Meet the Costume Designer Behind 'The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess'

By Rikki Byrd
In Style

“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” closed out its week-long production on the Muny stage this weekend, bringing to life, once again, the iconic tale of the play’s two main characters who battle against their past and present to fall in undeniable love.

Although the characters’ riveting performance stays embedded in theatergoers’ minds, it’s the incredible costumes by designer Emilio Sosa that bring the characters to life show after show.

We chatted with the designer on his inspiration, favorite shows and his personal clothing line, ESosa.

Denisha Ballew as Serena, Alicia Hall Moran as Bess, Kingsley Leggs as Sportin' Life Photo by Michael J. Lutch

Denisha Ballew as Serena, Alicia Hall Moran as Bess, Kingsley Leggs as Sportin’ Life
Photo by Michael J. Lutch

ALIVE: Porgy and Bess is in St. Louis, and we’re really excited. Can you tell us what theatergoers can expect to see at the show?

Emilio Sosa: There’s such iconic American music, and I think that’s one of the reasons why the show is so important, in that it was one of the first shows to have an integrated cast perform. The show is about love. It’s about acceptance. It’s about reaching for your dreams. All those themes are still as relevant today in 2014 as they were in 1935 when the piece was first written.

ALIVE: Who would you say is your favorite character?

ES: I think there’s a little bit of me in every character. Because as humans we’re multi-colored, -layered creatures. So one day I have a little bit of Sportin’ Life in me, who is a hustler: I grew up in the Bronx; I’m an urban man. And then I have some days when I’m Porgy: I am battling through personal issues just to get stuff done. And then some days I’m like Bess: I hide behind my crutches, and for me, that’s work. So, there’s a little bit of all of us in all of these characters.

ALIVE: What was your biggest inspiration in designing the costumes for the show?

ES: When I design, I want authenticity, so that’s where my team and I began; we began just making sure that the clothing was as authentic as possible and as detailed. I did not use any modern fabrics that were not available in 1935. We wanted to make the clothing the way they would have made them in 1936. Bess has an iconic red dress, so that was always a really important dress that I definitely wanted to get right. I collaborated really closely with Audra McDonald, who was the original Bess, to create the dress, but also Alicia who’s our Bess on tour.

ALIVE: You were nominated for a Tony Award for the show, right? What does that feel like?

ES: On a personal level it’s something that I never set out to say—“I’m going to win” or get nominated for a Tony Award. I always just wanted to do good work and continue to work. So, I’m so humbled by the honor. On an artistic level, not just for me, but for my team of artisans and fabric painters, and even my own assistance team, the fact that we were nominated for a show that really depicts real clothing is a feat within itself.

ALIVE: [On “Project Runway All Stars”] something that really stood out to me was your exit interview. You said “The true test of success is what we do with the platform we’ve been given.” Do you think that theatre is the platform that you’ve been given?

ES: I think theatre has definitely opened itself up to me more because that’s where I started my career. I’ve been in theatre half my life. But I think my platform is design. I think that’s what makes me unique. If I’m able to forge a successful career in theatre and also forge a budding, successful career in fashion, that’s my platform–to do good work and inspire people through my work.

ALIVE: How many shows would you say you’ve worked on at once?

ES: Right now I have five shows running–three in New York, the national tour of “Motown “that’s in Chicago and “Porgy and Bess.” And in the fall, I have maybe five shows between September and December.

ALIVE: What’s your favorite show you’ve designed for in your career?

ES: “Motown,” of course. And I’ll say “Motown” because “Motown”–and I was very humbled when I was able to express this to Mr. Gordy–was more than just music. “Motown” was a cultural revolution that involved music, fashion, art. The fact that I designed “Motown: The Musical” is a huge, huge, huge, accomplishment for me on a personal level, just because I feel so strong about how, through the music, he was able to change the perception of people of color, and that hadn’t been done before. I will also say “Topdog/Underdog,” which was my first show ever, and went to Broadway and it won a Pulitzer Prize. It kinda, really put me on the map.

ALIVE: Anything else you might like to add?

ES: St. Louis is an amazing town. I love Hullabaloo.

If you missed Emilio’s designs in “Porgy and Bess,” you are not out of luck just yet. His designs hit St. Louis once again when “Motown: The Musical” comes to the Fox Theatre in August.

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