Five-time Tony award-winner William Ivey Long is such a successful costume designer that to list the productions in which he has been involved would read like some kind of history of Broadway over the past 30 years. Suffice to say that if you’ve seen any of the following: Hairspray, Dreamgirls, The Producers, Grey Gardens, Chicago … then you’ve seen his work. He has also designed costume for Mick Jagger’s tours and Siegfried and Roy.
Although some of his best-known work is wildly extravagant, he credits much of his success to the importance he places on order, balancing budgets and running a highly organized staff—which makes him sound boring. Of course he is not. He is delightful, unashamed of being eager to please, almost puckish at times, although, as other journalists have noted, he is one of those charming people who deploys a careful kind of ‘instant intimacy’ in order to keep the real, messy thing at bay. But even when he put this to him, he disarms us by simply saying that it is true.
I was interested in an interview with you by Alex Witchel in the Times where she wrote at some length about how fearful you are of real intimacy. Is that true?
Yeah she really pointed that out. Every time you’re interviewed someone else points out something else that you really try to work on. They help you figure out what to do next …
Did she help you?
Er … [laughs] I haven’t been able to make any movement on those [things she wrote] but she pointed out several issues that I didn’t know I had. The trick with any interview is that you have to be as truthful as you can be. Otherwise why would you be wasting your time if I could just write it out and hand it you, you know, pat answers? [Later on he says: ‘It’s embarrassing getting too involved with people. You don’t want to become a pest.’]
But a lot of people are very guarded in that respect because they want a certain image to be projected.
And they’re not all in the theater. They think they can control it. [laughs] I deal with body language. I stand in front of the mirror with the actor or the actress and it’s all about body language. I try not to look in the mirror at me—I’m very well trained by myself—and it’s the two of us and the mirror. It’s very intimate and it doesn’t lie.
What’s the process of knowing how a costume is going to move?
Oh, well, actually I ask them to show me what they’re going to do in that scene. Like I was with Stockard Channing yesterday for three hours and we just did a few of the nine costumes I’m making for ‘Pal Joey’. I asked her to go through each of the songs, show me what she’s doing. We mocked up a bed—she sings ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’—no pressure there—she’s wearing a little teddy and I’m taking one of the fur-trimmed wraps from the previous scene … we’re making it so that it curves around… it also helps protect your …
Yeah, you don’t want a boob popping out.
Oh yes, and your arms, all over …
When you first began were you intimidated by star power?
I’m still intimidated by star power, are you kidding!
You’ve got a reputation for being good at negotiating with money…
It’s true, and I say it with great shock. That’s a good question. I think it just happened by default. When I first came to New York I didn’t work in the theater … I worked at the Chelsea Hotel. My agent, Helen Merrill, grabbed a bunch of playwrights at Yale, and a few of us, you know like a magnet, we went along with it. She was all about the art, never about the money … it was just a wonderful time, no money, all the most exciting people. And then after 15 years I decided ‘Oh dear, I don’t like this.’ I started paying attention to [the money] and Helen didn’t like it. She said ‘ Oh, piggy, piggy, piggy …’ That was me, ‘a piggy’. So we had a little problem. I had to put my foot down and I negotiated my first big job for ‘Annie Get Your Gun’. And I found it was easy to do. It was so bottom line. I had nothing to lose. I could not continue making these minimums. I wanted to create just what I did. I wanted a staff. I wanted people to do things so that I could dream … I have to dream because if I don’t think it up, it’s not going to happen.
I can’t imagine someone falling out with you…
There are few times … with directors, because I’m too opinionated. Some of them are the biggest ones in the business, and I worry, and I’m sad, of course, because they do wonderful projects, but if it’s not to be, it’s not to be. There are only about three directors I don’t work with out of about the 50 who are working today, that’s not a bad count in this crazy world.
Well this is a world of explosive egos.
It’s very much, and I’m really good with them … so the egos … [he keeps getting up, suggests different rooms for the interview, unplugs the phone, puts on some fans, calling down to make sure the water and coffee is coming …]
We love that you’ve unplugged the phone … I’m very interested that you want to orchestrate a conducive environment …
Well that’s what I do for a living!
