Erdem’s AW21 collection is a love letter to ballet

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“It’s a love letter to dance, my absolute respect for it,” says Erdem Moralıoğlu, 43, of his AW21 collection and its accompanying film, due to be shown during London Fashion Week. Although no stranger to ballet, this is the first time that the Canadian-born, half-Turkish and half-British designer has made the highly technical dance form the focus of his latest show.

In 2017, Erdem was commissioned by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to create costumes for his single-act ballet, Corybantic Games, premiered at the Royal Opera House and danced by The Royal Ballet in 2018. Fast forward to 2021, and it’s no surprise that the designer has ventured back into this world with his new collection, this time working with Edward Watson, principal dancer and coach at London’s Royal Ballet. “It was truly movement direction,” says Erdem. “It wasn’t ‘dance’.”

Erdem autumn winter 2021

© Jason Lloyd Evans

The clothes themselves? They’re a juxtaposition of two worlds—casual mixed with formal attire, capturing the moment when a dancer is partially in costume and rehearsal clothes. Think watteau-back dresses, embellished duchess-satin gowns and opera coats paired with knitted headbands, ribbed leggings and flat ballerina-slipper platforms. Erdem, who has dressed the likes of Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton, wanted to celebrate the arc of a dancer’s career, as well as his obsessions with legendary ballet dancers Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.

After spending the day admiring Erdem’s brilliance up-close on the set of his pre-recorded show (you can watch it on 23 February via the Erdem official website), Vogue caught up with the designer to find out more about his undeniable love of dance, why working with Edward Watson was crucial to executing his vision, and, with his namesake-label now offering a more diverse range of sizes, the importance of body inclusivity in today’s world.

What spurred your focus on ballet this season?

“The seed was planted in 2017 when I started the Corybantic Games and I always knew I would do a collection dedicated to the time that I spent at the Royal Opera House.”

Why were legendary ballet dancers Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev your muses for the season?

“There’s something about the hunger and drive of Fonteyn that I found interesting, her life was fascinating. That moment of her being this prima ballerina, the absolute most famous dancer in the world, her fading away, and then a meeting with 23-year-old Nureyev [when she was 42] that launched her back into the spotlight again. They both really inspire me.”

Did any music or sound inspire the collection?

“Definitely, I was looking at rehearsal footage of Nureyev and Fonteyn, and so much of it was the classic ballets, but Swan Lake was the one I really held on to. There are these little notions of Swan Lake in the collection.”

How did your collaboration with Edward Watson come about?

“I met Edward years ago through Lauren Cuthbertson [ballerina and a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet], who’s a very close friend. Edward's the most important male dancer in this country, and this idea made sense to work with a dancer, so I asked him to join as movement director. He positions everything so sensitively, it’s lovely. There are images where his foot comes into the side, sort of like the ghost of Nureyev.

Erdem autumn winter 2021

© Jason Lloyd Evans

“[The movement direction] came from the idea of dancers walking on and off stage, and getting into position. It was less about having dancers dancing, but rather that moment when the curtains are closed where there’s this crisscrossing of paths between performers.”

Did you always have a vision of what the film was going to convey? What will the music sound like?

“We talked a lot about a Hitchcockian feeling, so I hope what you get is that cinematic moment before something bad happens. It's less about the action and more about the anticipation. We thought it would be even eerier if the music was melodic and repetitive like they were in a ballet studio with that person on the piano in the corner.”

You cast four ballerinas in the show, two of whom are now retired. What encouraged you to do this and why was it so important to include them?

“All four ballerinas [Marguerite Porter, Christina Arestis, Elizabeth McGorian and Zenaida Yanowsky] have different qualities that I found fascinating, plus they’re connected to Nureyev. I think because I'm so obsessed with him, it was interesting to meet people who knew him.”

Erdem is now stocked from sizes six to 22. Why is body inclusivity so important to you and your brand?

“I do a lot of bespoke pieces and I could see that there was a demand to make things in different shapes and sizes. It's democratic and wonderful to dress different women, which is why it's important to have that represented in the show as well.”

What do you miss about fashion shows and what do you hope for the future of them?

“I miss the faint sound of the audience settling in and the anticipation of knowing the show is about to happen. The thesis that you've been working on for six months, whether it’s well-received or not, takes on a different life in front of people. There's something intangible about a live show—I hope we go back to it.”

And finally, your show was inspired by dance—what makes you want to dance?

“Seeing that wonderful moment where dancers completely lose themselves in their physicality and it becomes something completely transcendent and extraordinary. That feeling where you're somewhere else in your mind, that's the best feeling in the world!”

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