In honor of recently wrapped New York fashion week, we thought we’d take a post to share some of the magic that goes behind creating Zen fashion. Being that Zen Arts is a fully-functioning complete circus production company means we do everything ourselves, including rigging, staging, lighting, music, makeup, and of course costumes! From inspiration to theming to design to construction, our sexy, fantastic, and exotic costume creations are all thanks to Zen Arts in-house costume designers. Zen Arts’ designers push the boundaries on conventional costuming transporting people to an alternate reality. But just how exactly does Zen Arts make their design ideas come to life?

To start with, every show is centered around a theme, idea, or overall concept. For Zen Arts, usually this theme is tailored around the client’s business or what they would like to portray at their event. Once a theme is chosen (e.g. plants) it’s time to do some research. Whether it be online, through books, or through fellow performers, researching a theme brings out different characteristics and traits that can be applied to the costume design (e.g. green, wet, leafy, branches, flowers, etc.). This brainstorming is where many of the initial design concepts are born…but we’re just getting started.

Once the general concept ideas are thought out, now comes the sketching. Although the creative process is different for every designer, once a concept is solidified, usually most turn either to sketching or directly to draping fabric over a dress form. Using a sketchbook, tracing (or layout) paper, and colored pencils, a costume designer can bring the ideas of their mind into the physical world for a technical designer or pattern maker to see as well. Since not all designers are great artists, drawing a silhouette freehand might result in an abysmal design reference. Tracing paper allows a designer to outline a silhouette of a model from a magazine and recreate the same form on multiple sheets for different looks. Or if they prefer they could also sketch the form on regular paper and create their designs on tracing sheets, allowing for an easy glance at multiple costume ideas on the same silhouette.

When it comes to the silhouette, generally designers want forms drawn relatively straight, so they can focus on seeing the shape of the garment drawn upon it. However when drawing a silhouette, designers also think about how the person they are designing for would stand posture-wise. Is this character elegant? Sexy? Confident? Reserved? Since they will be the ones ultimately wearing the costume, it’s a good idea to visualize what the costume will look like during their performance poses.

The more detailed and specific the sketches are, the easier the job for the pattern maker, who already has a difficult enough job as it is. Remember that although paper is 2D, real life is 3D. Often when designers are coming up with a design, they will sketch the front, back, and side views, making it easier for the pattern maker to visualize and measure the shapes they need to come up with.

Once the sketches are finalized it’s time for the pattern maker to get to work. Whereas designers typically come up with costume conceptions, everything from lines, proportions, colors, and textures, the pattern maker’s job is to create the physical shapes and sizes of the garment’s elements, usually by draping muslin over a form, using paper and measuring tools, or a CAD computer program. It’s also the pattern maker’s job to shop for the necessary materials, mix and choose different fabrics and textures, and sew the prototype together.

Unlike regular stage productions such as plays, musicals, or concerts, a lot more must be considered when it comes to creating a Zen Arts costume design. First and foremost, costumes need to remain functional for each performer’s specialized skill. Constructing a design involves taking into consideration the talents that each specific performer is responsible for doing, how they are going to move around, and whether or not a specific costume element is going to impede their ability to perform. Costumes that are too flowy or loose can inhibit the performance of a Zen Arts acrobat, dancer, or contortionist and result in serious consequences on the live stage (e.g. trips, falls, and injuries).

To get around this most of our costumes are either custom-tailored to form-fit each specific performer, or made with stretch fabrics like lycra, spandex, or other elastics. Fabrics like these will still cover up our acrobats without getting in the way of what they need to do. Additionally we must ensure costumes remain light so the performers do not feel weighed down. Thankfully most of these stretchy fabrics are also very lightweight.

Another factor to consider is overheating. Anyone who’s been under stage lights knows that they can get really hot really fast, and thick costumes can exacerbate that heat. Although it may appear effortless, you also have to mix in the fact that most of our performers are strenuously exerting their bodies during their intricate displays of strength, even further propagating overheating. Breathable fabrics are key in helping to control body temperature.

Contrary to plays or musicals, in which the performers are talking or singing, many of our performers have little to no dialogue. This means that their costumes are a large part of speaking for their characters to the audience and selling the overall theme or story (as in our holiday show). On a similar note, the designer also has to think about the performance setting and how the colors and patterns of the costumes may intermingle or clash with the background. Obviously if the backdrop is mainly dark, you’d want bright, vivid costumes with colors that pop. If your backdrop is colorful and glitzy, costumes with more subdued tones would be the way to go. In the end, the costumes need to transform the performers into part of a scene while at the same time helping them stand out and be noticeable.

As stated, at Zen Arts each costume is custom made for each performer and their specific skill. This also means that certain performers may require extra reinforcements in their costume constructions. Dancers for example, need more support in the hips and bust so as to not expose themselves while shaking it on stage. I mean Zen Arts is definitely about being sexy…but we don’t want a wardrobe malfunction! On the other hand our aerial apparatus performers require overall support and coverage, seeing as they are often inverted. Achieving the proper effect in these two aspects may sometimes mean dressing performers even from undergarments up.

It’s also important to mention that depending on the location of the performance, costumes may also have to be constructed to travel well. Whether by car or plane, costumes need to be packed with minimal wrinkling and tearing, so they’re ready to go when arriving on set. In any case, it’s always good to have a small sewing kit for any last minute fittings, repairs, or corrections.

Finally, remember a costume is never complete without makeup. Be it on the face or total body, makeup is an integral part of character construction, contributing to the total look and theme that’s trying to be exhibited. Accessories are also a crucial final detail, with items such as hats, glasses, shoes, or jewelry often making costumes complete. Depending on the character and scenario, certain props may also need to be added in order to really give a look that finishing touch.

When all is said and done, costumes are always tested beforehand to ensure they are functional as well as achieving the right visual appeal. Following the golden rules of functionality and aesthetics, Zen Arts is able to create the right costume & makeup combinations to morph the talented troupe of Zen Arts performers into true characters, adding to the magic of any Zen Arts performance, and aiding in submerging the audience into another world.