Designing an Icon - The Costumes of Here Lies Love

By Joe Kucharski - August 3, 2014

Here Lies Love is a fast-paced, heart-wrenching new musical that follows the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, the first lady of the Philippines, in an immersive, 90 minute, action-packed performance. The audience is on their feet for the entire performance, following performers from stage to stage as the show spans from the 1940s to the 1980s in a club-inspired, DJ led party that takes your from dancing to tears. Breathtaking performances are matched only by the phenomenally powerful, and well-choreographed design elements. The scenic, lighting, and projection beautifully combines moving platforms and real-life footage to heighten the sense of reality, while moving the story steadily along. The expert costume design combines nuanced portrayal of larger than life personalities with a boldly expressive ensemble, all at a wildly impressive speed.

I recently had the chance to ask costume designer Clint Ramos about his process designing Here Lies Love.

Imelda Marcos gown, Here Lies Love, costume designer Clint Ramos. (photo: CHANCE Magazine)

 

Tyranny of Style: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you first became involved in costume design?

Clint Ramos: I was born and raised in Cebu, in the Philippines. I was always exposed to the arts by my mother. But, my first exposure to theatre was doing political street theatre when I was in boarding school for high school in Manila. It was the first time I realized how affecting art can be and how it could be a powerful trigger for thought and emotion. I studied theatre at the University of the Philippines and did my graduate studies at New York University, Tisch.

Various costumes, Here Lies Love, costume designer Clint Ramos. (photo: CHANCE Magazine)

 

T/S: Here Lies Love has been in the planning phases for many years, musically. Can you tell us a bit about how you first became involved in the production, and at what phase in its development you started talking design specifics?

CR: I first got the call in 2007 when David Byrne was planning a production of the piece at BAM. That production was shelved when David decided he would instead focus on concert versions of the concept album. I still have the recordings that David sent me of those early songs--with him doing all the vocals. I remember feeling ecstatic listening to it. I was such a child of the NY clubs when I immigrated to the States, listening to the music for Here Lies Love really took me to that feeling of ecstasy again. It brought back that feeling of being consumed wholly by music. I did not hear again about the project until 2010. I have a great artistic relationship with the Public Theatre--which I consider an artistic home and I knew Alex Timbers, who I'd never worked with but greatly admired. I got attached to the project then. I saw each iteration of the workshop process and Alex was always very clear about the mandate. The pleasure of developing a piece for an extended period is the amount of time it affords you to formulate theories and ideas of not only the costumes but how the design affects and contributes to the performance construct we were all aiming towards--this specific club performance that intoxicates and yet, captivates you to follow a narrative.

Imelda Marcos historic research, Here Lies Love, costume designer Clint Ramos.

Modern clothing research, Here Lies Love, costume designer Clint Ramos.

 

T/S: The story takes us, at a break neck speed, from the 1940s to 1980s, with a healthy dose of modern fashion items and inspiration throughout. Can you tell us a bit about how you approached the research phase of the production? What were some of your greatest inspirations or resources, and how did you go about stringing these different time periods together?

CR: BREAKNECK is right. The main inspiration really is Madame Marcos herself. As much as I was a child of the clubs, I am also a child of that regime and of that revolution. I'd seen her from afar a couple of times when I was child, but I formally met Imelda at a summer program at the Cultural Center of the Philippines when I was in high school in Manila. This was towards the end, but she was still at the top of her style game and many people still were enraptured, perhaps as many as the people who were discontent. You see, when the Marcoses came to power, the country was in love with them. The young couple brought with them hope and immense promise. During the first four years of their tenure the prosperity of the Philippines was measurable and growing and as the years went by, it took a sour turn--quickly followed by a slow and brutal nosedive. Imelda was a lot of things; she was a beauty queen, a consumer of couture, an independent dresser, a fierce mannequin for the national costume and a style icon. As such, she was constantly photographed and so there is a bevy of visual research for her. That was the easy part. The challenge was how to make her image iconic yet believable and on some strange way, relatable. I wanted to find a way for the regular audience member to acquire the ability to identify with her--butterfly sleeves and all. I looked at a lot of contemporary couture and prêt-à-porter to somehow transform Imelda's unique and foreign style to something vaguely, if not subliminally, familiar, somehow. I also looked at a lot of iconic popular images from films, etc. For instance, I looked at an Alexander McQueen brocade jacket to create her Steel Butterfly suit, or Maggie Cheung's dresses in In The Mood for Love for some day coats, etc.

