What a pop star wears onstage during his or her much-hyped tours and one-off performances is an integral part of the entire experience. Just think of Miley Cyrus's sartorial (and leggy) support for the marijuana movement during her "Bangerz" outing; Madonna's character-driven, warrior outfits on her "Rebel Heart" tour; Britney Spears's brand-spanking new leotards for the return of her "Britney: Piece of Me" residency in Las Vegas. Even Kanye West's relatively understated streetwear looks involve an intricate and collaborative multistep design process that's just as fascinating as, say, making an ass-kicking superhero costume.
Marina Toybina, who's designed for Taylor Swift's "Red," girl group Fifth Harmony's "Reflection" and Katy Perry's "Prismatic" tours, says the first step is understanding the artist's individual style and genre, which obviously differs from performer to performer. A costume designer then meets with the artist, the set designer and the choreographer to make sure everyone is on the same page, and that the outfits will work with the stage design, song lineup, choreography and costume changes. Then there's the sketch process.
Costume designer Arianne Phillips, who's worked with Madonna on six tours including last year's "Rebel Heart," collaborates with costume concept artist Phillip Boutte, who puts all of the ideas onto paper. "I am constantly thinking about how best to represent the different fabric textures, differentiate seams from piping, sheer versus opaque, and determine the importance of gesture over realistic proportion," Boutte explained via email. The sketches are then presented and narrowed down by the artist — in his case, Madonna, who Phillips describes as a "tireless perfectionist."
Some artists will hire a stylist, too. For her "Britney: Piece of Me" Las Vegas extravaganza, Britney Spears brought on the multitasking costume designer Soyon An to project manage the entire design process. An worked directly with fashion designers like Nicolas Jebran and Bao Tranchi, who submitted sketches and stage-ready creations. "I'll go through all of the looks with the designer and explain what we're looking for, the kind of cuts — the does and don'ts for Britney — and they will then submit options for each of the numbers," she explained. "So one designer would do two numbers and another would do the same two numbers and Britney would have her pick."
The more hands-on clients might join the process. Unsurprisingly, Kanye West is one such artist. "Sometimes he will literally chicken scratch a sketch of an idea and he’s like, 'Make that,'" said costume designer Erin Hirsh, who's worked with Yeezy for one-off performances and his "Glow in the Dark" tour. "It's literally some line drawing and you have to make that come to life. For me, it's usually a process of asking him questions about the material and from there you just start sourcing some ideas."
The materials and structure of the costumes aren't just about aesthetics and visual theatricality — they're key to helping the artist perform, dance and, most importantly, remain comfortable onstage. All the designers we spoke with swear by some sort of four-way stretch, be it Lycra or a custom fabrication. Toybina often devises herself. Ideally, the designer can build a costume on top of a stretchy base, but sometimes designers have to resort to on-the-spot resourcefulness and often it's trial and error.
Just ask Rubin Singer, who designed Beyoncé's 2013 Superbowl halftime show look. He met with the superstar and narrowed her top three picks down to the eventual lacy leather and python onesie. "I was really kicking myself after the first fitting," he said because the leather crotch attached to the architectural shoulders completely restricted any movement of the upper body, which obviously would not let Queen Bey slay on the dance floor. But she didn't want to change the design."So, I started engineering all these different pulley systems, meshes, elastics and things that move and structurally it became one of the most complicated pieces I had ever engineered at that point," explained Singer.
Also, as Hirsh admits, stretch isn't always "fashionable," so she sometimes has to think outside of the box. "Like Kanye isn't going to wear a four-way stretch," she said. "So you build gussets into the crotch or the underarm, so that gives a movement to the fabric." (She's also added eyelets into the armpits of Yeezy's leather jacket to allow for ventilation and breathability.) Toybina swears by gusseting "all the proper areas," too. "It is a trick that you learn after you see all the mistakes that happen onstage," she said. (Cue the Lenny Kravitz jokes. Oh, and West, too. )
Of course, some costumes blatantly risk wardrobe malfunctions, like Miley Cyrus' custom 3-D weed-printed and crystal embellished onesie with near armpit-height leg slits. Phillipe and David Blond of The Blonds — who have also created tour costumes for Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj and Selena Gomez — said via email that they used "rubberized elastics for swimwear [to] stabilize the leg openings, but it is mainly how well the piece is cut and tailored to the body that determines the fit and staying power."
