Thank you for continuing on this journey with me, and for all the incredible feedback and enthusiasm about our premiere issue.
I just got back from Paris where I saw the magnificent haute couture shows, and I am excited to share all the beauty, artists, and windows (you’ll see!) with you. Also an enchanting conversation with my friend / fashion genius / theatre lover / philosopher / all around remarkable man, Zac Posen. We delved deep into the common space between fashion and theatre, as well as our Manhattan childhoods — from Bar Mitzvah themes to summer camp dramas and traumas — so keep scrolling. And wait until you see some of the genius baby pictures and videos Zac shared!
Let’s dig in!
Just four months ago, the world lost the singular genius of elegance and style, Hubert de Givenchy. The extraordinary new creative force of Givenchy, Clare Waight Keller, paid homage to the master in a singular haute couture collection that I was so moved and exhilarated to witness live. As the final looks took to the mirrored runway reflecting the open sky of Paris, the first notes of Moon River and Audrey Hepburn’s singular voice floated into the air... Oh dream maker. You heartbreaker. Wherever you’re going, I’m going your way. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a song is worth a thousand emotions.
They say the eyes are the window to the soul. Well then, the windows are the eyes to the world. Windows, like theatre prosceniums, frame what we see and how we feel about what we see. Paris is framed with timeless elegance, charm, and style. And not just a few special windows... ALL of them! Pro tip: if you’re in a car in Paris, open the sun roof, lean back, and watch the the windows roll by above you (as long as you’re not driving)! Special mention to: Paris doors, Paris floors, and Paris stairs, all featured prominently on my Paris InstaStory. Style is a collection of details.
Transforming space elegantly and magically is a hallmark of great theatrical design. Exhibit A: Zac Posen recalling in our conversation below those amazing flats that became stairs in the original production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard.” Exhibit B: This mesmerizing new technology that offers endless opportunities to reinvent a performance venue with the simple push of a button.
As a kid, I used to watch Elsa Klensch on CNN every weekend. Before Instagram and the 24-hour image churn, Elsa was the only way into the far away Land of Fashion. But I didn’t always understand what I was seeing, especially on the runway. So much of it looked unwearable — fabulous but unwearable. Were they tricking us? I would later come to understand the beauty of Couture. Not beauty as in beautiful, but beauty as in purity. The purity of the artist’s idea. Sitting on a bench in Paris in John Galliano’s personal studio where he creates the Maison Margiela collections, watching his brain manifest into material, I was exhilarated by Couture. Later, he will translate these ideas into more wearable collections. But for now, what’s on display is the idea in its purest form. And that is the most beautiful human creation.
In Russia, you can be arrested or fined for displaying the LGBT pride flag, a shocking reminder that however far we have come, there is still so much work to be done. With the eyes of the sports-loving world on Russia for the World Cup, a group of creative activists from Spain used the clothes on their backs to subvert and protest. Wearing different colored jerseys from teams around the world, they are walking the streets of Russia in the light of day arranged as the rainbow flag of Pride, of freedom, of self-expression. A literal flag of people, which is what a flag ultimately is.
I don’t actually remember when Zac Posen and I first met — it feels as though we’ve been in each other’s lives forever. What I do remember is that our connection was powerful and instantaneous; we bonded over a mutual love of the theatrically fashionable and the fashionably theatrical. We sat down to discuss those very passions, and we ended up delving deep into our pasts and what we hope for the future. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Jordan It was literally 17 hours after the Tony Awards.
Zac What was Tony’s reflection on the production of “Angels”?
Jordan He loves it!
My original love of fashion came from theatre.
— Zac Posen
Zac Oh great! How involved was he in the production?
Jordan He was very engaged with [director] Marianne Elliott. She is all about research. So she spent literally a year unpacking the piece and sending him pages and pages of emails and questions and like, “What does this line... ?” And so they were really engaged in the preparation. She rehearsed, and then he came and saw where they were, and was thrilled with it.
Zac I can’t imagine how he couldn’t give pages of notes on a production. I mean, I know there are people that can be like, “Oh, it’s great...”
Jordan Well the people who are like, “It’s great!” know that you’re not really asking them for notes. Part of my job is knowing, when people ask me what I thought, whether they’re actually asking me what I thought or if they just want me to say it’s terrific.
Zac How do you stay objective on something that you have incubated?
Jordan You don’t, and that’s the danger.
Zac Okay. I would imagine.
Zac Magic. Photo courtesy of Zac Posen
Jordan For me it’s interesting because it’s not actually good for my core business that I produce. If there are, let’s say, 10 shows that could be a possible tenant for one theatre, and I’m producing one of them, chances are nine-tenths that another one’s going to be more successful. And if I’m ignoring all of those shows because I’m doing my own, then the risk/reward is skewed.
Zac I understand. Also, you have that ability to be emotional about a project and not just play your odds.
Jordan I think this is the paradox, and I’m sure it’s probably as true in fashion as it is in theatre; you’re not going to do great work if you are not deeply passionate, wholly unobjective, and throwing your heart into the piece. But at the same time, you have to have some level of distance to be able to say, “You know what, that’s not working,” or “That person’s not working,” or “That section isn’t working,” or “We’re not ready.”
