“I didn’t want to make a fashion statement,” says the South African–born, New York–based milliner Albertus Swanepoel of his latest act, “I feel that this is hopefully another avenue or genre that I can work in, as I have always had an incredible love for the theater.” Swanepoel, who has assisted theatrical milliner Lynne Mackey in constructing hats for Broadway shows including Kiss Me, Kate and Mamma Mia!, has officially returned to the stage, crafting a trio of cloche styles for the hotly anticipated Broadway revival of The Front Page. Written by former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the 1928 hit comedy covers the Windy City newspaper business during an era when theater critics saw shows on opening night, before rushing back to the pressroom to punch out reviews in time for the late-night edition. In yet another ironic twist, Swanepoel revealed that he received confirmation that his hats made it into the production only once the ink was on the page. “One never knows with Broadway shows,” Swanepoel told Vogue.com. “The last time I saw the hats, it was a month ago at the final dress rehearsal—and I was told that anything could happen between now and opening night.” But there was a sense that things were going his way: “When Patricia Conolly, who plays Jennie, came out during rehearsal, Jack O’Brien, the director, shouted from the auditorium, ‘great hat!’ ” Swanepoel said, “I was stunned by that.” The idea was to create pieces that would lend the wearer a strong sense of looking—and feeling—the part. “The hats are really the heart of the character,” Swanepoel said. “It was important to me that they gave them soul, in a way, and became part of the character in the play, without overwhelming them or acting as a statement piece, but as an everyday item.” Of course, it’s not every single day that a designer has the opportunity to collaborate with the likes of Ann Roth—the legendary Broadway costumier who is also behind the wardrobe in The Front Page. “It was almost like working with Vogue or something,” Swanepoel said of the experience. Roth enlisted Swanepoel to both design and execute the hats—an elevated role for theatrical milliners, who are more often charged with carrying out someone else’s conceptions. “I was sort of very ‘fashion’ about it at first,” Swanepoel admitted. “Miss Roth came in and pulled the hats down in a certain direction—the way she wanted them to fit—and said this was how they would have worn it.” This same precise attention to accuracy extended to the condition of the hats themselves, save for key areas where there was room for sartorial liberty. A broken feather, for example, illustrates that Conolly’s character inadvertently spent a train ride sitting on her chapeaux—an original detail imagined by Roth. The construction was similarly tailor-made. “This is why I loved doing this—working with the actors directly, and the structure of their face,” Swanepoel said. “Finding the right hat has to do with proportion and contrast with your own features.” While a rounder face is complemented by a square topper, asymmetrical brims flatter angular face shapes. “A hat gives you attitude,” Swanepoel said. “Because they are so close to the face, you have to relate to it. It’s like perfume—something to say, ‘Here I am, look at me.’ ” As to what’s next for Albertus Swanepoel? We suggest you look for his name in lights. The Front Page is playing now through January 29, 2017.
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