A costume from the Chekhov Collective’s production of The Seagull, designed by Judy Cornish and Joyce Gunhouse of Comrags. All photos by Katherine Holland.With only a week until the opening night show of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, the designers behind beloved Toronto label Comrags—who are creating the wardrobe for The Chekhov Collective’s production—are sewing the final touches before sending off the costumes to the theatre company—and then getting to work on their fall collection. No pressure.
But the affable Judy Cornish and Joyce Gunhouse are used to working under the unforgiving deadlines of putting out a 70-piece collection for the runway—only this time, their world’s a stage and inspiration is the 19th century Russian countryside. And they have 10 actors to model their looks. From their Dundas West studio, Gunhouse, hunched over a sewing machine, and Cornish, assembling looks on mannequins and snapping photos of the final outfits, chatted about their first foray in theatrical costume design, and why the looks (er, costumes) are suspiciously reminiscent of the Comrags woman.Joyce Gunhouse (left) and Judy Cornish (centre) putting final touches on one of their costumes. How does the design process for a wardrobe in theatre production differ from that of a collection? Judy: “The difference between that and doing a fashion collection is that Joyce and I get to tell the story—we get to decide on the character, how that character would dress, the shoes they wear. But in the play, they come to us very defined so we have to do things that work for the character and with the character. You could have a great idea, but if that character is impoverished, they may not wear something as glamorous as you had in mind. So that's the fun part and the difficult part. How did you approach costume design for this play specifically? Joyce: What we wanted to do is a very Comrags thing to do, which is to build a wardrobe. We were making garments for them, or binding garments that would be in the characters’ wardrobe. So that’s where we felt all the freedom to pick out second-hand stuff. And that’s how low-budget theatre is anyway—most of the stuff has to be found. Most of the shoes are from their own wardrobe, or were borrowed from someone. We always work on a tight budget but this was really tight. So there’s lots of Comrags fabrics in there!
Joyce Gunhouse working away on the sewing machine.What were some of the challenges that you faced? Joyce: The most difficult one was that there is two-year jump from the third to the fourth act, and they only have a few minutes [to change]. The lights dim and you’re in another season. Judy: How do you project two years later and summer to winter in a minute and a half? You just can’t change a lot. So I say that we did it with knit—we added knit. More layers. That was the sort of the fun part, being jammed up on the limitations. Joyce: And I also liked that we had to convey with the clothes, that someone is innocent, someone is defeated, and wanting to do that with the fabrics and colours. Not so much the style, because we aren’t true to the period in any way. Judy: We are—vaguely! Joyce: We want it to be period evocative. I think that we wanted to be quite true to that. I think that if we were given total freedom, I don't even know if we would do it in that period. They could all be beatniks in Greenwich Village and it would tell the same story—it’s just a very common story. It's the everyday struggle. So I think it could have been any period. Judy: I would have done a Game of Thrones period! A very Comrags-inspired look from the play, worn by the character Masha. Photo by Ava Baccari. Any favourite looks? Judy: [points to an outfit worn by the character Masha in the play] This girl’s probably our favourite. Joyce: She’s the most Comrags! Judy: She wears black the whole play, so of course we love her. We treated Masha like we would treat the Comrags collection, which is a little more masculine and stripped down. The other thing that Joyce and I think is really funny is that at the beginning of the play, she’s very clear that there’s no hope, life is just crap, and she’s very resolved in it and very firm, so for us, her first skirt is in order, everything is linear—but by the end of it, she’s a bit floppy, she’s got a baby, she’s married to someone she doesn't love, she’s all amiss—so we made the buttons all eschew. Even if no one else gets it, it’s amusing to us. Joyce: And helpful to the actors. Even for normal collections, Judy and I think like this. I believe that most of the actors have really appreciated those little things that we give them to just make it easier to tell their story. Judy: We're dreading that people are going to ask for this look after the show! The Chekhov Collective's The Seagull runs at the Berkeley Street Theatre from March 7-23, with 8 p.m. performances and 2 p.m matinees. READ MORE: Fashion design process: A look at costume design and fashion designer collabs in history 10 most iconic movie dresses of all time Boyish: Top Spring 2014 fashion trend