I think there are things that are important in life — sleeping, eating, love — and, for me, another kind of necessity is that creative output.
— Zac Posen
Zac Well, that’s always the hardest. In fashion, rarely do you have that moment where you can say you’re not ready.
Jordan Because you can’t see it, or because you don’t have the luxury?
Zac Well, fashion is on a continuous commercial schedule of delivery, and if you miss that, it’s not like everything can get pushed back. Because if you start late, then you order your fabrics late. Then you miss your window of delivery, and then you get charged back. Whereas if you, I would think with a piece of theatre — although you have the clock ticking on the rent of the theatre and a million other union and actor bills, everything that adds up — but you have the potential probably to perfect something to last a long time.
Jordan Right. So the analogy would be starting your business. You don’t have to start your business until you say you’re ready to start your business. We don’t have to say the show is being produced until we think the show is ready to be produced. But once we both say those things, then it’s on a schedule, and then the same things are true. But yours I think is really interesting because creativity on demand has to be one of your honed skills.
Zac It’s become a honed skill. Creativity on demand has become a honed skill.
Zac draping in his studio. Top two photos by me, bottom photo by @ZacPosen.
Jordan And how do you hone that?
Zac By keeping it really precious. Like when I have my creative time, my real creative time — which is me actually draping on a mannequin or on a form — that is protected time for me. And it’s a kind of a release. I think there are things that are important in life — sleeping, eating, love — and, for me, another kind of necessity is that creative output. And it can be spontaneous, it can be found through mistakes, it can go into a meticulous process. It can be with one specific goal, or it can be something found. In an ideal scenario, I would give myself a very nice block of time to be able to create and reflect.
Jordan What’s your ritual around draping?
I’m choreographing with fabric when I’m building it, and finding the lines and form as I’m building. So it’s like sculpting dance.
— Zac Posen
Zac My ritual is in private, music on, and shoes off, and really in my zone, because it’s actually incredibly physical. It’s like a dance, because I actually have to use points of tension, and I’m really thinking about movement and the form of the body. And flow and structure..
Jordan So you’re choreographing!
Zac I’m choreographing with fabric when I’m building it, and finding the lines and form as I’m building. So it’s like sculpting dance.
Jordan We have to do a piece of you draping onstage.
Zac It’s a sculpting dance, and you can create characters. I mean, you could choreograph just fabric in movement into shapes or character.
Jordan So talk to me about the character.
Zac Well, it depends what the character of that person or that piece is, right? And then there’s the wild card, which is who wears the piece, and it becomes its own character a few times.
Zac giving us character from the very beginning. Photo courtesy of Zac Posen
Jordan Do you imagine the piece being worn as you’re creating the character?
Zac Sometimes. Sometimes it’s just about shape and form, and then I let the character get discovered later because that becomes out of your control. Now I don’t do runway shows. That element of production, of fashion theatricality, is not in my regular schedule. And instead I produce one project each season, and it’s always a different photographer, different scenario, different model, non-model, actor, artist shooting. And that’s been an interesting way, because I have final images or video that I think will last longer than a runway video or photo. I do miss the theatricality of many, many years — you know, 15 years of doing many runway shows. But I don’t think it’s a necessity anymore. I also think that if I were doing runway shows today, I would really only want to do them with a very open budget, where you can actually create an experience. But you have a lot of different purposes you have to hit with a show. And I think my original love of fashion came from theatre, and the theatricality of my idea of what I had for the theatre on the street or theatre in life or from the glamour of film. And that is what attracted me. Creating magic in a moment was what attracted me to fashion and costume. And that comes from my love of theatre, for sure.
Jordan Magic in the moment is the name of this conversation.
Zac Now I do projects and that’s kind of liberating, because I can really focus on an imaginary collaborative narrative that I’m going to tell with the story. Like, I know who I’m going to be shooting, where I’m going to be shooting, who’s shooting, what elements we’re bringing into it. And that can also add character into what I’m draping.
Jordan Do you imagine that your customer is then continuing the improvised narrative that you’ve begun?
Zac Absolutely. I became aware of it really early. The first press piece that ever came out on me, an article that happened that wasn’t, you know, anything that a PR company did — this was years before I had PR. There was an article in the “The [New York] Times,” and it was called “A Star Is Born.” So that fulfilled all my Judy [Garland] and MGM fantasies, thank you. And it said, “the best dress of the season wasn’t on a catwalk. It was whipped up by this kid in training.” And here’s the story of this dress. And it was the narrative of a dress and how... I don’t even know if they went into this story, but it was a dress that I made for a project at school. It got poo-pooed. Then it became a piece for Naomi Campbell. I was still in design school, and I had just met Naomi. She’d seen dresses I had made and wanted to meet me and was an incredible supporter and friend and taught me a lot about fitting clothing and about working with a client and, you know, a real mentor and very generous. But then this dress came back with me and then ended up on a friend at a wedding, and it was like the journey of this dress. And then another girlfriend borrowed it. Then it became the original dress that I started my line with. But it’s in somebody else’s closet back in London now.
