At the ripe age of 17, Esteban Cortázar became the youngest designer to ever show at New York Fashion Week. Turns out, it may have been a fluke. “As a little boy, I grew up wanting to be an actor, singer, performer, and dancer,” he says. “I was in every drama class. I went to a musical theater school. I was always in the costume shops. I was always backstage.” Now, the Colombian-American talent is having a full-circle moment: designing costumes for the New York City Ballet’s Fall Fashion Gala, an annual celebration of dance and costume design. This year’s lineup features first-run works by Sidra Bell and Andrea Miller, the latter of whom collaborated with Cortázar on the ballet’s sartorial aesthetic. “Ballet was not a world I was always following,” Cortázar admits, before adding: “That’s what makes this so exciting. I’m learning about a world that I have always had respect for, but never knew much about. Now I do. It’s really special.”
Ahead of the Fall Gala tonight at Lincoln Center in New York City, Cortázar talked to ELLE.com about his designs, Ibiza, and why he’s proud to be Colombian. Keep scrolling to get a closer look at the costumes.
How did you get involved with the New York City Ballet?
In a very spontaneous and organic way. Andrea Miller, who founded the dance company Gallim in New York, contacted me out of the blue several months ago. She had gotten my number through a mutual Colombian friend. After telling me she really loved my work, she asked if I would be interested in being a part of this project. I of course said “yes” right away, but I didn’t fully realize what I was being asked to do on that first phone call—she was being quite modest! When I realized what it was, it was such a huge honor. I’ve wanted to collaborate with [musician] Lido [Pimienta] for a very long time. A family has been formed. It’s just a pleasure all around.
What was your inspiration for the costumes?
What was very clear from the very beginning was that this was a piece about finding our light within, finding the light external to us, bringing optimism to the world, and bringing color to the world. The words “heat” and “lightness” kept coming up. I knew that I wanted to create something that felt very weightless, that moved in very fluid and organic ways, echoing the dancers’ movements. I didn’t want anything too restrictive or overpowered or over-decorated. I wanted something that felt almost like a second skin, and then I could tell a beautiful color story through it.
I’m also obsessed with colors. I actually worked on the piece—sketch and concept-wise—a lot while I was in Ibiza, which is an island where I spend a lot of my time. I was looking at the sky every day: the way the colors changed from the morning midday to sunset to night. I really wanted to bring that into the piece. Lido’s score was so inspiring. That made me think about my culture, Colombia, my roots, and where I come from. I wanted to bring that in as well, not a literal way. I think we did that through the colors and the song and the movement.
How, in your opinion, are the fashion and dance worlds intertwined?
Well, they’re both about telling stories, which is beautiful. We can tell a story through our collection as fashion designers. And we can clearly tell a story through a dance piece. What is interesting about ballet is that it is purely creative. There are restrictions about functionality and the way that the dancers need to move and the costumes need to last, but those are technical details. Here, I can really be free from commerce and the idea of selling. I have to think about how to make these dancers shine and what works with the choreography. It’s been a really special way of working that I’m not used to. I feel like an artist doing this, and less like a fashion designer. It’s been very liberating for me as a creator.
We’re in the midst of Hispanic Heritage Month. In what ways does your Colombian background inform your designs?
My heritage, where I come from—it’s my roots, my blood. It’s what I’m made of. It’s always present in my life. I don’t have to look for it. It’s always there. I am obsessed with where I come from. I love my culture. I love my people. I love the colors, the nature, the skies, the music, the dancing, the food. I’m obsessed with Colombia and Latin culture in general. And it’s always in my work—even if it’s not part of the theme, there’s always something that I bring in. And what I love about the ballet and about this piece we’ve created is that I can really see it. It’s not literal and obvious, but it’s there. And of course, there’s Lido’s incredible score and voice. Two Columbians are part of this team, and that makes it so wonderful.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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