KidSuper, A–Company, Hermès. The list of brands incorporating full, live theater productions into their collection presentations is continuing to grow, elevating a collection’s debut to a new level of spectacle while infusing the fragile theater ecosystem with a fresh vision.

On a random wednesday in September of 2017, heading home from work on East 4th Street, I stumbled upon a crowd gathered near the entrance to La MaMa, the 63-year-old stalwart experimental theater that’s spawned acts like the Blue Man Group and the Sedarises. The people lined up outside – a young, chic, diverse mix commonly referred to as “downtown creatives” – looked nothing like the audience I was accustomed to seeing on a block lined with aging performance institutions. When I peeped the marquee, I understood why; the crowd was there for Opening Ceremony’s SS18 collection presentation, a movement piece titled Changers: A Dance Story, directed by Spike Jonze, choreographed by Ryan Heffington, and starring LaKeith Stanfeld and Mia Wasikowska.

The show’s four-day run was produced as one element of the collection’s rollout. Opening night was a starry affair, with creative luminaries from every background packed into the venue’s mainstage. In their reviews of the show, fashion journalists responded to the play as theater critics would: the performance “underscored the effect of clothes on the psyche,” wrote Adam Tschorn for the Los Angeles Times; it made “a statement that transcends fashion,” Hayden Manders noted in NYLON. The performers had “incredible chemistry,” raved Lauren Sherman in the Business of Fashion.

For the actors in the audience, the choice of venue alone was cause for excitement: “This isn’t a fashion show,” Catherine Keener told W Magazine at opening night. “It’s La MaMa!”

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Changers marked Opening Ceremony’s second theatrical collaboration with director Spike Jonze. The first, a one act co-created with Jonah Hill for the brand’s SS15 collection, was a widely-discussed event that featured Keener, Bobby Cannavale, John Cameron Mitchell, and Elle Fanning in an insidery play-within-a-play about the collection’s genesis. In both instances, Opening Ceremony’s use of theater did not appear to surprise members of the fashion community, who knew to expect the unexpected from a creative team who treated their label as “their own imaginarium.” If anyone seemed unaware that two of the coolest, most exclusive fashion events in a three-year span had arrived in the form of theater, it was the theater community itself.

The night Changers debuted, I was working a telesales gig half a block from La MaMa at New York Theatre Workshop, selling subscriptions to whoever accidentally picked up the phone. The previous season, I’d appeared in a play at a different institutional theater, which made me a desirable hire, as I had a firsthand understanding of the New York subscriber audience and a palpable lust for life (read: rent to pay). To be a theater actor in New York is to have 67 jobs or rich parents; many professional stage performers continue to work their service or nannying jobs while performing eight shows a week. I was still delusional – the week of my off-Broadway debut, I blew a week’s wages on a jacket, because I thought there would be more money where that came from (there wasn’t).

The Workshop, which had produced the experimental-works-turned-Broadway-staples Rent and Hadestown (and would premiere Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play, the following year), was facing the same challenges as most of their peers – losing an older generation of weary theater subscribers and trying to find younger audiences to replace them with. That’s where I’d come in, calling people who’d shown up to just one play and trying to get them to commit to a whole season. It was a nearly impossible task; the people I managed to corner either couldn’t afford it or simply did not want to make that kind of investment in theater.

Yet there, right down the block, was an audience with the potential to breathe new life into the tired subscriber system, the kind of crowd that big institutions historically struggled to attract. Nobody I talked to in the office or on the phone that week seemed to have any idea what Opening Ceremony was up to. Why was no one talking about this?

For fashion companies who’ve employed performance in their collection presentations, the benefits extend beyond novelty. A play can take the concept of a collection and its runway debut – the universe created by a designer – and heighten it with narrative and interdisciplinary design. In this way, theater represents the fashion show’s ultimate expression, allowing designers who’ve outgrown well-tread brand storytelling tropes to explore a more expansive vision. This was the trajectory for KidSuper founder Colm Dillane, whose SS24 collection presentation came in the form of a play that he wrote, designed, and starred in.

The 25-minute one act, called How to Find an Idea and performed at Paris’s Théâtre de l’Odéon for one night in June 2023, investigated Dillane’s own creative process by taking a theatrical journey through his mind, and featured nearly a dozen moving sets, a techno-backed dance sequence, and a large ensemble of actors sporting different looks from the collection. For Dillane, theater felt like a natural evolution, something he’d been building toward with his previous presentations (a comedy show for FW23, an auction for SS23). “This whole idea for these special fashion shows came from me sitting there looking at the budget of a fashion show and being like: ‘Okay, it’s $200,000, and I’m spending it on 15 minutes,’” he said in an interview with FHCM ahead of the Paris show. "I better do something fucking awesome.”

While there’s little modern precedent for brands commissioning their own theatrical works, there is a long tradition of prominent fashion designers creating costumes for performance. From Coco Chanel’s work on Jean Cocteau’s 1922 adaptation of Antigone, to Christian Dior’s collaborations with Jean Giraudoux in the 1950s, to Halston’s sequined dresses and pantsuits for Liza Minelli in the 1972 Scorsese-directed production of The Act, heavyweight couturiers have been brought on to execute the vision of the theatermaker many times over.

In rarer cases, like the work of Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer, the costumes and the performance were the culmination of one artist’s singular vision, with the wardrobe engineered to directly affect the action onstage. For his 1922 Triadisches Ballett, Schlemmer devised the movement as well as the “walking architectural sculptures” worn by the performers – an unlikely source of inspiration for the SS24 KidSuper show but inspiration nonetheless. “I look at the Schlemmer stuff so often,” Dillane explained to me over text. “He created a whole art form that spanned all mediums – the form was just a new way of thinking about everything.”