I was at this show and literally gasped when Naomi came out. Serious magic in the moment! Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Zac I think it’s back in London with a girlfriend of mine.
Jordan Don’t you think it should be in a museum?
Zac I wouldn’t even say where it is because I feel like—
Jordan Because the narrative should continue! Whoever has the dress, pass it on!
Zac The clothing moves on. I mean, I think that’s what’s interesting. I kind of get excited today by thinking of the journey of these dresses and pieces, having different lives and having different meanings at different times. That’s kind of interesting and that allows me to think of the work, trying to make it as timeless as possible. Things that look like they could be from the past, the present, and the future. And, today, what does that mean anymore? We’re living in such a multireferenced world, and I think it’s going to continue that way.
Jordan Well that’s interesting, because in both of our businesses, we are planning seasons well ahead of when they arrive.
Fashion is like the weather. You can’t control it.
— Zac Posen
Zac Oh yeah. That’s hard to do. I don’t think that’s my greatest talent within my clothing.
Zac I’m a very curious person who gets very passionate. And I have found, in reflection and looking at my career with runway collections and techniques, that at moments, we were just a year-and-a-half to two years too early on stuff. And then things come into fruition. And that’s sometimes challenging. I think creativity, when it hits business, is about timing. I guess there’s a big question that I always have, which is, if you don’t put those things into the work before, will that timing exist in two years?
Jordan Yeah. I had a similar situation with a show called “A Catered Affair” that I am convinced would have been a big hit if it had been five years later because it was just on the early side of these small musicals that are really plays that unfold through music, but they’re not “Musicals!” Now there is a slot for that, and our audiences understand that. But didn’t then. A little bit it feels like though in fashion...
I’ve always said the revival of “A Catered Affair” will be a big hit. Video via youtube.com
Zac Fashion is like the weather. You can’t control it. One of the smartest global investors, when I was, I don’t know, 20 years old, sat me down and said, “There are two things I won’t invest in: the weather and fashion.”
Jordan Deep! But there is a sense in fashion that when everybody’s doing this one color in all the shows, it does seem like showing those trends makes those trends trendy.
Zac Absolutely. It’s a collective. There’s a fashion runway rule from one of the original fashion stylists, a man named Paul Cavaco — a very dear friend — that three makes a trend. So you have to repeat a concept at least three times in a runway format for it to be a solidified trend within your show to fit into the larger trend.
Jordan That’s three looks within your show or three designers’ shows?
Zac Three within your show and then other brands have to have that. And it depends what caliber player you are, right? So, like a Ralph [Lauren], you know, he can put one down the runway, and it becomes a trend. He has one sailor hat and then it’s a sailor trend, because the magazines and the editorial world actually have to figure out how to decipher what pays for their existence, and so they make it a trend.
Early Zac making his own sailor hat trend. Photos courtesy of Zac Posen
Jordan That is fascinating! It’s really a full ecosystem.
Zac Totally. And then you see when there is confusion in an industry, when fashion is financially challenged — and right now we’re living in that moment — then you see lots of brands [all doing the same thing]. You can trace this all on an Instagram account called Diet Prada, where you see every giant brand, you know, looking all Gucci. Also through marketing, through advertising — and for me that’s dangerous.
Jordan Dangerous how?
Zac Dangerous because it really isn’t building history for those houses. And for me, what I do, even in my own life, is for somebody else’s generation. I think what I’m building is probably for my sister’s children, for my niece and nephew, or if I have my own children, or my godchildren, or even the kids that I’m a fairy godfather for.
Jordan As in, they will wear it?
Zac They will wear it, or will the brand live on beyond that. The story. Whether there are still collections, whether it’s a house, whether it’s an archive. That’s kind of how I think about it. But it could also all go away, and I think I’d be okay with it. Maybe. In the big picture, a lot of this is all momentary.
Jordan Moments of magic.
Zac Yeah. Moments of magic.
Zac making a moment of musical magic. Photo courtesy of Zac Posen
Jordan In your fantasy, House of Z, 50 years from now, is what?
Zac Well, I think 50 years from now, you know, hoping that everything in the world stays, in some form...
Jordan Yes. Let’s assume geopolitics cooperate.
Zac Sorry, the neurotic Jewish boy from New York. I had to go there.
Jordan I feel your pain. So let’s say 50 years from now the world exists, and there are still bodies to put clothes on.
Zac Okay. What will live? I have many dreams of what I’d like to do. But I think my movie will exist. “House of Z,” the actual film, will exist as a story of a moment, of a person. Even though it’s my personal story, I think it will exist because it’s a family story. And maybe, as looking back at a moment of change in fashion, because I really lived through a moment, when this kind of model of how fashion worked, the system and the industry really had set ways. And I lived through this transition that has turned [fashion] on its head into a digital industry. I mean that was a huge transition. Looking into the future, what do I hope? I hope that I am able to inspire people to get in touch with their own creativity. I think that’s what I’m here to do.
