What is art? A painting? A dance? A song? If you think about it, art is simply a collection of simple concepts or ideas, such as lines, shapes, colors, notes, words, and/or movements coming together to say something. And the person who understands how to make those concepts speak to each other and work in harmony is an artist. When it comes to costume design this is no different. Iñaki Cobos, a Spanish costume and set designer is one such artist who has learned how to make lines shapes, patterns and dimensions speak to audiences.
Iñaki is from Pamplona, Spain. Though not from a professionally artistic family, he credits his mother and grandmothers for instilling in him a love for crafts and any art he could make with his hands.
“I don’t come from an artistic family, but my grandmother and mother were used to working with their hands, they used to make their own clothes and things. So one thing I loved since I was little was crafts; painting and drawing, using the sewing machine, glue, and all these kinds of things.”
Eventually, this love for arts and crafts led to a love for couture and costumes. Iñaki’s roots are more in costume making, though now he is more known as a designer. He had always found how costumes were made fascinating. His years as a dancer provided many opportunities to explore the ins and outs of many costumes.
“I became more interested in costumes when I started studying ballet. When I was in school I watched La Bayadere and The Sleeping Beauty from Paris Opera, and I was so impressed by the costumes that I started to research them. I had never seen anything like it. From then on, though I was still involved with ballet, and danced professionally, I became involved in costumes as well.”
Iñaki has a special insight into ballet costume design due to his years as a dancer. Iñaki expressed his surprise that so few dancers venture into the design world. Most become ballet teachers, choreographers, or physios, not even considering the costume department. He encourages dancers to look past the studio, and their own bodies even, for inspiration for the future.
“I think that dancers often don’t know what they will do in the future. And they often only think of the physical part. But our ballet productions are very complex, with many, many jobs around. So, if you look well, you know that you have costumes, the sets, the lights, and many other things. You have to open your eyes and think, ‘when I get older…’ (because dancers get older very fast) there are plenty of things around you that you might like or would be interested in.”
As a professional dancer, Iñaki had access to a wide range of costumes and to the advice of many experienced costume ladies.
“I also worked in an opera, dancing around the singers. And in these parts, you have costumes that you wouldn’t have in a contemporary company. So I was always looking inside and out, looking at how it was made, talking to the costume ladies that were around, and trying to learn something from them. When I finished dancing I would go to the workshop and watch a little and they would explain things.”
Like every dancer, there comes a time when you have to make the tough decision to wrap up your career. For Iñaki, however, the decision wasn’t too difficult. With a lingering back problem and a desire to be more involved in the costume side of the theatre, he decided to make the shift.
“There was a point when I had an injury in my back, so, I decided that it was too painful to try to work like this, and since I wasn’t a soloist in a big company, and because I like the costumes, I decided I would like to change. I went to Madrid to take a course in stage costumes. There I learned costume making, and also how to dye the fabrics, color them, paint them, how to make a hat, or paint feathers, all of these details.”
The costume world is a very specific niche, and the ballet costume world is even more so. In Spain, due to the lack of demand, there is very little in the education of ballet-costume-making. This was something Iñaki had to learn on his own.
“In school, I learned more about period costumes, about ballet costumes, and all the specifications, I taught myself. For example, if you know the dancer has to put their arms up, you know that they need extra fabric for this. This is an example of a very common problem. This is when it helped that I had been a dancer. There were things that, to me, were obviously necessary or obviously problematic. It’s a very specific niche, and in Spain, we don’t have many ballet companies that need these kinds of costumes. It is like any market, if many people want something, we will produce it, but if we don’t have anyone buying it, then it’s not a priority.”
Thankfully due to Iñaki’s success and expertise, now he is the one educating art students in the niche of ballet costume making.
Iñaki’s first projects were not the full-length productions he does now, but they were very valuable experiences that became the stepping stones that got him there.
“When I was dancing in the company in Valencia, I did a few small productions for my company and the graduation performance for the conservatory. Through these projects, it became known that I was making costumes, The head of the conservatory in Madrid called me and asked me to make a small Don Quixote for them. That was during my first year of studies. And during my second year, Jose Martinez called me to make the tutus for the corps de ballet of his Don Quixote. At this point I was not designing I was only making the costumes.”