 

 

Imelda renderings, Here Lies Love, costume designer Clint Ramos.

 

T/S: You were tasked with representing several very iconic historic characters, as well as creating a variety of strong ensemble stage pictures to facilitate time and mood transitions within the story. (And you did it so beautifully!) Can you tell us a bit about the balance of what you had built, purchased, and altered?

CR: Well, we built of all of Imelda's costumes. We needed to accept that. They were built originally by the Public Theater costume shop, and some of it was built in the Philippines. On this present NYC run, the clothes were built by John Kristiansen and millinery by Arnold Levine. We also built all of the beauty queen gowns, the disco outfits, the period ladies clothes and the ladies ensemble bases.  We purchased the men's suits, the jackets and overcoats. I wanted the suits to be modern and fresh. I did not want them to be purely period. They needed to be decidedly modern. I never wanted us to forget we were in a club--today. That's the case too with the styling. I wanted there to be a nod to the periods but be firmly footed in the present and specifically, in the club.

Imelda renderings, Here Lies Love, costume designer Clint Ramos.

 

T/S: This is such a fast paced production with many changes for both the leads and ensemble, but with the added difficulty of an ever changing playing space, a myriad of entrances/exits, and no intermission. I can only imagine that these specifics evolved regularly in the rehearsal/tech phase. How did you approach the design process with so many complex variables?

CR: Well we teched with the clothes. And we basically teched after the first week of rehearsals. Alex and the whole team really worked together and tightly on this. Alex Timbers is probably one of the most collaborative directors in the American theatre. He is so respectful of the design process and knows the value of design in propelling the narrative. He encouraged us to dream and he also pushed for the impossible to be done. We lived and breathed Here Lies Love for three straight months. Because the musical is completely sung through with very little or no book scenes, our timing of changes were really contingent on the number of musical bars before and after songs. On many instances, there were none and Imelda never leaves the stage- so the costume changes had to come to her and happen quickly. So we just needed to really figure out magic tricks on how to do these lightning-fast costume changes. For the ensemble, some of those changes are on a 16 count so Alex and I worked on staggering the changes, like for example, the boys would exit first giving them 8 counts to change and the girls would follow in the next 8 as the boys came in fully changed--so it really looked like the changes were instantaneous. I was luckily surrounded by a lot of smart people and amazing artisans--the rest really was just fun.

Here Lies Love, costume designer Clint Ramos.

 

T/S: From the wonderful transition on stage from Imelda and Ferdinand's wedding to beach look, to Imelda's Jackie O to party girl quick change- the show is full phenomenal costume magic. Can you tell us a bit about some of the techniques utilized to make such quick transformations?

CR: Thank you. It really starts before that, with her blue ‘11 Days’ dress, because she never leaves the stage. We used all of the tricks we could, from magnets to clever under dressing to quick release zippers to kabuki folding and pockets. It was really mostly trial and error. Like, we needed to calibrate the amount of magnets we can use because of the danger of it sticking together. On her pink Jackie O suit we needed to stagger the magnets and snaps CB and CF so when it released it would be clean, etc. We also made sure that each costume in this 5-costume change run was defined and distinct silhouette-wise to maximize the effect. For instance, from the long wedding gown to the skimpy swimsuit or from a short pink 60s suit to a mid-calf fully beaded party dress, etc.

Here Lies Love, costume designer Clint Ramos.

 

T/S: Your design has a distinctly graphic feel, can you share with us any way that you utilized technology in regards to your design or execution of the show?

CR: We did use some technology. Right now as we prepare for the London production some of our floral patterns are digitally printed and most of the floral appliques on the butterfly sleeves and the wedding gown were laser cut.

Here Lies Loves is currently running at The Public Theater in NYC. Tickets are currently on-sale through November. 

 

Coming soon to London! Here Lies Love will open at National Theatre on September 30, and is currently slated to run through January 2015. 

***Now open in LONDON! Find out more here.

 

Do not miss one of the most powerful and innovative musical experiences!

A huge thanks to Clint Ramos for his time and the wonderful images.