Jordan Same with me. I love that.
Art is science plus emotion.
— Jordan Roth
Zac Thanks. And I hope that I’m able to be something that I wanted to be when I was really young, which is an imagineer. That’s how I think of what I do right now. It’s in fashion, but I hope that it’s something that can be enchanting on a tour — an enchanted tour that touches people beyond New York City. I hope that it has the ability to take its own journey to expand people’s imaginations, because I really believe in the power of fantasy and of the human imagination.
Jordan Speaking of reaching people beyond New York City with your fantasy and imagination, “House of Z” is such an extraordinary film. And one of the many things I take it to be about is the discovery that, in order to be your best artist self, you had to be your most authentic self.
Zac Mmm-hmm. Take it or leave it.
Jordan Yeah. And I wonder if there’s a paradox, given that your art is creating illusion, creating narrative, creating the fantasy.
Zac Yeah, but at the same time, it’s very real and tactile.
Jordan Right! So what is the tension between those two things, if there is one?
Zac There is definitely a tension. I think it goes back to sculpting. Sculpting has that tension between something tactile, physical, and something organic being morphed into something expressive, right? And then that expressiveness and character get transformed when it goes on a body. Even though there’s an element of illusion and a dream created, the power is what the clothing makes the person feel.
Jordan It’s not unlike a piece of text. A play.
Zac I think about it as a form of theatre in life. When I did Claire Danes for the Met Gala—
Claire Danes wearing Zac’s literally magic dress at the Met Gala 2016. Video via @zacposen.
Zac It was a surprise. I knew there were so many different elements to it. I knew Claire. I’ve known Claire since I was a kid. I was a young teenager when I met her, and we lived very close to each other, and she was living alone at a very young age and was like a young, fabulous adult. I knew she was a dancer by background. So I knew that if anybody could have the experience of understanding how to move in this, it would be her. Then, working with the fabrication that was fiber optic to create a file texture that would have a surprise for the people at the gala, rather than only on the red carpet. I didn’t realize, thinking about light traveling on a plane of the surface, that it was going to pick up whatever gobo or gel was around and morph it like a membrane.
Zac So all of a sudden, if there was like a red light or a red wall that the light was hitting off, that red color traveled on the surface of this fabric and created these very interesting illusions of depth and that was surprising to me.
Jordan That’s a really interesting phrase. Illusions of depth. Because on some level, there was actual depth in what you just described.
Zac Yeah. And at the end of the day, it can be categorized in a person’s brain as something magical and pretty. And for me, if that hits on a global level through social media, then I’ve done my job really successfully. Because you’ve touched something emotional that connects all kinds of backgrounds, all religions. This isn’t about status. It isn’t. It’s just about something that captures imagination. And that surpasses a lot of different barriers.
Zac Posen just said I’m one of the swans. I can die a happy boy!
— Jordan Roth
Jordan But let’s talk about that because it may not be about status, but there is certainly an economic reality to—
Zac Fashion’s a fortune.
Jordan Fashion’s a fortune, right. So who has access to the fantasies?
Zac Actually wearing them?
Jordan Actually wearing them.
Zac Like you.
Jordan Yes. I’m very lucky.
Zac I’m so happy that you’re able to enjoy it. It’s a rare thing in the world, and I really value it. There’s lots of people who have the means or ability and are not into it. And I’m pretty thrilled that you have the ability and enjoy and appreciate it. That’s a rare thing here. You’re one of the swans.
Jordan Zac Posen just said I’m one of the swans. I can die a happy boy!
Zac To be able to make a custom piece of clothing is something very rare these days. It’s coming back more, which is this interesting thing that I’m watching. Luxury oversaturation. Now you have people who want something special in the process.
Jordan And so what captures your imagination the most? Creating a piece for a person and you are sort of scripting this journey, or creating a piece that will go out into a more mass market and be taken however the wind takes it on that journey?
Zac Probably the more one-of-a-kind experience. It’s something very special because it is a human collaboration. And I like that play. I think it’s unique. It’s like how getting a portrait painted or getting a bust made is different from just... I don’t know. I imagine on the grand tour or when people used to go to Europe. If they went to Italy, were they buying the bust of the pretty girl or were they having the bust made of themselves? And what does that mean to the family when that gets passed down six generations later? Oh, that was my great, great, great, great aunt. Or was it, you know, tourist art?
Jordan Right. That’s interesting. Well, one of the things that makes me think about is: what is the canvas of that performance? It feels like one of the journeys the film takes us on is that the canvas started as you, and then you started creating the illusion and the performance more on other people. And that journey seemed to be a painful one for you.
Zac What I think was not discussed or was not focused on in the movie was my background as a performer.
Jordan Okay, let’s go.
As soon as you finish reading this, go watch “House of Z” on Netflix. Trust me. Poster courtesy of Netflix
Zac I didn’t have final cut on the film, and I didn’t produce it, so I had to trust my director on what stories she wanted to tell. But I gave her the elements to choose.
