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Fashion goes to ballet |


Fashion goes to ballet

Raymond Ang - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - I’ve always loved the performing arts,” Mark Lewis Higgins says. “Aside from art itself, and fashion. You know, it’s all the same thing.”

The artist, author, and fashion educator — long regarded as one of Philippine fashion history’s gatekeepers — remembers his teenage years, spent fascinated by the Ballets Russes, a ballet company based in Paris that was active from 1909 and 1929 throughout Europe. “I was very familiar with the costume designers and the choreography and the types of ballet they were doing,” he says.

This season, Higgins is aiming to fill the uninitiated with the same sense of wonder he had in his teens by working on Ballet Philippines’ The Firebird, as part of the company’s 47th performance season. Based on the Russian folk tale, The Firebird is choreographed by the accomplished George Birkadze, directed by Paul Morales, and set to a score by Igor Stravinsky, 

“George Birkadze, the choreographer, is Russian,” Higgins says. “He trained with the Bolshoi… The original Firebird was premiered by the Ballet Russe in 1910. So I kind of gave the costumes that sensibility of Boxer-Codex-meets-Ballets Russes.”

Working with a select group of students from the Slim’s Fashion and Arts School — the vocational training institution his mother, the legendary designer Salvacion Lim Higgins, founded half a century ago and where he has served as co-director since 2009 — Higgins has brought to life his vision for the costumes of Firebird, a vision he happened to have months before Morales, Ballet Philippines’ artistic director, approached him for the project.

“I had gone back to painting since last year, and the subject matter that I’ve been doing is the ancient history of Southeast Asia,” he says. Higgins had been working on a series of paintings that focused on the details and textures of the intricate native wear Filipinos wore during the era of the Boxer Codex. One day, Morales visited Slim’s and proposed a collaboration: Would Mark Lewis Higgins be interested in working on the costumes for Firebird?





“They said that they wanted The Firebird to be set in pre-Hispanic Philippines!” Higgins says. In a stroke of serendipity, the era Morales wanted to reimagine The Firebird in was the exact same era Higgins had focused on for his paintings. “The timing was really perfect!”

This isn’t Higgins’ first time at the ballet. Eighteen years ago, after doing costumes for a production of the musical The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with the choreographer Agnes Locsin, Locsin asked him if he would consider doing the costumes for a ballet she was working on — a production of Richard Strauss’ The Four Last Songs. “I came in and watched the rehearsals and designed the stuff and we draped it on the dancers but, at that time, their staff was the one that made it,” Higgins says. “This time it’s different, because our students who have never made ballet costumes before are the ones doing it.”

The Firebird has become a special project for select students at Slim’s. “I picked a group of students and talked them through the project and what it would entail, and they’re given a monthly stipend,” he says. “It’s work training, I suppose. It’s not in the curriculum at the moment, but I dream that someday we do have a costume design program.

“Another thing I’m hoping is that the team that I’m training are then able to work with artisans, you know, who don’t have fashion businesses. People, for example, like (accessories designers) Bea Valdes or Wynn Wynn Ong, who I know are very artistic. They’re very multi-dimensional with their talent. This is something I can actually imagine them doing. So this team of kids can then say, ‘Okay, we’ll create the stuff for you, just give us your vision.’”

It’s something Higgins has always wanted to do and also his way of showing support for his friends, most of whom come from the performing arts rather than fashion. “This was a chance to support Ballet Philippines with this vision of drawing in a new audience, a younger audience; drawing that enthusiasm by helping them create this spectacular production that hopefully a lot of people will come and see, and hopefully inspiring other artisans who aren’t necessarily fashion designers to, you know, do collaborations with people like (those in) Ballet Philippines.”

Designing for the stage

Working with a team that isn’t trained in costume design has its disadvantages. Higgins has proven a little stubborn when it comes to the quality of his garments, insisting on using luxurious fabrics and precious stones instead of the usual shortcuts costume designers use. His sister Sandy has joked that he has a talent for working on projects that don’t make money. Still, it’s that naiveté that has made the costumes for The Firebird truly magnificent, like a towering headdress fashioned out of artificial plants from SM Department Store. In not knowing all the rules, Higgins has made his own.

“A real costume designer is trained to create the best possible costumes with the best possible materials within, obviously, a rather limited budget, more often than not,” Higgins explains. “But I’m not a trained professional costume designer. I’m a painter and I do have a background in garment constructions so this was treated like a very special project. And it’s not something I’m going to be doing regularly, so I went all out.”

