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Romeo Gigli Designs Headed to Stage

The Italian designer Romeo Gigli's costume designs are the stars of Merce Cunningham's newest work.

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Romeo Gigli sketches for “Nearly Ninety”
Romeo Gigli sketches for “Nearly Ninety”

Romeo Gigli is returning to his roots as a costume designer in his latest project, a collaboration with minimalist choreographer Merce Cunningham. The new work, “Nearly Ninety,” which also features musical collaborations with Sonic Youth, John Paul Jones and Takehisa Kosugi, premieres tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a gala performance celebrating Cunningham’s upcoming 90th birthday.

Gigli has designed for operas as well as film, but dance was a new world for him. “This is really new blood, new energy,” said the Italian designer. “What I love about the project with the costumes is the [ability] to work on the freedom of the body [and the] body’s movement. Of course, working with Merce Cunningham is an honor for me.”

In order to prepare, Gigli studied hours of footage of Cunningham’s performances starting with the Sixties until the present day. “I really wanted to understand the way he dances, the movement and everything because my work is to underline the personality of the choreography and the dancers,” Gigli said. Since all of Cunningham’s collaborators work separately, Gigli didn’t actually meet the 13 dancers he was dressing until a month ago when the company was in Paris.

The results are body-conscious, unisex unitards featuring charcoal gray patchwork over a nude base suit, which the dancers gradually dismantle. “Every 10 minutes they take off a piece of the gray costume offstage and [reveal] blue lines on the body,” which resemble brush strokes that Gigli explains represent “the energy of the body coming out.”

In addition to his costume design, Gigli is back at work on his own fashion line, Io Ipse Idem, after leaving the industry following feuds with his partners and losing the rights to his own name. Having recently presented his women’s line in Paris, he’s now prepping for his men’s show in June. “I didn’t work for five years, and I was thinking ‘OK, maybe I did what I have to do in fashion,’” he explains. But during his semiretirement, “People used to stop me on the street, in London, Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai and tell me, ‘Are you Mr. Gigli? I’ve kept your pieces, they are so cool.’ So I said, ‘Maybe it’s time to come back.’”