Jordan That’s a very interesting case. You were the canvas.
Zac Well, I really respect process, and that’s something that has taken time and maturity. To respect and really appreciate that it’s about process as much as final result. What was missing in that story is that I wanted to be a song-and-dance kid my whole life, until I was 18 years old. I didn’t have anybody really in the industry in my family, but I was raised going to the theatre and was raised on movies. From the musical movies to the early days of MTV, which were their own form of reference, to experimental theatre. I had a family that really loved live theatre. I remember being very young, and I don’t remember which Sondheim musical it was, and I walked out and, in my own dyslexia, had made my own versions of the rhymes and words, but could go into all the notes and all of the weird off notes.
Jordan Must have been “Sunday in the Park with George.”
Zac I’m sure it was “Sunday in the Park,” because it was one of the first shows I saw. I was very young. I fell in love with Bernadette Peters.
Zac + Bernadette + Dot. Photos by Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images, Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions, and Martha Swope
Jordan Who you now dress all the time.
Zac Who I now dress and was my first commissioned dress when I started my company. When I moved back to New York and started it, and she was hosting the Tonys. That’s an amazing other kind of Broadway story. She was my muse. When I draw, they often look like little Bernadettes.
Jordan Really? You have to send me one. I love that.
Zac Okay! So, I would go home as a child and rebuild in my room at a large scale — I grew up in a loft in Soho and there was a loft within the loft in my bedroom. It was a sanctuary, and it acted as a theatre. I had a balcony that I could drop a curtain from, and, you know, talcum powder was my smoke machine and whatever...
Jordan Magic! Moments of magic.
They really do look like little Bernadettes. Image courtesy of Zac Posen
Zac I wanted to create moments of magic in there, and kind of did experimental theatre with my sister, and re-appropriated films into little short performances. And then I was in a choir from the age of 6 until around 18. Multiple choirs and toured them. And then, from a very early age, summer camp musicals.
Jordan Did you go to Stage Door?
Zac I went to French Woods.
Jordan I went to all of them for about a week. I was not very good at being away.
Zac I had that sense.
Jordan It was unclear whether I would make it to college.
Zac Okay. But you did. You did it.
Jordan I did and everybody’s okay. Why do you think you expressed your performance ultimately, professionally through fashion and not through theatre given everything you just said?
Zac Because at 16 years old, in a moment when I thought I was really primed just to, you know, I thought in my head of delusion that I was ready to really be a young professional at this, but had to wait. And I got cast at St. Anne’s, which was not a school that did lots of musicals, but they were doing [“The Music Man”] and I got cast as a “River City youth.”
Jordan And that was the end of that.
Stages of Zac onstage. Photos courtesy of Zac Posen
Zac Pretty much. I got cast as a “River City youth”, and from then kind of supporting leads or the lead role at French Woods. I believe the next summer, I was like a featured ensemble member in a production of “Evita” at French Woods.
Jordan And you’re like, “I’m a star, I’m out.”
Zac I’m out. I’m out. Changement! Forget this shit.
Jordan Do you regret it?
Zac That’s a good question. In my own fantasy moments, I will go there in my head, at home or in the shower. Or when I’m alone in the country in the garden and my parents go flea marketing. Then I’m just belting.
Jordan #BeltingInTheGarden is the new hashtag after #CookingWithZac.
Zac Totally. I think what helped me for fashion is understanding the rhythm, the relentless rhythm of performance. And that helped prime me for a level of competition within the fashion industry, with understanding a person’s performance of the journey of a career, the theatre of life, and relentless creativity and output. I mean, besides me creatively being continuous, I also am out in the world, in some form or fashion, being myself, but there is an “on” quality to my life. I guess what I’m getting at is the understanding of performance has allowed me to understand the seriousness that I take having a public persona and being entertaining. I think that being on “Project Runway” gave me, at a really important moment, a creative performance avenue.
Zac Because it’s not just giving my opinion on outfits. There is the theatre of being on set and performing and, as it’s expanded, there have been myriad performance energy aspects that have come into it.
Jordan And that’s fulfilling a performance need for you.
Zac and the “Project Runway” crew always make it work. Photo by Fred Lee/ABC via Getty Images
Zac Yeah, for sure. That fulfills somewhat of that performance need. I still have that childhood fantasy like, when is Stephen Sondheim going to write you your show?
Jordan Well, Stephen Sondheim, when are you going to write Zac Posen his show? [Laughter.] What you were saying about performance reminds me of something that I wrote down from the film because I was so struck by it. You said of your early career, “It became a performance. If the perception of you is not actually the reality and you’re living that because it’s feeding the beast, you’re playing a very dangerous game.” And it sounds like you have evolved your thinking on that. Are you still playing a dangerous game?
I don’t think I’m scared, but I think I’m overly conscious of the delicacy of perception.
