walter van beirendonck on his costumes for philip glass’ akhnaten

Walter Van Beirendonck walks like an Egyptian at the Antwerp Opera, creating beautiful costumes for a new production of Philip Glass' Akhnaten.

by Oscar Heliani
13 February 2015, 3:25pm

The craziest member of the Antwerp Six was commissioned by director Nigel Lowery to create costumes for Akhnaten, an opera by American minimalist composer Philip Glass about the rise and fall of pharaoh Akhnaten. Between two dress rehearsals, the Belgian designer showed i-D the sketches that were the foundation of his arresting costumes and spoke about how he turned up the volume when dressing the Royal Egyptian family.

"Freedom of expression" was the clear message from your men's collection last January. Did you feel any restriction while working on this project?
Oh no! The nice thing about doing projects away from fashion is the fact that I really see them as moments where I am able to express myself 100%. Creating costumes and characters for theatre and opera is something that I enjoy a lot. I use my strong imagination to get into the story, and from that point, I create a whole new world.

How did you get into this opera adventure?
The director, Nigel Lowery, has known my work for a long time. When Antwerp Opera got in touch with him for this Akhnaten production, he asked the opera's director to contact me and ask me if I would be interested by a collaboration. I said: "YES."

Is it your first time working on Egyptian history?
As a main inspiration? Yes. I had a rather "kitschy" feeling about Egypt due to the over-exposure and the golden way it's presented in the media and museums. So I read a lot about Akhnaten himself and the other Pharaohs and I discovered several stories I was not aware of. Thanks to this research, I gained respect for the amazing cultural vision they had.

What colour combinations did you use?
I chose to do a lot of gold, but I combined it with black outlines, almost as a trompe-l'oeil effect on a black background, to create sharp body shapes. In the second part, I kept this idea, but I mixed the gold with typical Egyptian colours as turquoise, green, blue and mint.

Philipp Glass embraced an ancient subject with a link to modern times. Is this subtext reflected in your costumes?
Well, it is really a long time ago that Akhnaten was shown on stage, and the original version had very Egyptian inspired costumes. From my first talks with Nigel, I felt that he wanted to introduce a more contemporary feeling. He talked about Belgian artist Frans Masereel, so I used his woodblock-prints as an inspiration for the sharp cuts that you can see on the costumes. I started with a lot of research about Akhnaten's life, I added some glam-rock/David Bowie ingredients, as well as contemporary suits and urban silhouettes with black overalls and Reebok sneakers. There are a lot of accessories of course. Some characters have rapper rings with "I love sun" and "I love sin" symbols. One of the characters is wearing a huge fist gold helmet. The fist is a reference to the symbol of the Egyptian revolution in 2011.

Am I wrong, or are some of Akhnaten's looks similar to the suits in your "Shut your eyes to see" collection?
True… The fabrics, platform shoes, make up and earrings. David Bowie was the inspiration to that collection and, in a way, I see my Akhnaten as David Bowie.

For your own shows you always imagine hair and make-up. Is it the same process for this opera?
When I'm creating characters, the working process is quite similar to working on my collections and I create total look from A-Z: hair, make-up, clothes, shoes and accessories. For the opera, I created rather strong expressive make-up for the royals, with prosthesis on chins, cheeks and fingers. I was really concerned about the singers' reactions, but luckily the prosthesis felt good and did not interfere with the singing.

You've collaborated with many artists such as Erwin Wurm, Kenny Perry, Folkert de Jong, Scooter Laforge, but you always said that making clothes was not a form of art. Would you consider your costumes for Akhnaten more as a form of art?I only see real art-cooperation as ART. For Akhnaten, I would refer to it as costume design.

Akhnaten runs until 22nd of February at Flanders Opera in Antwerp and from 4th until 10th of March at Gent Opera.


Text Oscar Heliani
All sketches Walter Van Beirendonck, courtesy of the artist

Philip Glass
Walter Van Beirendonck
antwerp opera