One of the aspects of staging a multidisciplinary project that Dillane found exciting as a designer was how each facet of the performance was inspired by the other: the clothes were inspired by the sets and scenes, and some of the story was inspired by the clothes. Sara Lopez, founder of the ready-to-wear and accessories label A–Company, echoed this sentiment. Her latest collection presentation took the form of a workshop production of Anne Carson’s Antigone last fall at Baryshnikov Arts Center.  “It reflects my design process,” she said of the choice to present a play in workshop format (actors with scripts in hand, baked-in imperfections; the director stopping to re-work a scene during the performance). “Just, like, turning on its side what fashion typically represents: concealing and hiding and presenting something kind of shiny or polished and finished. We were like: Yeah, let's let all the guts out and see the innards, but in a very intentional and focused way.”

Working with director Daphné Dumons, who had staged another production of Antigone in Paris in 2021, Lopez decided that the classic Greek tragedy was a sturdy, easy-to-follow text for a primarily non-theater audience, and selected Anne Carson’s 2015 translation. “We looked at a lot of translations,” says Lopez. “But having one that was modern and accessible was important to us.”

The production’s cast included Jeremy O. Harris, Sydney Lemmon, and Bobbi Salvör Menuez, with roles assigned without regard to type or gender. The performance allowed Lopez to experience the collection in a new way: sitting in the front row beside the director, instead of backstage, as is typical at a runway show. Lopez also felt the audience’s reaction in a more visceral way. “I could hear reactions, gasps – it seemed like there was an emotional charge.”

“It’s the most vulnerable, as a designer,” she says of the production. “You have no control.” Compared to a runway show, where audiences see each look for the duration of a model’s walk. “I didn’t know what they were going to look like after 45 minutes or an hour being moved in. It’s just kind of like: Well, let's see where this goes. And this is in the spirit of the piece, that we’re all in this very honest place together.”

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Perhaps the wildest recent instance of a brand creating a work of theater was the September 2022 Hermès musical: a multi-million dollar, semi-immersive Broadway show-meets-block party, created specifically for the unveiling of the maison’s new flagship on Madison Avenue. Titled Love Around the Block, the musical wasn’t a first look at a new collection but a housewarming party for a 20,250 square foot triad of historic structures that now constitute one of the largest retail spaces in the country. 

Love Around the Block was composed by Dave Malloy, creator of the 2016 Broadway hit Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, and boasted a cast of 120 veteran stage actors playing to an audience of 1,200 celebrities, VICs, and members of the extended Hermès family who’d flown in from Paris. “Hermès likes to tailor their opening celebrations to the city that they're in,” explained Jack Serio, the show’s associate director. “There was an interest in doing something theatrical because of the New York connection to the store – that it felt like a Broadway musical was iconically New York.” Sure enough, food trucks were parked outside the extravaganza to dole out Katz’s Pastrami on rye and Junior’s Cheesecake, tourist-approved samples of the city’s cultural exports. (Contrast this with the native New Yorker’s version of a brand activation later that same year: Kith’s “immersive pop-up” in a decked-out Dyker Heights mansion during the annual Christmas lights display.)

Unlike other brand-developed theater performances, none of the Love Around the Block cast members wore Hermès, and aside from a few Mini Kelly bags, there was no product placement in the show. “They didn't want anyone to feel like they were being sold anything over the course of the evening,” said Serio. “Conversely, they didn't want anyone to think anything anyone was wearing was for sale.”

There’s little record of the Hermès performance; the “beautiful, intricate, complex” music that Molloy wrote for the show exists only in 10-second clips that made their way to TikTok. For the theater artists involved, the job was like nothing else they’d ever done, bearing more resemblance to the lucrative industrial musical gigs of the ‘50s and ‘60s that kept stage actors from having to drive cabs or wait tables. In the larger ecosystem of the theater world, brand-backed shows play a secondary role, too. By generously compensating talent, these shows afford artists the agency to take on creative projects that may not pay nearly as well, Serio noted, a model that could provide a boon to theater workers.

But communion between brands and theatermakers goes beyond money. While it may be unlikely for designers to start commissioning theater en masse, there is a real opportunity for fashion brands to leverage the slate of heavyweight creative professionals in their orbits – people with the power to shape culture in New York and other large cities across the globe – and employ them in service of a collaborative creative vision. In an era where the concept of collaboration has evolved to mean stitching two logos next to each other, an exchange of ideas that yields something new might actually allow for work that neither industry could generate on its own.

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It feels like a cultural shift may be brewing. DIY theater – the shoestring-budget, artist-driven producing model that churns out plays in living rooms and bar basements – is starting to bubble up again, and at a time when clothing brands are signing basketball team-sized rosters of movie stars to multi-million dollar deals. Prominent DJs, models, designers, and other people I would never bump into in the audience of a major subscriber theater are showing up to buzzy independent plays and readings. 

Dillane says he’d love to re-mount the KidSuper SS24 one act How to Find an Idea for a New York audience. He has his sights set on Broadway. For him, it wouldn't just be an opportunity for more people to see what he believes to be his greatest work. “I think a KidSuper play could bring a different energy and crowd to Broadway,” he says. “And maybe that is needed for the art form to continue to flourish.”

I think he might be right.

David Potters is a writer and recovering theater actor. He leads programming for Good Evening, a theater reading series he founded with several co-workers during a brief stint at a New York menswear flagship.

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