Story by Sandra Davidson | Archival images courtesy William Ivey Long
William Ivey Long has that spark of life the French call je ne sais quoi. Be it through the magnificent costumes he designs or the charm and wit he brings to even the most ordinary conversation, the six-time Tony Award-winning costume designer knows how to light up a room.
A prolific designer, Long’s worked on and off Broadway and in film, television, and operas. He's known nationally for his work on The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Hairspray, Nine, Grey Gardens, and Cinderella, but here in the Tarheel State, Long is celebrated for his 45-year relationship with America's longest-running outdoor symphonic drama The Lost Colony. Though he primarily lives and creates in his Tribeca studio, he considers North Carolina - where he was born in 1947 - home.
Long’s family is deeply rooted here. His direct ancestor was among the first graduating class at UNC-Chapel Hill, and he has vivid memories of time spent on his family's ancestral homestead in Seaboard, a tiny township in the Northeastern part of the state.
“Peanut climbing was my favorite thing, and chasing turkeys…[and] picking slugs from tobacco leaves,” he says. “I had a large collection. I think I tried to cook with them as a child.”
He grew up in the theater. His father was a drama professor and stage director, and his mother was a playwright, actress and drama teacher. The family spent every summer in Manteo working on The Lost Colony, and they even lived in the stage left dressing room of Raleigh Little Theatre for a number of years in the late 1940s.
When it comes to his career path, Long says, “The apple did not fall far from the tree.”
This fall the North Carolina based upholster manufacturing company Sunbrella commissioned Long to design four costumes inspired by famous French paintings for a special French edition of Elle Decor magazine. The assignment was simple: Long would choose the paintings and design the costumes and Sunbrella would provide the fabric.
Long was immediately drawn to challenge of creating costumes with upholstery fabric. “I was reminded that I once saw in a magazine an evening gown that was designed by Vivienne Westwood out of wall to wall carpeting,” says Long. “I thought that is the perfect goal! That just hit my funny bone.”
Long selected paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Henri deToulouse-Lautrec, and Edgar Degas. He poured through dozens of fabric samples to find combinations that would capture the depth, color and complexity of each painting. Everything down to the buttons and shoes on each mannequin was made from Sunbrella fabric. The costumes premiered during Fashion Week this September in New York City, at a launch party for the French edition of Elle Décor hosted by the French Consulate.
The assignment became even better when Long realized Sunbrella is a North Carolina based company. “Totally a coincidence,” says Long. “But my theory is that all things lead to home. Everything leads to North Carolina.”