Even though ballet and fashion occupy their own cultural spaces, both focus on creating beauty through movement, silhouettes, shapes and patterns. Designers frequently look to ballet for inspiration, and conversely, choreographers also often use ideas from the runway to create their own works of art. But it wasn't until recently that full-time ballerinas took it upon themselves to launch their own clothing line.
In November, driven by a desire to make ballet more accessible to the masses, a group of 10 past and present American Ballet Theatre dancers established Company Cooperative, a direct-to-consumer brand that creates pieces meant to be worn outside of the dance studio.
"Dance, especially ballet, has always been portrayed as such an exclusive, elitist thing and what we're trying to do is make ballet more tangible," explains co-founder Jamie Kopit over the phone. Kopit conceived of the idea for Company Cooperative while recovering from an injury that kept her from dancing, an act of resilience if ever there was one. She wanted to explore her artistry in different ways, and she enlisted nine fellow ballet dancers who were looking to do the same.
"Ballerinas have always been used in fashion as muses or models, but we've never actually created clothing, especially clothing that isn't leotards and leg warmers," Kopit says. "I wanted to show the real ballet dancers: We live in the city, we wear a lot of black, we wear clothes that are comfortable — but sensible — and that's the clothing that we created."
With comfort, style and ballet rehearsal staples in mind, the dancers collaboratively designed their first collection, comprised of eight minimalist, season-less wardrobe staples: a pullover, a T-shirt, a V-neck, a bra, a short, a sweatpant, a jogger and a legging.
All of the pieces are done in black — an ode to their classic black leotard uniform — and play with textures. There's a ribbon-like trim throughout the range to represent the satin ribbons of pointe shoes and a waterproof-like material to recall the marley floors they dance on, as well as vegan suede, spandex and neoprene. But, while you could pirouette and do some light stretching in the clothes, the line isn't intended to be performance or yoga wear and shouldn't be confused with your basic, stretchy-pant athleisure brand. Company Cooperative is its own sort of elevated athleisure.
The ballerina-designed apparel is aimed at the 20-to-40-something urban dweller, who wants to go from a five-hour flight to the grocery store to an art gallery opening, then to a late-night speakeasy in the same breathable, moveable and on-trend joggers. "We wanted to create clothing that not just dancers would wear, but that everyday women would want to wear," explains Kopit. "So we wanted it to feel very sleek and versatile."
The dancers (none of whom have formal design training) developed the styles and fit through a long, experimental process, which involved testing shapes on one another and adding materials and various textural accents as they saw fit. For many, the thought of getting 10 artistically inclined minds to agree on everything from the cuts to the fabrics seems like a nearly impossible task, but as professional dancers — at one of the top ballet companies in the world — working together to accomplish a single thing of beauty is just a part of their day jobs. Many of the women behind Company Cooperative are a part of the corps de ballet, the critically important group of dancers who preform difficult choreography in perfect unison behind the soloists and principal dancers during a ballet.
"It's all based on full-time professional dancers; it's very what you can contribute, you do," says Kopit. "I have so many friends in the business and we all got together to collaborate on different ideas to try the clothing on, to work with fit, work with styling and with photography and social media. We all collaborated together on it to create a collective."
Luckily, the dancers were able to secure a manufacturer in the garment district in New York that helped walk them through the execution of the production process. "We really wanted to make everything here in America, let alone here in New York," explains Kopit. "We got to really be involved with the sample makers and with the manufacturers." This hands-on approach allowed them to work with small batches to avoid waste. "We think of our clothing as more like art — something that is crafted in a special manner — and shouldn't be mass-produced."
Kopit and another ballerina behind the brand, Katie Williams, note that Company Cooperative as a whole is focused on the artistic side of dance, more so then the physical side. The label's mission is to emphasize the phrase: "everyday artistry," and it hopes to eventually collaborate with other artists in different areas of dance or beyond.
"I like the idea of blending artists together — so, let's say a ballerina with a hip-hop artist, or a street artist or muralist, things that show that ballet isn't just so physical — it's a way of expressing yourself, too," says Kopit. But at this very early stage in game, the company is still keeping things small and taking things one beautifully pointed step at a time. "We're just trying to create a sustainable, women-run business," Kopit says. "It's a very big learning process."
Thankfully, ballet makes you a pretty quick learner, and in under a year, Company Cooperative is already talking to wholesale partners, working to get its next collection out and thinking big in terms of collaborations.
"When people see our pieces, they're always so surprised by what we've been able to create," Williams remarks. "They're shocked that we've been able to fuse the artistic, elegant style of ballet with wearable and comfortable fabrics that make great, elevated clothes for everyday life."