On her 10th world tour, Madonna reveals show-stopping collaborations with a rock-star line up of design talent.
When the petit powerhouse that is Madonna kicked off her world tour of Rebel Heart in Montreal, Canada, all eyes were – naturally – on her. But it wasn’t just the pop icon herself that drew the gaze of thousands of fans. Her lurex-lace jacquard bodysuit, richly detailed bodice and crêpe de Chine black-layered skirt with a flourish of intense pink, also had the audience starstruck.
Aptly, Madonna was performing ‘Dress You Up,’ which is exactly what Gucci’s new creative director Alessandro Michele did with his show-opening design. The song’s lyrics of fashion and passion are a fitting soundtrack for the creative partnership between Madonna, the icon, and Alessandro, the newly celebrated designer. While settling into his new role at Gucci, the 42-year-old Rome-based Madonna fan was swept up in the challenge of designing for Rebel Heart, which tours 55 cities, including Auckland in March.
Madonna has always collaborated with leading designers and her long-standing costume designer, Arianne Phillips – who has worked on six of Madonna’s 10 tours – knew that Alessandro should contribute his talent to Rebel Heart.
“I am a huge fan of Alessandro’s work. He has an intelligence and sensibility I knew would be the perfect match for Madonna. They both have a high taste for design,” says Arianne. And the feeling is mutual: “Now that I have had a chance to see her working, I truly understand why she is so grand. I believe she is a true artist and I am crazy about her,” he said in a press statement last year. Other designers who collaborated for the tour include Prada, Miu Miu, Alexander Wang and Jeremy Scott.
As part of Arianne and Madonna’s process to inspire and inform collaborators, designers are involved during the rehearsals. Once the show’s mood boards and visual flow charts were decided, Madonna and Arianne invited Alessandro to collaborate for the vibrant Latin-gypsy segment. “It is a creative process where both singer and designer are fully involved,” explains Arianne. “During rehearsals the nuances of each costume are refined and the line between fashion and performance blurs. The costumes always follow the choreography. From concept to construction, it’s 50 percent conceptual, and then the other 50 percent is practical, for quick changes. We are perfecting the costumes all the way up to opening night, and even after we are refining them.”
Working to tight and twisting deadlines is when Alessandro excels. After the swift departure of Frida Giannini, Gucci’s former creative director, in late 2014, Alessandro stepped in and created his first and highly acclaimed menswear show in just five days. He created Madonna’s costumes while also working on Gucci’s Spring/Summer 2016 collections.
Like Madonna, Alessandro breaks the rules and sets trends. Pussy bow blouses for demure men and colourful Goth dresses for the new-romantic woman have gained him a fan base. As Madonna says to her audience, “It’s all about being a rebel, right? You’ve got to keep people guessing. You don’t follow, you lead.” And as much as her costumes have reflected where she is throughout the various stages of her career, the affirmations and proclamations she peppers her show with are also telling. At the close of ‘Dress You Up,’ she says: “Do we ever know who we really are? It takes us a whole lifetime to figure it out. Bitch we’re Madonna, okay!”
Interpret her utterings as you will, but Madonna is a master of connecting with fans and understands the value of wow-factor costuming. “She spares no expense when it comes to her dancers and band’s costumes, not to mention her own,” reveals Arianne. With gruelling rehearsals held six days a week over several months, the crew lives together like a family, she explains. “I really love that on a tour we are creating our own reality, our own story, so anything is game. And I get to use my skills as a fashion editor and stylist, as well as a costume designer. We make a lot of the costumes and everything from hats to shoes and jewellery. We have custom-made pieces from designers – known and up-and-coming – and the costumes are made everywhere from New York City, where we prep, to London, Paris, Milan, Rome, and as far as Dubai and Bali.”
The tour is a showcase for talented artists and artisans, as well as the designers, says Arianne. “The most gratifying part is that the world sees it, Madonna’s reach is global. It’s so thrilling to work so hard, with so many talented people and then share it with the fans.”
Each of the 400 costumes on stage represents a creative love affair across ages and continents. For Madonna, Alessandro combined a Spanish shawl and ruffles with a man’s flamenco-style hat embellished with silk flowers. The lurex-lace knitwear and flounced hems of his Gucci collections were also drawn upon. For the dancers, he had them spinning in white, floral-embellished Tehuana-inspired head-dresses, the lace designs that Frida Kahlo adopted and made famous.
Of his own experience, Alessandro describes his work for Madonna as “a great gift of collaborating” and “a marvellous experience”. Meanwhile, in other acts, Madonna wore a crystal-encrusted flapper-style dress by Jeremy Scott, and a samurai-inspired red and black kimono by Arianne. The cultural mash-up is the right fit for a singer who includes gospel and house-music chart toppers in her repertoire. The rebel with a cause.
Still wearing the Gucci ensemble, Madonna sings ‘Rebel Heart,’ the show’s eponymous hit. “This song kind of sums me up in one phrase,” says the star, who then imparts another of her affirmations: “You are not letting life pass you by, you are life itself.”