— Zac Posen
Zac No, I don’t think I’m playing a dangerous game because I’m very comfortable within myself. I don’t have illusions about who I am. You know, I used to think that if I stayed in a certain world and circle long enough that eventually you’d kind of morph into that idea of the lifestyle. I’m pretty content and feel very fortunate with what I do. Would I love to have a little bit more slowed-down time in my real life? Absolutely. I’d love to be able to have a family. I don’t think it’s actually totally possible at this moment, but I know it’s there because I’m visualizing it. But I think that playing an illusion of a character, you know, people perceive an idea and then run with it. It is dangerous because it can turn on you fast, and that turn can solidify forever or for years to come. And then history rewrites and tells whatever story in reflection. One has to be careful. I am probably overly conscious. I don’t think I’m scared, but I think I’m overly conscious of the delicacy of perception. I see how great creators and people who have that purity of generosity can be really hurt. And I’m sure in some ways I have been hurt, and I just always think like, “Okay, when I write my book in 15 years, 20 years...” But it’s not about redemption. I don’t believe in that. It’s really one’s own journey and that’s why I think a lot of my journey in the film was something that I took responsibility for. You have to take your own responsibility. But I am very nuanced and careful with image-making and take great joy and care with friends of mine who have that magic, in helping get their goals through their image and choices of what they put out there in the world.
Jordan I have been the great beneficiary of such advice.
Zac I really care and love deeply for my friends, and I give it honestly. Carefully and honestly.
Jordan I receive it as such. To that point though, when you were in your early career, you were living this performance in the media. Now everybody’s living their performance in social media. And that is open to every single one of us — public persona or not. We all now have a public persona. What is that kind of dangerous game that we’re now all playing? Or is it dangerous? Is it a platform for expression?
Zac Well, I think it’s a form of expression. I do think it’s a platform for expression. However, as I tell any young creator, or let’s say people in general, I don’t like to go youth-centric. People that say, I want to be a designer, you know — give me the chance.
Jordan God, I’m a dancer.
Zac Yeah, exactly! I definitely have “A Chorus Line” going through my head in these moments.
Jordan Don’t pop the head, Cassie.
Popping the head. Donna McKechnie in the original “A Chorus Line.” Photo by Martha Swope via New York Public Library
Zac Yeah, and at those moments, I want to say, “Well, have you put the work in?” Because really from the age of 16 until 21 when I started my brand, from a self-education process — and this is all pre-internet — I was like a sponge. So the first thing I always tell people if they want to be designers: “Are you wearing your own clothing? If you make your clothing, you better be wearing it. Your friends better be wearing it. Get as much feedback and experience as possible. And if you want to make it in this world, you have to hustle and you have to put yourself out there and take the risks and take the hits and really have an individual point of view.” You can start from an idea of something that exists within a world, but you better really take it to a personal place of evolution. There are so many things that look like references of the reference of the reference. They don’t even know where the original idea comes from. So you have to know your history, right? I think it must be the same for theatre directors.
Jordan Completely — what is your place in the legacy? That’s one of the things that I particularly love about you, is that I observe you to be a lifelong student.
Zac I hope so. I hope I always am learning.
Jordan You seem to be. You know so much about, and take great joy in finding out about, the history, the legacy, the craft, the people who came before in fashion, in theatre, in all of the art forms that inform you.
Zac I had a great teacher. I mean I’ve had many great teachers, but, at 16 years old, I met a great artist and poet named Rene Ricard who was like a real New York City kind of character. His knowledge on multiple topics was so vast and deep. I also had trouble reading as a kid. I could read music, but I couldn’t read words. I have an ear where I could just memorize music. And that was pretty cool. And even words or languages were easy. But once I could read — and I feel like I could really properly read by high school, honestly — before that I remember struggling through even the interpretation of lines in “Godspell” as Judas. And I mean they’re not that complicated.
Jordan No “River City youth” there.
Zac Right. Exactly. And I just remember the extra time it took to learn those lines that I needed to take, which I did, but it was a struggle and painful. But once I was in high school, and I changed schools, to St. Anne’s, I felt really lucky to have gone there. And the time I went there, I was thirsty. It was like deep research time, and this was a time when you had to find the book or go to the Performing Arts Library to find something. It was a search and hunt to find stuff. But I think that excitement was there. And then interning at The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum was life changing for me, because it was real. That was the history of fashion. And fashion had just really transitioned into this idea of fashion as an art form by the curator who was there at the time. And I was writing about fashion. So thinking about what things meant, a color at a time period, or a design, or a high heel even. Or why we’re living in the age of gray.
Jordan He says in his gray suit.
Zac In my gray suit. The different meanings of gray, as a noncommittal color.
Jordan Do you feel noncommittal?
Zac It was on my bed ready to go. I wore it last week, and I heard we weren’t filming and that it was audio today. Yeah, I’m doing an Upper East Side Jewish look.
Jordan But even that, that’s the narrative.
Zac Right, I have, like, a “Seinfeld” narrative in my head. It’s kind of like my, “I’m going to work, I’m dressed. But I’m not giving a performance on how I look today.”
Gray suit gorgeousness. Photo by Ali Wonderly
Jordan But even that is a performance. “Seinfeld” is a performance, even though it’s an unperformance. Do you think we all play that narrative, even if we’re not conscious of it?
