Act II, Scene 1
At the fall-winter 2010 fashion shows, Michael Brown's theatrical installations brought drama to the catwalk
Kendell Cronstrom -- Interior Design, 4/1/2010 12:00:00 AM
If fashion is theater, then Michael Brown has one of the more pivotal roles. The principal of Lot71 has been turning heads on the runway lately with his evocative installations for such major names as Isaac Mizrahi and Thakoon Panichgul. Educated and trained in theatrical design, Brown now produces everything from live shows to permanent installations. Read on as the drama unfolds.
How do you describe your approach?
Regardless of the client, there's always a story that needs to be told. I take a space and create a story with it.
You started Lot71 in 2004. What was your primary goal?
I'd been in theater design for years, and my work was kind of flattening out. There's nothing greater than Shakespeare. But at the end of the day, who's going to get excited about seeing the 59th production of The Merchant of Venice? To grow as an artist and a designer, I needed to apply my skill set to something different. With a fashion show, you're basically designing a 10-minute music video.
How do fashion budgets compare to theater?
Some are great, and some are comparable to Off Off Broadway. Working in theater, you learn to design something for $5 that looks like a million bucks, and the same goes for fashion.
Describe your set for Diesel Black Gold's fall-winter 2010 collection.
It was very refined and clean, almost like a store installation. Lead designer Sophia Kokosalaki provided us with a lot of source material, including images of a very architectural metal sculpture.
How did you turn such an abstract concept into something functional?
Sophia said she was looking for this sharply fragmented, layered space, so we built six "walls" of prismatic plywood forms covered in chrome laminate—all those juxtaposed, askew planes made the chrome shimmer like Kryptonite. From the audience, the installation looked like one piece. You didn't really notice at first that there were five different points of entry and exit for the models. I revisit that idea a lot: What is the entrance, that exciting, theatrical moment when the first girl walks on?
You just worked with Thakoon Panichgul for the first time during New York fashion week.
Thakoon has shown his collections in a very boxy, cold warehouse space for several seasons. He had basic staging before but no real design per se. When we met, he referenced a lot of Japanese dance pieces and theatrical lighting. At the heart of it, though, he was trying to give the space warmth, to make it feel round and womblike.
How did you achieve this?
I thought of Zaha Hadid's incredible temporary chamber-music hall in the U.K., how the ribbons that created the volumes didn't appear to be supported by any framework. We used three large aluminum frames to create tensile sculptures with fabric stretched over them. Lit from within, they became beautiful glowing orbs. The girls entering and exiting created all these shadows, and I made the model path an oval for a sense of intimacy.
You've collaborated four times now with Isaac Mizrahi.
Isaac has a brilliantly theatrical mind. The last time, he said, "I'm picturing a Manhattan camping trip, a walk through Central Park. It's a midsummer night's dream but in midwinter." He also mentioned painterly ballet scenery, like old Swan Lake sets. I stumbled on an image of the skyline with a foreground that's kind of blurry, because it's snowing. So we painted a cityscape backdrop on canvas to make it look snowy if you squinted, and we slowly dropped Mylar snow from motorized theatrical snow drums from the 1950's. They're 18 feet long and look like cheese graters.
What's the most surprising material you've worked with?
For Arise magazine's most recent African Collective show, I designed a runway "road" from a photo collage of different roads and printed it on undyed low-pile carpet. We brought the carpet to an industrial printer, and they just took the roll and fed it through the machine. Then scenic painters used water-based latex to enhance the design.
What's the most rewarding part of designing runway sets?
There's never much time to load everything in before a show—for me, that rush, I mean that's theater. The adrenaline is fantastic.
Is it crushing to see your sets come down so quickly?
Not really. I don't think I'm ready to design something that's going to stick around very long. I'm too young for that.