He says Gino Gonzales, his co-author for last year’s coffeetable tribute to the ternoFashionable Filipinas: An Evolution of the Philippine National Dress in Photographs, 1860-1960, and of the country’s top costume and production designers, has already given him grief for his use of materials.

“Well, I did all sorts of crazy things! Like, first of all, on some of the principal dancers’ headdresses, I used 24-carat gold leaf, which is what I use on my paintings — which is insane! Like, you don’t use that on stage costumes! But I was impatient,” he says. “And then because the older paintings that I made 10 or 12 years ago used a lot of semi-precious stones and gems, and I had a lot of leftovers, I started sticking them on the headdresses! So some of them have real pearls, lapis-lazuli.

“This is an artist doing the costumes for a ballet; it is not a career I’m planning to pursue. I’m not a professional costume designer — so I can break rules!” he says. “This is an indulgence — it’s something I want to do.”

He continues: “You know, some of the fabrics we used were very special fabrics that you wouldn’t normally use for a stage costume. But they were beautiful, and they served the purpose of what I wanted the look to be. And you know, I didn’t imagine making the headdresses myself! It’s just that I had this idea and, um, you know, I just didn’t want to draw it and have someone do it. I just had to do it myself. So the Firebird headdress I made.”

And perhaps due to his orientation in fashion design, Higgins’ costumes for the ballet work as garments in themselves. Already, they’ve been shot by the fashion magazine L’Officiel Manila in an editorial that paired Higgins’ costumes with contemporary streetwear-inspired pieces. And as early as a month before opening night, a few patrons have already expressed interest in ordering some of the costumes for them to wear to social events. “I guess in the end, good work is good work. You know? On- or off-stage, I suppose.”

Our version of events

Higgins’ art has always been inspired by history and culture. But in working on The Firebird, the beautiful, beguiling figures in his paintings now come to life and walk — or rather, dance — among us.

“They said that they wanted to set it in the ancient, pre-Hispanic Philippines. The landscape you would’ve found here at that time, pre-1590s, would be a lot of trade from China, a lot of influence from Java and Sumatra, the Majapahit Empire, which was the superpower in India, and then textiles from Persia and along the Silk Road would’ve ended up in Java and Sumatra, and would’ve ended up somehow here. Of course, a lot of it is speculation, but one visual reference here was the Boxer Codex, which is the earliest known recorded visual (record) of what the people here looked like when the Spaniards first arrived. So that was my peg. And interestingly enough, none of them are wearing ikat, or the usual sort of clichéd indigenous fabrics we’re used to seeing. They’re wearing what look like Indian saris and things.

“And then I had to kind of create a sort of story in my head of the ballet. So you have this evil wizard who’s powerful — I pegged him as someone from the Majapahit Empire. And then he’s cast a spell over these princes and princesses. Three of the biggest commodities you would’ve found during that period were gold, spices and porcelain, so that’s why you have the Porcelain Doll Princesses. And then the princes, called the Golden Monster Princes, are actually wearing all that ancestral Philippine gold, if you know what it looks like… So that’s kind of how I pegged them in my head. And then I kind of presented the idea to the director and the choreographer and they liked it.”

While older, wiser, and definitely more experienced, the Mark Lewis Higgins creating the costumes for the ballet in 2016 doesn’t seem that much different from the Mark Lewis Higgins who marveled at the ballet as a teenager all those years ago. Against all odds — maybe even logic — Higgins has created his own beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy, one that brings the ballet to the forefront of the local cultural conversation for the first time in a long time.

“I mean, look, at the end of the day it is a fairytale, it’s not a history lesson,” Higgins says. “You know, of course I’ve taken artistic license, as one would; but this is an imagined, ancient Philippines as told in a fairytale… Paul was saying, ‘I want this ballet, wherever you are in the world, to show, to be, to look like, ‘This is the Philippines.’ He wanted a very distinct look. So I said, ‘Okay.’”

* * *

Ballet Philippines’ The Firebird runs at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo (CCP Main Theater) on Friday, Aug. 19 (8 p.m.) and Saturday, Aug. 20 (2 p.m. and 6 p.m.) and Sunday, Aug. 21 (2 p.m. and 6 p.m.). Please call (02) 551-1003, email, or send a person message on for more information.


Photographed by MARK NICDAO


Makeup by DON DE JESUS and GERY PENASO of MAC Cosmetics

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