William Ivey Long has won three Tony Awards, more than any other living costume designer. He is currently represented on Broadway by the "The Producers," "Contact," and the revivals of "Chicago" and "Cabaret" and also was responsible for costuming the recently closed revivals of "Annie Oakley" and "The Music Man."
Long has occasionally gone Off-Broadway but never as far as he ventured this week with his first collection of eveningwear for women. A few Seventh Avenue designers such as Donald Brooks and Isaac Mizrahi, have ventured into Broadway costuming, but Long is the first make the crossover in the opposite direction.
While many designers have chosen to display their wares in the big white tents in midtown Bryant Park, official home of the twice annual "Seventh on Sixth" fashion presentations, Long showed his collection a mile south in the elegant parlor of his Chelsea townhouse. On hand to help him greet the 85 invitees, mostly fashion press, were his partner, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein.
Long and Wasserstein first conceived a lingerie line but, as the designer explained, sketches of bras and panties and slips soon morphed into evening wear, the kind you go dancing in. And not just ordinary dancing dresses but the elegant waltz-night-in-Vienna kind that used to be designed by the great Charles James, with whom Long worked as an assistant when he was young South Carolina émigré in New York.
The collection ranges from simple slip dresses to a full skirted, off-the-shoulder gown (an almost forgotten term for an evening dress) in black duchesse satin over jeweled lace and tulle that even Oscar de la Renta would have been proud to design. Also outstanding are a long red crepe siren gown, with a plunging neckline both front and back and a draped skirt slit to the hip, and a shorter deep blue gown with a navel-deep decolettage and gauzy lighter blue skirt touched with deep blue panels.
Prices range from $1,500 for a slip dress to $4,500 for more elaborate models, a modest range considering that couture evening wear often starts at $10,000. There even are evening separates for the buyer on a budget for as cheap as $500 and going up to $1,800.
Long and Wasserstein have hired Lisa Immordino, who has worked for Ermenegildo Zegna and Ralph Lauren Polo, as president of their firm in charge of the business side. One of her assignments is to find more partners who will pump money into the effort to set up conventional production facilities. At present, Long is producing his models in the Broadway costume shops he uses in his daytime job.
Asked in an interview why he wanted to go into a risky business made even riskier by the current economy, the tousle-haired, boyish Long said it was part of his desire "to make beauty" even though he has no idea what he creates will be considered fashionable.
"These dresses are intended to make women feel beautiful, confident, and empowered, " he said "I don't know how to answer the fashion question. That's a big mystery. I just want to create clothing that is a joy to wear and a little fantasy for the nighttime. When the sun goes down, all bets are off. You can be whoever you want to be."
The first showing of his collection was a collaborative project involving several of his show business friends.
Wasserstein, who was a classmate at Yale Drama School, wrote a narrative for the show read by actor Boyd Gaines, director-choreographer Susan Stroman ("The Producers") directed and choreographed it, and composer Glen Kelly played the piano and sang a song written just for the occasion, "I Love Your Dress."
Long won his third Tony Award last spring for "The Producers," a real wardrobe extravaganza pegged to the year 1959.
This demanding assignment required costumes for Nazis, nuns, Greenwich Village habitués, bums and ladies of the night, drag queens, opening night socialites as Charles James might have dressed them, little old ladies, and sexy Ziegfeld chorines in both ethnic and Broadway costumes. But Long says no job is too demanding if he is working for inspiring directors like Stroman or Scott Ellis.
"I could costume the phone book for one of them" he said.