Q + A with Kinky Boots Designer Gregg Barnes

Gregg Barnes is a two-time Tony Award winning costume designer known for Broadway shows such as Legally Blonde, Aladdin, and Kinky Boots. Kinky Boots is coming to Indy from May 16th through the 21st, and PATTERN had the pleasure of chatting with the designer about the art of drag, his unique process of costume design, and his hobbies outside of costume design.

You are one of the busiest costume designers on Broadway. You had Tuck Everlasting last year, Something Rotten! just ended in January, and both Aladdin and Kinky Boots are still running. How involved are you with the tour as it travels, and what challenges does that create with them being on the road and you in New York?

It’s an interesting question because the process is different for every show. In the case of Kinky Boots, I tend to be more involved than other projects because the factory worker’s costumes are always adapted to fit the body type and the essence of the actor that has been cast in the specific role. From production to production, there are significant alterations to the costume plot for the factory in contrast with the drag characters (called ‘Angels’ in our version of the story). This is because they are dancers and their body types tend to suit the designs that were worn by the original cast. My associate James Hall is really the hero who maintains the integrity of the designs in the big picture. If I am out of the country and onto a new project, he is the ‘keeper of the flame’, and I chime in as needed. The logistics are very tricky with us being in New York and the tour constantly on the move. It takes a very organized and forward thinking associate to manage those logistics!

The original pair of red boots you created for Billy Porter were an architectural masterpiece. That you found a way to balance an adult on those six-and-a-half-inch heels is nothing short of miraculous. This is a different cast, though. What adjustments did you have to make to the boots and other costumes for the tour cast?

Thank you for noticing!! I have to say as a shout out to every actor that has ever been cast in the show – we never alter the boot designs and never seem to have any significant issues because the actors are so invested in celebrating the ultimate reveal of the boots. Because the boots are so central to the story, our intention is to give every audience member the same experience – from New York to every city that the show has traveled to (including the foreign productions such as Japan, Australia, England, Korea, Germany, and on and on). T.O.Dey developed the shoes and boots here in New York City, and it was quite a process!! In fact, our learning curve is exactly mirrored by the story we tell in the show. With each new production, we learn and adjust. And it is still going on four years later!

You’ve said elsewhere that the world of drag queens was not one with which you were familiar prior to being hired to do the costuming for Kinky Boots. What kind of research was necessary, and how long did it take before you had a firm concept of how the costumes needed to look?

I have to give a shout out here to RuPaul and his hit show Drag Race and the extraordinary artists that are featured in every season. I learned so much about the art of drag from these astonishing and talented performers. Their art is a mirror of our times and they expertly comment on everything from gender roles to celebrity, body image, fashion, and perhaps most importantly on just being comfortable with who you are and allowing others to flourish in their own skin. It is a major theme in our story and ultimately so timely.

While the red boots definitely stand out, what other elements in this immense array of costuming required exceptional effort? Which ones do you want to make sure an audience notices?

In a film, of course the camera tells the audience exactly where to look, so an enormous part of my job as a theater designer is to make sure that the focus is always on the actor telling the story. Sometimes it is the entire company, and sometimes a singe actor that needs to be featured. But whoever has the main story point needs to stand out from the group. We accomplish that with the use of color and detail and an ever-evolving dialogue with the director and the other designers. We made a lot of changes from our first production in Chicago before coming in to Broadway to clarify and sharpen the visual relationship between the actor and the audience. It was an enormously satisfying journey and the original cast was a huge part of what I think makes my work look so good all of these years later.

There is a progression in the costuming, especially that of the factory workers, between where we first see them in the Northern England factory versus how they appear in Milan. Can you explain, please, why that progression was necessary and what other elements those new to the musical might want to watch?

It is a subtle change in a funny way, but our intention was to make it clear from the very beginning that the factory workers are an extended family. We try to establish that generations of family have been involved in the history of the shoe factory. As the story develops and Lola (the ultimate outsider) enters into their isolated existence, we see that the women ‘smarten’ up and start to take more care with their appearance while the men dig in and resist Lola’s emphasis on style and expressing yourself through fashion. By the time they all arrive in Milan, there is a celebration of each factory worker’s journey in the story – by what they wear of course, but mostly emphasized by the boots.