Zac Yeah, absolutely. I think dressing is a form of creative expression.
Jordan Whether we know it or not.
Zac Whether we know it or not, and those are conscious creative choices that are made. They can be affected from desire, they can be a mask, but you know, with great mask work, you’re not really hiding behind a mask. In fact, a mask is magnifying one’s character. When I was going through adolescence, my sister had a theatre company, and it was dealing with puppetry and mask. She was a trained mime and worked for some of the studios that fabricated a lot of Julie Taymor’s stuff and worked at the Henson Foundation. And I was in her theatre troupe for a hot minute. I don’t remember where, maybe P.S. 122. I played a chair that was like a shadow of this kind of geisha woman, and then got kind of, I don’t know, molested by a cat. It was very surreal. But that kind of evolution and my disappointment at that moment with what musicals were happening is really what evolved my love of wanting to be in theatre. And also I realized that at that time, I didn’t have enough depth for this character to put into what I was performing. Like somehow, where I was in my age at that point, I just didn’t have enough perspective of life experience to do that. And basically, my voice changed from being a tenor to being a baritone. And in my mind that’s it. I did not know interesting baritone lead roles to play.
Jordan So Stephen Sondheim, the Zac Posen musical you need to write must be for a good baritone. You had said earlier: delusion. What is the difference between delusion and illusion?
Zac Well, an illusion is something that you can put into creative motion, but then has a life of its own that transcends from that. Right? I think an illusion is actually creating mystique and magic, and delusion is one’s confusion that goes into darkness. I mean, you have a false reality with delusion. With illusion, you’re creating a true reality out of the magic of that moment. And illusion can be shared and can be something larger. Delusion is not necessarily something very productive, but it’s something one has to experience. You have to catch yourself on it, right? Because it can go into a kind of denial and then that’s not necessarily productive. It’s important to dream. It’s important to try not to be discouraged. I mean life is discouraging, life has its challenges. But every morning the show must go on.
The first thing I always tell people if they want to be designers: “Are you wearing your own clothing? If you make your clothing, you better be wearing it.
— Zac Posen
Jordan I love that you said “every morning” because—
Zac It’s show time.
Jordan Every morning is show time when we get dressed.
Zac And it’s on. Whether it’s me creating, whether it’s me performing, cooking... I try to look for challenges, new challenges in all moments. And, hopefully, knowing that you can pass that on to some other little kid in an audience at some point and that gets taken onto their creative journey.
Jordan Curtain up. Do you have any pieces or collections that you feel trace directly to a show?
Zac Oh, lots of them. Yeah, for sure. In my runway shows that I’ve done. Definitely, yes. There are definitely elements within them. There are definitely elements of seeing “42nd Street” in the early ’80s.
Jordan Right, of course! All those seams!
Zac The seaming, the flirtation of it, for sure.
Jordan The flair of those skirts.
Zac The kick and the flair of the skirts, for sure. That swing dancer. And seeing “Black and Blue” as a kid.
Jordan Ruth Brown.
"Lullaby of Broadway" from "42nd Street." Performed at the 35th Tony Awards on June 8, 1981. Video via youtube.com
Zac Seeing... What was the Tom Sawyer musical? “Big River.”
Jordan Really. Tell me about that.
Zac I don’t know. I don’t know if it was the fashion or the movement of the set. I think there was a simplicity to the set. And I just remember the raft and how it moved on stage and that felt magical. Probably a lot of dry ice, which I loved. Then we can move a few years later, and seeing “Sunset Boulevard,” which I really feel was spectacular staging. I mean, obviously the grandeur of it, but also there were these very interesting kind of flats that could flip into stairs. And they were used in multiple ways that I thought were really inventive. And the lighting. I thought it was really beautifully staged. On a grand scale.
Jordan It’s interesting that you’re referencing a lot of architecture as influencing your fashion. And we saw that of course in the movie with that—
Zac The green dress? Yeah absolutely.
Jordan Do you find that it’s more architecture than other pieces of clothing that inspire the clothing for you?
Zac Yeah. I’m inspired by nature. You can’t beat Mother Nature. She was just so kooky, creative. Not many other things in the world can surpass science. It surpasses mathematical, organized science in crazy ways, and then can kind of be broken down. I think I have a mind that thinks about the form of science, and I kind of think in algorithms when I’m draping, but then also how do you bring emotional content into that. I know that sounds really trippy—
Jordan No, it doesn’t at all.
The green dress. From Fall 2014 New York Fashion Week. Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Weeks
Zac I’m thinking about three-dimensional geometry and torquing planes all the time, and form. And then how does that become emotional? Right? So probably in another time period I would have been, like, a mason.
Jordan But that is the difference between science and art. Art is science plus emotion.
Zac Yeah, exactly. I’m definitely inspired by nature, by form, and yeah, by sculpture. When you’re making clothing, you’re making something physical, and that’s sometimes why I pare it down to just seaming and construction lines. Because that’s enough for me. I mean, sure, I love a topical. I love embroidery. I love dimension and texture play in itself, and that is its own art form. That’s like painting — texture. But that’s different from sculpting.
