Bodytorque by design: Gwendolynne

13 June 2014 | By Behind Ballet

Fashion designer Gwendolynne Burkin has been working on the costumes for Same Vein, Alice Topp’s piece for the Bodytorque.DNA season. We sat down with Gwendolynne to talk about the collaboration.

How would you describe the style of your label? What inspires you?
Generally my design style is heavily versed in historical references, from the 1920s and 1930s to Gothic, but despite people liking to pigeonhole me as being Art Deco, funnily I really love the minimalism of the 60s. The final effect is sensual, delicate, and ethereal but restrained, a kind of pared-back vintage look. No matter what I create, my objective is for my design to be flattering and beautiful. I feel there is too much clutter in our world and I want to contribute works that are of quality and have longevity: heirloom pieces that are treasured.

I am constantly inspired. For many years I have been quite self-indulgent, basically designing for myself. But after 25 years working in fashion I have found that if you persist with this technique, you eventually get blocked, as your work can become repetitive. It’s important as a designer to have consistency, but to move forward with my vision these days I really listen to feedback from clients and my staff. However, I still only ever create what feels intrinsically and intuitively right to me.

Gwendolynne, Amber Scott and Alice Topp. Photography Kate Longley

For my current collection I have chosen women in my world who I find stylish and designed and named dresses with them in mind. It’s been a great process, taking different types of women as muses, but then tying it back to how I’d like to see them.

But what a lot of people don’t realize is my biggest creative outlet is designing all my embellishments. Much of the inspirations are classic decorative patterns from architecture, nature or vintage illustrators. Even Ernst Haeckel, the classic illustrator of microorganisms, has inspired my designs. I am a very logical person and my process is often more about elimination than inventing new ideas. I just have so many it is hard to focus at times. I have even had the most amazing ideas in dreams.

What attracted you to collaborating with The Australian Ballet?
I wanted to be a ballerina when I was a little girl. I owned our family lounge room with my performances and I’d throw tantrums if my siblings intruded and changed the music while I was prancing about. I love dancing, but it was also the look of the costumes and the theatre of ballet that mesmerised my young self.

With my first pocket money I bought two books: one was on craft, the other on ballet. So clearly, collaborating with The Australian Ballet is a childhood dream, and it is an honour to be asked. The skill of the dancing, the sets, the music, the lighting: I find it all transfixing. As I get older I have to say the flexibility and movement of the dancers floors me with admiration, and I feel a bit inadequate too! I just can’t get over the elegance and the strength together as one. Phenomenal.

Photography Kate Longley

What challenges have you encountered in adapting your designs to the rigors of dance? How is this project different from your normal design process?
I must say it is MUCH easier than making couture commissions. I can use ELASTIC & leotards stretch! Couture is very precise and you would NEVER use elastic. Also, ballet dancers are generally straight up and down, so much easier than working around the curves of mere mortals.

Alice has been so easy to work with. I guess because she was aware of my style before we began the project and she was very clear, so the synergy of the collaboration has been fluid and a total pleasure. My artistic vision is understandably repressed a little in the context of making fashion for real women to wear, but in the theatrical environment, I feel free to let go and be more avant-garde, which is a breath of fresh air, and really who I am fundamentally as a designer.

Obviously movement is a challenge, but a creative blessing too! I often get frustrated at the deadpan or static medium of fashion photography and catwalk; I am obsessed with fluidity and the interplay of light with the movement of textiles. In dance, you can really enhance movement with the way the cloth billows: it creates an enchanting, floaty, otherworldly form.

I guess the thing that was most surprising for me was how the detailed beading that I design can scratch the dancers. Actually the men (who aren’t wearing it) were the biggest concern when thinking about dancers in a pas de deux. So Alice and I have had to consider which dancers could have the most sculptural forms based on their choreography, which had never occurred to me as an issue. But sometimes I love restrictions: it helps you organise your creative headspace into a logical process.

Amber Scott and Alice Topp. Photography Kate Longley

In what direction has Alice’s creative concept led you?
When Alice pointed out what inspired her about my work, I wanted to extend her vision and complement the theme and her choreography by having a soft fluidity to the pieces, as many of the initial works she selected from my style were rigid in form.

After considering Alice’s creative concept, which embraces the idea that “we are all the same”, I imagined a soft glow of circles from my creations creating a halo, blending into the set from to the dancers with its graded interplay of light and movement. Each circle of tulle I centered with a dark layer, much like en egg. From these I attached long ostrich feathers to the edges that protrude away from the form, creating a further blending effect. Alice’s vision was also to embrace black-and-white themes across the creative, which I feel makes a bold statement on stage; however, it can look harsh at times. I felt the blend of tulle softened the harsh edges and gave the organic earthy effect that embraces her idea that “animals and humans are so closely related and the survival mechanisms so instinctive that I like the idea of DNA being reflected in all living things.” Somehow, also, the fluttery tulle effects make the dancers seem like charming creatures.

Amber Scott. Photography Kate Longley

Alice also requested small headpieces so I worked with my long time collaborator Richard Nylon to develop headpieces inspired by the formations of DNA. Richard is well known for his large dynamic creations, but in this case we did keep them quite small as not to limit the performers, and also to keep the strength in the fluttery forms.

See the full effect of Gwendolynne’s amazing creations in Same Vein, part of Bodytorque.DNA. Three performances only: 17, 18 and 24 June. Book tickets