You majored in dramatic literature at San Diego State University, but credit an interview with Robert Morgan for sparking your interest in costume design and pushing you to attend NYU Master’s program in Costume Design. Are there still times when that background in literature comes into play, or has costume design taken you in an entirely different direction?

I like to think that my passion for storytelling is a natural outgrowth of my beginnings as a literature student. The art of design is such a mix-master of talents – artistic of course but balanced with budgets and logistics and the organization that is essential to getting the clothes successfully onstage. I love all of it actually, but my favorite part of the process is with the actor in the fitting room. They are the artists that bring the story (and by association the clothing) to life. My background in dramatic literature is the firm foundation of my approach, but my life has been a journey of layering that passion with a bunch of other skills. So it is a continuing education!

We’re accustomed to occasionally seeing a fashion designer’s sketches, but you have a particularly unique way of rendering your costume ideas using gouache and vellum that is then transferred onto dyed paper. How did this process develop, and how does it make a difference in the costumes you design?

The drawing process is a huge part of how I approach every project. I have developed a system and tend to stick with that. Because when there are 200 sketches to be drawn and painted, you have to be efficient with your time management. I invest so much energy in the sketches because the process answers a lot of questions that the costume shops (who actually create the clothing) are sure to have. Hopefully if the sketch is clear, it helps cut to the chase in many ways and articulates your thoughts to the director, the producers, the actors and on and on. Of course it is only a drawing and is just a roadmap for where you think each costume might go (and there are often many changes along the way), but at least you have a strong starting point if the sketch is carefully thought out.

For all the similarities between costume design and fashion design, it’s rare that we see much crossover between the two, Dame Vivienne Westwood being one of the few who comes to mind. Why do you think that is? Is there a ‘stay in your own lane’ mentality, or do the differences outweigh the similarities? Would you see yourself possibly doing a Kinky Boots capsule collection if asked?

The two jobs do seem to be (mostly) mutually exclusive. Of course there are exceptions, but the job of the theater designer differs because the goal is ultimately different. In fashion, you create a world of luxury (or fantasy or whatever) whose ultimate aim is selling a product. While in the theater, a designer is part of a collective whose passion is to tell a good story. We often reference each other’s work, which explains why some designers are adept at both disciplines. But generally speaking, I don’t think there is ultimately that much crossover. A Kinky Boots collection? Strangely enough if that were to happen, I would gladly pass the torch on to someone who understands the fashion world and applaud from the sidelines!

You’ve been in costume design for some 30 years, but it hasn’t always been one Broadway production right after another. What do you do during those lulls? Do you have activities or hobbies that help keep the creativity sharp between shows?

It’s a good question but not an easy one to answer! Of course there are a thousand ways to use the talents that you develop as a designer, but I never seem to have a day off to worry about where and how else to express myself. When I’m not working on Broadway, I always have many irons in the fire. I’ve designed circuses, ballets, operas, and plays regionally and am lucky enough to be constantly at one of those projects when Broadway isn’t knocking on my door. The last few years have also been partly taken up with the ‘hits’ that I’ve been associated with from Broadway: six companies of Aladdin and (I’ve lost count) of the number of companies of Kinky Boots!

Obviously, not every idea for a play or musical makes it to Broadway and no one wants to waste their time on a flop. What elements do you look for before you agree to do the costume design for a show?

This one is easy! I always consider (first and foremost) who else is on the team. If you are offered your idea of a dream project but are working with a collective that isn’t on the same page, it is an uphill battle. Vice versa, you might be offered a one-man show where the requirements are jeans and a tee shirt and (with the right team) that can turn out to be the most satisfying collaboration. At this stage in my life, I want to work with others who inspire me but who also understand the value of friendship and collaboration.

With multiple Tony awards and nominations under your belt now, what’s next for Gregg Barnes? Is there another Tony award waiting in the wings, or are there other projects that have caught your eye?

I really am blessed to have the career that I’ve had and hopefully will continue to have. I try to keep honing my skills to be better and smarter to be a worthy collaborator. I wouldn’t trade my Tonys for the world, but I don’t focus so much on awards (for one thing it is terrifying to accept them!). Maybe a part of me would like to have one more Tony (I have two) but only because things look so nice when displayed in odd numbers. If I did have three, I’m not saying I would retire but at least I could stop fretting about the Zen of my display!

Photography by Matthew Murphy.
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