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Couture in the footlights
Milwaukee performing arts groups take high style to the stage

Photos by Dan Bishop

September 2014

Teal multi woven knit fitted long sleeve dress, Cesar Galindo fall collection; necklace and earrings, Bangles and Bags, various locations

Photography: Dan Bishop

Hair and Makeup: Neda Stevic

Model: Nicole O’Leary

Fashion Stylist: Pam Stasney


When it comes to Milwaukee’s performing arts scene, Cream City and couture culture seem a rather disparate pairing, but for the city’s theater patrons it’s becoming customary fare to indulge in performances that exude high fashion. And while it has never been novel for the city’s various arts groups to ascend to a higher aesthetic, a more recent luring of nationally lauded designers has upped the ante.

It’s a collective effort by the city’s cornerstone arts groups. As the economic climate improves, and Milwaukee continues to garner acclaim on the national stage, the city is attracting world-class talent. We’re simply ready to talk about it. "In Milwaukee, we are humble by nature," say Brent Hazelton, associate artistic director at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. "With everything we do, we want to be a mix of local (talent) and supplement that with really notable, nationally recognized people. It makes the experience richer. We have a lot of things worth celebrating."

Tan stripe jacquard Michelle gathered skirt dress, Cesar Galindo fall collection; Claudia Ciuti chartreuse pumps and necklace, Picardy Shoe Parlour, Brookfield and Mequon 

Photography: Dan Bishop

Hair and Makeup: Neda Stevic

Model: Nicole O’Leary

Fashion Stylist: Pam Stasney


For Milwaukee’s arts groups, it is also a way to make a statement. Drawing high-class designers to the local stage not only brings widespread recognition, but also convinces audiences they don’t have to trek to places such as Chicago and New York to indulge in an over-the-top experience.

"This idea that the coasts are the hubs of creativity and the rest is just imitated is bulls*** — you can quote me on that," says Michael Pink, artistic director at the Milwaukee Ballet. "The quality of the (local) arts is truly world class. We produce extraordinary works. We have incredible craftsmanship. We are a major force to be reckoned with."

Crepe jersey halter front tie maxi, Cesar Galindo fall collection; sterling silver and 14-karat white and yellow gold plated multistrand necklace, Bali mesh triangle dangle sterling silver earrings and 18-karat white gold moonstone and diamond ring, East Towne Jewelers, Mequon


Perhaps this was no more strongly reflected than in the ballet’s recent production of "Mirror Mirror." The company tapped New York’s Todd Edward Ivins — a fashion and scenic designer, which is an anomaly in the dance world — who gave the rendition of Snow White an intense, edgy and fashionable feel. It was a visual gorging, a sideshow nearly as imperative as the choreography that flitted across the stage.

The foray is indicative of a more modernized, engaging and sophisticated arts scene; something the groups hope will expand and diversify its audience. "It puts the city in a new light," Viswa Subbaraman, artistic director at Skylight Music Theatre, says of the creative crusade. "It’s a different perspective. The discussions are different, and (working with these designers) pushes us in a different way."

This fall season promises to be the city’s most ambitious, and stylish, yet. At Skylight Music Theatre, the upcoming production of Rossini’s "La Cenerentola" (Cinderella) is drawing excitement following the announcement that New York fashion designer, Cesar Galindo, is designing the show’s costumes. The work of the fashion veteran has graced everything from the cover of ELLE magazine, to contributions to collections for Dolce & Gabbana, L.A.M.B by Gwen Stefani and Calvin Klein.

Black sequin racerback dress, Cesar Galindo fall collection; cuff, earrings and Aquatalia bootie by Marvin K., Picardy



On a recent summer evening, Skylight hosted Galindo as he showed his CZAR by Cesar Galindo Fall 2014 ready-to-wear line (soon to be presented at New York’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week); a rare event for Milwaukeeans who may have only been introduced to the designer in magazine articles, or through his various appearances on "All on the Line" and other fashion-centric television segments. The unique event — the combination of both theater and fashion — erased the very preclusion that Milwaukeeans lack an interest in the upper echelon of couture.

As the crowd gathered in the theater’s salon, there was considerate buzz, not only to view the designer’s stunning fall collection, but also to get a peek of the artist and his vision for the show. At the back of the room, flanked by a gorgeous ball gown and a row of avant-garde masks, the Skylight presented its vision board for the production.

One thing is for sure: the wardrobe is far from reminiscent of Disney’s periwinkle princess, fairy-tale tulle.

Renderings of the designs evoke images of Vogue circa the bold, late ’80s; pinup fashion; ’60s mod; and Truman Capote’s infamous 1966 black-and-white masquerade ball. It’s dark, daring, sexy and hip to boot.

That’s entirely the point, says Subbaraman. "We’ve been disingenuous for a while," says Subbaraman. "People want us to play into the fairy tale — it’s easier to sell. But, there is a gruesomeness (to the original tale) — there’s not always a happy ending. There is a class element that’s anti-stylish. This is relevant. So, we played into that concept."

The key is to keep audiences guessing, he adds. "We’re all doing shows that are exciting — that’s one of the reasons we can get these people," Subbaraman says. "We’re paying more attention and marketing it better. Our patrons deserve the best we can give."

Of course no amount of celebrity can save a show. Pink says the relationships that are cultivated with national designers only enhance the city’s status when performing arts groups are able to execute mutual concepts.

"The world of theater and creativity is about the people you work with," he says. "You could be doing this in the desert, or on Broadway. It makes no difference if you don’t have the artistic integrity."

That’s why working with top-notch local talent is still so necessary. "The economic impact of the arts is huge. And it’s something that leaders should want to talk about, but don’t talk about," says Pink. "The number of people who work in the arts is incredible for the size of the city."

That being said, the inclusion of out-of-town artists and designers has created a deeper pool of talent from which to choose, Hazelton says, which has lead to more creative and exciting partnerships between local designers and national ones.

It’s a sign that Milwaukee is truly on the up and up.

"Collectively, we’ve raised the bar," Hazelton says. "As a regional theater it’s important for us to have a pulse on the national scene. It’s about people who want to raise the profile of the institutions they want to support. It gives a wider variety of shows, different aesthetics and is continuously refreshing. It’s the ultimate storytelling."

As more and more out-of-town designers flock to the city to leave their mark, performing arts groups say audiences can expect Milwaukee’s shows to rival that of any cosmopolitan city.

"Are we going to get Isaac Mizrahi to come design a show? Probably not," Subbaraman muses. "This isn’t ‘Sweeney Todd,’ with a $50 million budget. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t get world-class talent." M




This story ran in the September 2014 issue of: