Fashion designer Austin Scarlett’s talent stood out from the earliest moments of the hit TV show Project Runway, when he won the first episode of the first season with a sassy little strapless dress made of corn husks.
He instantly defined the show with that win, which showed the capacity of young, unheard-of designers to astonish the world.
Now, after sojourns on Project Runway: All-Stars and his own series, On the Road With Austin and Santino, Scarlett is designing costumes for the Fort Worth Opera Festival’s professional world premiere production of With Blood, With Ink, this year’s alternative-venue contemporary opera, which gets 10 performances at McDavid Studio beginning April 20.
Bringing Scarlett to Fort Worth seems one more canny marketing move from a company that hosts Opera Shots, a series of evenings featuring singers belting out arias at local bars.
“Hiring Austin was another way to let people who might not have been to the opera find a way in,” says Darren Woods, general director of Fort Worth Opera. “Fans of Project Runway obviously know him well. Having people connect with Austin was a new way to promote opera at large.”
Scarlett might seem a bit of an operatic figure in his own right, an impression boosted by that resplendent name and a habit of sporting ascots and full makeup. But it was his intellectual and artistic passions that made him right for this project.
Scarlett is a history buff who was already familiar with the protagonist of With Blood, With Ink, the 17th-century nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a scholar who was famous in her time for her poetry, her intellect and her vast personal library — one of the largest in the New World. She was eventually persecuted by the church for advocating the education of women, and was forced to sign an oath, in blood, renouncing her life’s work.
“It’s just a rich culture, particularly the Mexican Catholic iconography. It’s just so much to draw from,” Scarlett says. “I just really enjoyed burrowing into this whole world of colonial New Spain.”
Scarlett was charged with making about 10 principal costumes for the six main characters, plus identical habits for the chorus of about a dozen nuns. It happens to be about the size of one his collections, made in his studio in New York’s Garment District.
“I’m always very hands-on. I do things myself, actually build the shapes,” he says. “In that regard, my process is much like what you see on Project Runway. I like to see how everything’s being made to make sure it’s the way I like it to be, so it just made sense to do it myself.”
Then a few years ago, someone at New York City Opera suggested that Woods take a look at it, thinking it might be just the sort of new work the Fort Worth Opera is eager to present.
“We are looking to connect to our community in many different ways, and Sor Juana was a person that everyone in the Mexican community here knows,” says Kurt Howard, Fort Worth Opera’s producing director.
Sor Juana is something of a national hero in Mexico but remains little known to most Americans. She’s even pictured, along with her books and inkstand, on the current version of Mexico’s 200-peso bill (worth about $15).
Taking on this professional premiere meant that Fort Worth Opera would have to conceive and create all of its costumes and sets.
Though the company recently announced it has shelved next year’s scheduled premiere of A Wrinkle in Time to cut more than $1 million out of the 2015 budget, it was able to hire a brand-name costume designer for With Blood, With Ink thanks to underwriting by the Hattie Mae Lesley Foundation. The other three operas in this year’s festival are making use of costumes and sets rented from other companies.
It was Thomas Rhodes, who works in Fort Worth Opera’s development department, who first suggested the company look for a way to collaborate with Scarlett, with whom he had worked at Greenwich Music Festival. Scarlett had long been interested in costume design, he says.
Though people often assume he’s from Texas because of his first name, Scarlett was raised in Cottage Grove, Ore., outside Eugene.
“I didn’t really grow up with opera in my life until I moved to New York and studied fashion,” he says. “And then I was exposed to it and fell in love.”
Scarlett is a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and now is a New York-based designer of glamorous evening gowns and wedding dresses.
Before Fort Worth Opera came calling, he had worked on smaller dance and opera projects, including some with Parsons Dance Company and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.
Scarlett says he remembers being struck by the lavishness of all those famous Franco Zeffirelli productions at the Metropolitan Opera, like Turandot and Carmen.
“I think what really attracted me to opera is that you could get into this rich, fully rendered idea, and you could really experiment with more avant-garde creative interpretations,” he says. “It sort of has the best of everything. And for a costume designer, opera lends itself to really going big.”
Going big — with nuns?
“People wouldn’t necessarily think at first that doing nun costumes would be that exciting,” he says with a laugh, “but they really are quite dramatic.”
He points out that the Roman Catholic Church, and particularly the Baroque period in Mexico, had a remarkable visual style. And that’s especially true, he says, with this specific order of nuns — the Order of Saint Jerome. They wore decorated shields the size of dinner plates on their chests.
Scarlett says he particularly loves the dress for an apotheosis-type scene at the end. “It’s inspired by portraits that young women would have done when they went into the convent, their life-sized monjas coronadas (‘crowned nuns’), as they called them. They made these big crowns of flowers, all these brocade layers of robes, almost this the-virgin-as-the-queen-of heaven look.”
The whole era and story really spoke to him, Scarlett says.
“I’ve always loved that type of thing,” he says. “History is always part of my dress collection, too. I’m always influenced by that. With the nuns, I tried to be authentic as possible, really get the feeling of colonial 17th-century Mexico, what that would be like.”
Though he has mentioned the 20th-century Spanish fashion designer Balenciaga as an inspiration, the strongest influences are a lot older than that.
“I’ve definitely been inspired by a lot of the artists of the era — Velazquez, Murillo and others of that whole Spanish baroque school,” he says. “And then I’m trying to inject a Mexican feel.”
Scarlett’s workshop has been working on Fort Worth Opera costumes while also putting out collections each year for spring and fall.
“The moment I finish these costumes,” Scarlett says, speaking in January, “I’m going to have to do a spring collection, and the moment the spring collection’s over I’ll come back here just in time for the dress rehearsals and any final little adjustments to the costumes.”
His Fort Worth Opera assignment is one of three projects that have given him some serious Texas ties.
The designer has also been in Austin, working with University of Texas students to research the costumes from Gone With the Wind. For the 75th anniversary of the film, UT is mounting an exhibit that includes the many gowns Vivien Leigh wore as Scarlett O’Hara, restored and gathered for public display for the first time in 25 years (“The Making of Gone With the Wind” opens Sept. 9 at the Harry Ransom Center).
Scarlett also is a frequent visitor at the downtown Dallas location of Neiman Marcus, where his bridal collection was launched in 2012.
“I feel like I’m sort of an honorary Texan now,” he says.