Zac But if you combine it all, then it’s good for theatre. But for life, for fashion, sometimes it’s better to have them in separate playing fields. I’m always searching for that place where you bring them together. But it almost goes to a place where it’s too much. I used to go through a period of time when it was such a level of development that was so extreme, when it was dimension, texture, engineered into form. And it was overkill. Like you don’t even know how to appreciate it. Sometimes it can get to a magic place. We did a Christina Ricci dress for a Met Gala, which is kind of the end point of that. And from judging from social media, it’s a very emotional and evocative piece for people. It is combining illusion and engineering. And it is a little witchy and probably has some kind of “Into the Woods”-y background textures in it.
Zac and Christina Ricci at the Met Gala 2011. Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
Jordan Okay. We’re going to bring this full circle with the following. So, “Into the Woods” came out when I was 12, and I was heading into my bar mitzvah, which of course was “Jordan’s Broadway” and every table was a different show. And “Into the Woods” was my favorite show at the time, so “Into the Woods” was my table. And I can picture every inch of that portrait of Bernadette in the white dress—
Zac Mmm-hmm. The end dress.
Jordan The end dress.
Zac “Ever After.”
Jordan “Ever After,” with the diamond hair clips. And I was obsessed with the idea that my mother should wear that dress to my bar mitzvah.
Bernadette Peters in the white dress, and in "Ever After," the Act One finale from “Into the Woods” (1991). Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Video via youtube.com
Zac I don’t know. I could imagine her instead in, like, a Geoffrey Beane turtleneck. Long sleeve. Double jersey.
Jordan I will tell you, I’m going to put up a picture of my mother at my bar mitzvah because, I tell you, it was not that far off.
Zac Okay, she did it for you! How kind of your mother!
Jordan So it now seems that Bernadette Peters is our collective muse.
Zac Absolutely. Well, she was unreal in that. That’s funny.
Jordan I had forgotten that until just that minute. Speaking of “Into the Woods,” do you ever want to do revivals of your collections?
Zac Sometimes. Yeah, when I get tired or bored and I’m like, “Just bring out that dress!”
Jordan No, like a reinvestigation.
Zac Yeah, but I’m so deeply self-critical. Deeply critical of myself and other stuff in fashion. So, that’s hard. And then there’s certain stuff that just stays good for me.
Jordan What stays the best?
Zac I don’t have one piece, it’s just in different collections with different pieces. And I’m like, “Oh, I feel good with that.” Of course, there are things I would immediately change. Or I’ll say, that seam was a millimeter — I mean we’re talking, like, teeny ideas of form — or did I over decorate that? I think that humans’ visceral reaction to beauty and to forms of perfection focuses [on] and weeds out what’s going to be important over time. It doesn’t have to be somebody’s whole career. It can be 10 years of somebody’s career. Right? And that’s going to become important again. Things that look dated to me right now from 10 years ago, in 20, 30, 40, 50 years might look really right and contemporary. I think that’s what’s cool about theatre pieces, reinventing them, and fashion. I think it’s interesting, retelling stories or remaking pieces. Yeah. There are pieces I would like to remake. [Laughter.] A long answer to a simple question.
Jordan And also us.
A site-specific Peter Pan in Zac’s office? We’re in! Photo by Ali Wonderly
Jordan The fact that we can grow into ourselves and evolve and have chapters of our performance.
Zac Absolutely. I mean that’s life. And you don’t know where that’s going to go. I often fantasize about one day just disappearing and being in the back of a theatre and producing, directing, or imagineering a show, because I do like that collaboration, and I love the ownership of a community and of a created creative family — and getting the best out of that communal moment. And I hope one day I get to achieve that.
I was first introduced to Bernadette Peters by her longtime hair stylist, Maury Hopson. I am forever grateful.
As a child, I performed with Peter, Paul and Mary at Lincoln Center, as well as in the PBS special “Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too.”
I also sang on a children’s album: The Roche’s “Will You Be My Friend?” I believe it was nominated for a children’s Grammy.
I studied African dance for 17 years and acted in numerous NYU Tisch film productions.
I performed with Bijou Phillips and her mother Geneviève Waïte at Nuyorican Poets Cafe for an Amos Poe reading.
My last and final singing performance was in my junior year of high school singing the role of Aeneas in “Dido and Aeneas,” the Henry Purcell opera.
Oh yes, my Bar Mitzvah theme was Jordan’s Broadway. And oh yes, I wanted my mother’s dress to be inspired by my favorite character in my favorite musical — Bernadette Peter’s Witch in “Into the Woods.” And oh yes, she did...
And as promised... here's Zac as a young superstar!
“You’ve got to be original, because if you’re like someone else, what do they need you for?”
— Bernadette Peters
Header photo by Michael Philouze. Obsessed photo one by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images; photo two and video four by Jordan Roth; video three courtesy of Gala Systems; photo five courtesy of The Hidden Flag.
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