Monday, June 6, 2011

Happy 80th

One of my favourite designers, Desmond Heeley, celebrated his 80th birthday last Wednesday.

I first met him in 1986, he was designing The Merry Widow for the National Ballet of Canada, and I was a junior stitcher, busily stitching the skirts of the the Can-can dresses, which, incidentally, is why I focus on menswear!

The story goes like this: the designs were as only Desmond can draw them, frothy concoctions of ombred silk from yellow to red formed the dress' outer layer, and the underskirts were layers of gold net with rows and rows of ruffles of all sorts of fabrics- from duchess satin to lame- all gathered up and applied in row upon row of colour from yellow to red.
All those ruffles needed to have the edges finished first, and the fabrics needed different finishing techniques depending on what was suitable for each one. I spent a lot of time in the basement of the ballet fighting with an ancient serger with no threading instructions, and then a lot of time gathering these ruffles up. I would tie the gathering stitches off at one end of the hallway at the ballet and patiently gather, gather, gather, sliding the fabric along until I finished the amount set out for me to do. I can't remember how many dresses there were, but it was tedious work, not my favourite job to date and then after I was finished the cutter realized that she had overestimated the amount of ruffles that were actually needed. By double!!

We shared a good laugh over this story when we last worked together.

It was, though, an introduction to working with a theatrical artist in the truest sense of the word. I can't express how fortunate I feel to have worked with him over the past 25 years.
His experiences in the theatre range from working with Peter Brook and Sir Lawrence Olivier, designing the investiture of Charles as the Prince of Wales, theatre (The Old Vic, Stratford, The Guthrie...), ballets(National Ballet of Canada, Houston Ballet, ABT...),and operas (the Met, Vienna State Opera, LaScala...) around the world, to Broadway (Tony awards for sets and costumes).
Speaking of Broadway, he is also nominated this year for Best costume design for The Importance of being Earnest, the show he designed for us, that subseqently has made its way to New York.

You can watch a few interviews with him here.
A fascinating man, a wonderful storyteller and a great theatre artist.


  1. Sorry the link isn't working.
    You can google Desmond Heeley videos and see them. I'll leave it at that unless I can figure out how to get the link to work.

  2. In worked with Desmond on the original production of "The Merry Widow" ballet in Melbourne, Australia in 1975. It was a transformational experience in my life & Desmond was the most inspirational designer I have ever worked with. I am thrilled that he won the Tony award for "The Importance of Being Ernest"

  3. Great to hear from you. I think he has had that effect on many of us over the years. We will never see anyone like him again. Many people think it was a huge oversight that he did not win the Tony for sets as well. An amazing man and artist.