Are you anxious to please?
Well most of us are like that until we’ve had some traumatic experience. You want to please because you want to get along. I was going to explain in one sentence what I do: I help people become other people – I help them become someone else, and the more I can bring to that analysis, dramaturgically … dramatologically … whatever the word is … the more options … the more things I can bring to do it the better.
What’s the difference between clothes and costume?
Clothes and costume? Very good! Before I do clothes and costume, I want to do fashion and costume because it’s more polarized. Fashion is clothing that is designed in the brain of the designer, the way the designer thinks people should be dressing in a certain time, place, environment, season … in other words they envision how a person can wrap raiment around their core, as it were. That’s why really good designers are magical because they have to think all this up, they have to imagine someone walking into a room, or on a safari, or wherever. This is magical thinking. I really appreciate what they do, I study it all the time. I use fashion but I use it, I don’t create it. I however, have to help a person become a character and I have to figure out who that person is with them, with the script, with the director, with the playwright. So I have to know about all the fashion choices, all the human choices, and sometimes you want to know who that person is and sometimes you don’t. I have to be more nimble and I have to tell the story. They design for a concept of a man or woman. I design for an actual living, breathing person.
So you’re an interpreter?
I’m an interpreter – there you go.
This is a distraction of mine but whenever I go to the theater, I notice that actors sweat a lot – I always wonder what happens to their costumes.
I have to know about fabrics, I have to know about maintenance. I pick natural fibers and we try not to have them dry-cleaned because it loosens the color and stretches the fabrics. We air them, we turn them inside out, we spray vodka on them.
You spray vodka on them?!
Vodka. Inexpensive vodka. Something in the culture kills bacteria. You mix it with a little water, so it’s not straight vodka, you turn everything inside out and you put a fan on it. I also make doubles. If it’s a dance show I always make doubles.
You can sew?
I can sew. Now that I’m thinking about it, we do a real soup-to-nuts thing.
One of the things, it strikes me, that may have put you ahead of the pack is that you seem to be good at communicating your ideas.
And you have to open to theirs. I think it helps that I’m a funny-looking squash blossom, formerly chubby child, now chubby adult. I don’t think directors trust people who look like models. I wear the same uniform because I want it to look like I’m just in my uniform, that I am working for them and I’m not thinking about what I wear … I like to just dress like the Southern boy that I am … it can’t be about me.
So when you’re done with all of this and you come home, do you like to be at home alone?
I love to be by myself. At night—I learned this from my mother—in order not to stay up all night making lists in my room, because I’m a Virgo, so I make lists—I have to read something. So I’m always reading. I have about ten books going at once. The more complicated books the better, and I compare. I’m reading now about John of Gaunt.
Why did you pick that to read?
Someone gave it to me.
Why do you have this strong attachment to this tiny town of Seaboard in North Carolina of where you own and have restored all kinds of properties, grain silos, houses, practically the whole town?
Here’s the real reason: I feel that you have to be from somewhere, and that if you have extraordinary success, you need to ‘karma-ically’, because I grew up in the sixties, where the mantra was ‘karma is a boomerang’, you have to do something to the gods of luck to payback. You have to do something in thanks for your good luck. It’s very clear to me. It’s not even a good deed, it’s just something I have to do.
Are people involved in the theater somehow all vaguely suspect, all hiding from real life?
You mean escaping? Absolutely! I’m going to go one further, and you haven’t asked this. I never turn in receipts on shows of mine, taxis, or if I buy gifts, I never turn the receipts in because the accountants and producers think that designers are flighty and irresponsible with money. So I have all my staff do it in a flow chart. I keep it pure, because that is one of the big prejudices. They think we are irresponsible and can’t stay on a budget, and I make it a big point to every time prove them wrong.
Do you fear not being taken seriously?
I fear not being taken seriously—it’s one of the reasons I wear this [indicates his ‘uniform’ of blazer, chinos, tie] Yes, I very much still fear ‘he’s flighty’, ‘he’s not serious’ because I’ve heard my whole life: ‘Billy, calm down and be yourself’ – Alex [Witchel] quoted it and that’s how I learned from that article. What they were really saying was ‘Billy, calm down and be someone else’.