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Akira Isogawa on creating costumes for the Australian Ballet’s ‘Murphy’

Akira Isogawa, born in Kyoto in 1964, is one of Australia’s most successful fashion designers. He moved to Australia when he was 21 to study fashion at the Sydney Institute of Technology and his work is influenced by a delicate Japanese aesthetic. Natural materials, hand-dyed and hand painted fabrics are some of his signatures that find form in the clothes he designs for his ready to wear designs – and on stage too.

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Isogawa first worked with choreographer Graeme Murphy when Murphy was artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company. Those SDC projects usually involved creating costumes for a cast of 12 to 16. When Murphy asked the designer to create costumes for the Australian Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet (above) for the 2011 season, Isogawa went on a two-year journey with him as he created hundreds of costume designs for a cast of dozens.

Next month, the Australian Ballet’s Murphy celebrates the choreographer’s life’s work with a revival of his re-imagined Firebird, alongside excerpts from his The Silver Rose as well as his ballets that feature Isogawa’s costumes – Air and Other Invisible Forces, Grand and Ellipse. Murphy is at the Arts Centre, Melbourne from March 16 to 26 and plays at the Sydney Opera House from April 6 to 23. We asked Isogawa some questions about making costumes for ballet.

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Is making costumes for a ballet very different to creating a ready to wear line? 

When I was first asked to design costumes for the stage I realised quickly that it’s a very similar process.

It’s about pattern making, fabrics and cutting and sewing. That procedure is identical.

The major difference though is that it’s much more collaborative. We are all working as team – Graeme, the lighting and set designers. We are all making a number of decisions together during the process.

When I am making a ready to wear collection there is no such discussions, unless we are creating a runway show, which is similar to creating a show for the stage.

TABxx_Grand_Connor Dowling, Shane Placentino, Katie Ripley, Bradley Chatfield_Photo Jeff Busby
Connor Dowling, Shane Placentino, Katie Ripley, Bradley Chatfield in ‘Air and Other Invisible Forces’. Photo by Jeff Busby

Do you enjoy working collaboratively?

Working with a different team is stimulating because you are tapping into a place you haven’t been before.

You are working with a lighting designer who has a certain colour palette and the set designer’s set so I try and do my best to execute the ‘feeling’ of the production. The costumes need to be in harmony and visually balanced with the rest of the production.

What is it like to work with Graeme Murphy?

He is an inspirational being. To work with him and just be around him makes me feel excited and inspired.

When you work with him does he as the production’s director win creative arguments over yours?

It’s a creative collaboration so it‘s never about winning and losing.

TAB_xxAir and Other Invisible Forces_1999_Drama Theatre Sydney Opera House_Photo Jeff Busby
‘Air and Other Invisible Forces (1999) at the Drama Theatre Sydney Opera House. Photo by Jeff Busby

Does designing for the stage allow you to be more adventurous?

A costume might only be seen in stage for a few minutes so it might never have to be cleaned.

So in those cases you can be more adventurous with the details and handcrafted workmanship.

Working in-house in the Australian Ballet was an incredible experience and so different to working in my own studio. There are so many resources. You can dye fabrics, custom make fabrics, and hand paint costumes. You can deal with any issues immediately because all the facilities are there.

What are the most challenging costumes you’ve made?

For Romeo and Juliet in 2011, the first time I worked with the Australian Ballet. I created a few hundred designs and it was an 18-month to two-year creative journey. We went through incredible excitement and through breakdowns. It was like Romeo and Juliet itself.

Amyxx Harris and artists of The Australian Ballet, ROMEO & JULIET photo JEFF BUSBY_0939
Amy Harris and artists of The Australian Ballet, in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Photo by Jeff Busby

What is your favourite art form?

I’ve always loved ballet. It truly is my favourite form of art – its beauty, its inspiration and it’s so visually stunning.

I hardly ever get visit the opera but I do watch a lot of movies for inspiration. I usually watch them on a plane because I am flying so much.

One of my favourite filmmakers is the director Peter Greenway. You know Jean-Paul Gaultier designed costumes for him?

(And no, I haven’t seen Phantom Thread yet!)

READ GRAEME MURPHY IN HIS OWN WORDS ON HIS LIFE IN DANCE HERE

Main image: Kate Ripley and the company in Graeme Murphy’s Grand. Photo by Jeff Busby

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