"Miley was very into a sort of '80-style high cut at the time and she wasn't concerned with movement; in fact she'd pull and stretch the suit as part of the choreography," the duo added. So that worked out.
The Blonds explained how fabrics and well-placed sequins and crystals can be used to attract the audience's eyeballs. "For example, if the choreography is more about arm and leg extension, we would highlight these areas with color or crystal," the designers wrote. "If the piece was a ballad we might focus in on the face with collar detail and black out the body with a darker, more matte fabric."
"Embellishment is always impactful for highlighting and punctuating moments," Phillips agreed. She has a longtime relationship with Swarovski working on Madonna's costumes. "Part of my excitement beginning the tour is finding out the newest in their crystal technology."
Sometimes performance costumes might involve electronic technology, which brings a whole new learning curve for the designer. The opening act of Katy Perry's "Prismatic" tour involved the singer's backup dancers wearing light-up neon mohawks. "We had to figure out how to use fiber content to switch the colors while on stage," said Toybina, who enjoyed the challenge of seeking out new vendors and taking a crash course in electronic engineering. Hirsh was tasked with creating West's now-famous look to perform "Stronger" at the 2008 Grammys. "He told me he wanted a 'Sergeant Pepper jacket that lights up.' That was the direction," she said. Using a blazer as a base, she collaborated with "NASA engineers taking a fun stab at fashion clothing" for the LED striping, which was eventually switched on via a button on the jacket or by a Palm Pilot-wielding Hirsh. (Hey, it was 2008.)
Speedy costume changes between or during sets requires precise coordination with the choreographer and might even determine how a costume is designed. That's especially true when one costume might involve up to 10 layers, as Toybina has experienced. Tricks to expedite removing and donning looks include Velcro, industrial snaps and industrial zippers, which have less of a chance of catching material during those fumble-y outfit changes in the bowels of the stadium. Tours also usually employ skilled dressers, like Madonna's longtime go-to man Tony Villanueva, to streamline the process.
Even performances that don't involve complicated choreography and scores of backup dancers require maximum commitment for the costumes. During Carrie Underwood's "Storyteller Tour," the singer and Toybina collaborated with various designers on ready-made gowns. Then the costume designer redid all the closures for quick changes. "It's pretty much taking the base, reconstructing it, rebuilding it and redesigning it to make sure it fits just exactly as [Underwood is] looking for," Toybina said. Even though West only wore one outfit on stage during his 2008 "Glow in the Dark" tour, that didn't mean Hirsh could sit back and relax. "I was constantly making new pants, new shirts, new leather jackets, new doodads to go on his pants," she said. "There was a lot of custom work."
And don't forget about the shoes. "Booties, biker boots and over-the-knee boots are the most requested styles along with sneakers," shoe designer Giuseppe Zanotti wrote in an email. He has created performance shoes for Janet Jackson, Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus and most recently Rihanna and her gold-heeled cream booties at the Brit Awards. "Especially for big performances, stacked heels and rubber soles are preferable — the artist needs to feel confident and safe while dancing." After all, the artist is on his or her feet for up to two hours a night — and for back-to-back performances.
"The shoes have to help complete the costume, create the character, tell the story and look good, as well as be able to allow Madonna and the dancers to do their work," explained Phillips, who has collaborated many times with Prada and Miu Miu to create custom shoes for Madge and her dancers. And that results in lots of footwear, especially since each pair requires a duplicate. "We have well over 500 shoes on tour and that is not including Madonna’s shoes," she said.