From bridal gowns to opera costumes, ‘Project Runway’s’ Austin Scarlett loves challenging himself
Austin Scarlett is having a diva moment. Actually, it’s not a moment, he’s been working on it for months.
And it’s not even his moment anyway.
The divas he’s thinking about are in the opera world, where Scarlett has found himself … and somewhat unexpectedly.
Scarlett — the fashion designer who shot to prominence as a fan favorite on Season 1 of Project Runway with his elaborate, tailored looks perfect for ballgowns and wedding dresses — is goin’ to the opry! He’s been tapped as the costume designer for one of the productions in the Fort Worth Opera’s upcoming 2014 festival.
With his stylish flamboyance, you might expect Scarlett to jump at the chance to do some fantastical costuming — perhaps for tropical delights of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers or Mozart’s fanciful Cosi fan tutte — but you’d be off. Way off. He opted instead to design costumes for nuns.
Trust him, it surprised him as much as anyone.
“We were talking about me doing Britton’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Darren [Woods, general director of the FWO] said, ‘You don’t wanna do an opera with nuns, do you?’ and I said, ‘Actually, I do!’”
That conversation took place about two years ago, and this week all the efforts finally come to fruition when the piece, named With Blood, With Ink, opens.
The opera, in English, tells the life story of Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 17th century Mexican who was decades (if not centuries) ahead of her time. Yentl-like, she disguised herself as a man to get a university education and was a poet, nun and fierce feminist — before such a term even existed. Scarlett knew instantly he wanted to help tell her story.
“I knew a bit about Sor Juana,” he says on a recent trip to Fort Worth. “She was the Joan of Arc of Mexico — a martyr who was an inspiration. She’s such a fascinating character and became the first New World feminist.”
His familiarity with Sor Juana was fueled when he learned more details about her life, but also because of the era she lived in: The Spanish colonial baroque.
“It was so fascinating to me, that whole time period, when women were relegated to being wives and maybe concubines, but it was also the most use of fabric in history. The standard of the day was to use 20 yards of material!” he says.
But wouldn’t he still be constrained by the clerical look of the Catholic sisters? Well, it wouldn’t be a challenge if he didn’t find a way.
“Some of the technical challenges are creating these nuns who are comfortable in their clothes, particularly when you’re swaddled around the face and the neck.
And as historically accurate as I want to be, there are certain adjustments I need to make to make it work for the audience,” he says. For instance, the countess “seemed too severe and mean to make her appear as an attractive and benevolent mother,” so he tweaked her look. And Sor Juana stands out as well.
“There’s a chorus of nuns, but that can also tell you how she was conforming to this group identity, she was so unique and of a single mind,” he says. “And it’s important to make a singer feel the part and be comfortable in the character.”
Scarlett is best known for his bridal collection for Neiman Marcus. But bridalwear has many parallels to costume design.
“[A wedding gown] is nothing like what a woman will wear in her everyday life — it exists only in wedding attire. And it’s living out this make-believe fantasy, this childhood, fairytale dream. But there is a ceremony and certain theatrical aspects. You’re center stage of this large event and command attention of the room. How it works with the group and the whole process.”
Nevertheless, this kind of costuming is a new experience for Scarlett .
“I didn’t grow up with opera,” he says, but came to it quickly when he moved to New York City. It was there he met Thomas Rhodes, who works at the FWO. Rhodes was the first to suggest Scarlett might want to design an entire collection for a single world premiere opera.
“So far it’s been fun,” he chirps. “There’s a lot of work involved, and there’s been a bit of a challenge doing it and keeping my business running at the same time. But working with the opera company has been exciting. I love the collaborative atmosphere.”
The actual creation of the costumes only started [in late 2013], but it was important to get them finished early. “There are some things that might have to be changed as the show takes more of a clear form, but my work will be done!”
With his Neiman Marcus connection, his work with the Fort Worth Opera and an upcoming project in Austin related to a costume exhibit for Gone with the Wind, the native of the Pacific Northwest has been spending a lot of time lately in the Lone Star State … and that’s perfectly fine with him.
“I’m sort of an honorary Texan!” Scarlett says. And we’re happy to have him as one.
The Fort Worth Opera Festival runs in repertory April 19–May 11, with six different presentations (The Pearl Fishers, Cosi fan tutti, Silent Night, Forte, Hamlet and the Opera Unbound series entry With Blood, With Ink). Most performances will take place at Bass Performance Hall, 535 Commerce St., Fort Worth. Tickets available at FWOpera.org or by calling 817-731-0726 (With Blood, With Ink tickets not available online.)
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 18, 2014.