol Burnett Show; he would go on to costume her for The Sonny and Cher Show. Mackie’s first Broadway design was for the 1971 revival of On the Town, followed by Carol Channing’s costumes for Lorelei. After years of dressing celebrities on stage and for the red carpet (especially Cher), he released a ready-to-wear collection in 1982. Mackie won his first Tony in 2019 for, of course, The Cher Show.

Emilio Sosa
Raised in New York City, Sosa attended Art and Design High School before studying Fashion Design at Pratt Institute. He made his Broadway debut in 2002 with the costume design for Topdog/Underdog. Sosa has a string of theatrical credits, including four additional Broadway shows (with a Tony nomination for The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess), The Alvin Ailey Dance Company, and The Rockettes. In 2010, Sosa was a contestant on the fashion design competition series Project Runway, finishing as runner-up and creating what would become his own label, esosa. He returned for the second season of Project Runway All Stars, again winning runner-up honors. Sosa hasn’t left the theatre industry though. He’s currently slated to design A.R.T.’s all-female production of 1776.