How does one go from being a dancer to making school performance costumes to making costumes for Jose Martinez within a year? Well, the coincidence of Iñaki’s situation is almost too perfect.
“When I was studying in my city I did the pas de deux of Don Quixote with one of my classmates. I made her a tutu and a jacket for me. We made a poster, for the advertisement and my teacher had it up on a wall in the school. Jose happened to be visiting that school because of an award the University of Navarra had given him. And there he saw the poster and asked, ‘Who made this tutu?’, and my teacher said, ‘It’s this guy in Madrid. Maybe you can call him.’ And he called me and asked if I could come to the company. He told me he wanted to do the same style as the Mariinsky production. And immediately I was like, yeah, yeah, I know and I started to describe it to him. Jose gave a sigh of relief, ‘finally someone who understands what I am talking about.’ And then we started to work together.”
This was the beginning of a beautiful collaboration. From there Iñaki was involved in many projects with Jose. He also slowly was given more and more responsibility as a designer as well as a costume maker. He started designing and making smaller projects for Jose, for solos and duets. Then he went to Paris Opera on a scholarship to learn under their costume department. That was where Iñaki was able to take his skill to the next level.
After finishing his studies in Paris he returned to Madrid and was commissioned by Jose to do a full-length Nutcracker. This became the first of several full-length productions they would do together.
A full length is much different from a small project. This did not cause Inaki to doubt his ability, however, the work was more demanding than ever before.
“You feel that there is a big responsibility. I’ve never been afraid of not doing well because I know I will give all that the project asks me to give. But it was really intense, this is true. It was many hours in my workshop. And it was double work because I was making as well as designing. But for making I had a team, otherwise, it’s impossible.”
Going from a one-man show to running a whole team was also an added challenge that Iñaki had to face. But thankfully since finding his team, they have remained together and produced many wonderful works.
Iñaki has now designed Jose’s Giselle in Ljubljana, two versions of Jose’s La Corsair, one for Pera Ballet Ljubljana and one for the Estonian National Ballet. For the Estonian National Ballet, he also designed the set. Set designing slowly became part of his job as Iñaki enjoyed envisioning the whole picture of the production.
“I really like creating the complete picture on the stage; even the color of the pointe shoes, all the details… I also really like working with the whole space and playing with the perspectives and proportions. For example, in Tallinn, the stage is really small and I wanted to make it look bigger, to give the space for the dancer. They need to seem comfortable on stage. And I think we more or less achieved that.”
The process of making a costume from start to finish has as many layers as a tutu has. Add the process of traveling, working with different theatres, their workshops, budgets, and timetables and it quickly becomes many months of work.
“The first step is to start talking with the choreographer. We talk about which style the ballet will be. With Jose, for example, we have worked in the classical style, but try to give a more realistic feeling. We didn’t want to make the costumes very theatrical or flat, but to make them feel natural in the way of textures.
Then I go by myself and start investigating the story of the ballet. I am very used to ballets with simple stories: he loves the girl, the girl is a swan, blah blah blah. I try to go back, back, back, and find hidden stories or characteristics that could help me create something more unique and meaningful.
Practically, I also start researching different kinds of fabrics for the different roles. Then I start to paint, throw paper, and then paint again, send ideas to the choreographer. Then, if everything goes well, I prepare a presentation of the full ballet, with as many fabric samples as I can. Some of these ballets can have a lot of fabrics, trims, sequins, etc. And I really like layers haha… you can ask the costume department. They can tell you that is true!”
After the style is set and the production is approved by the choreographer, then it needs to be approved by the theatre that will be performing it.
I do the same presentation for the theatre and all their workshops. The next meeting is to explain the costume cuts to them. I like to prepare a cut of the costumes myself because I know how to make it look the way I want. In this meeting, they understand how much fabric they have to order, and how many layers the tutus will have, and here they also have to take into account the budget and the deadline. Many times they don’t have time to do it the way I want and you have to give up some of your ideas to make everything work. But that’s the way of doing things. You have to deal with the problems as they come and find the compromises.”
The worst thing that could happen is making 24 costumes that don’t work, look, or move correctly. This when having a singular prototype is a lifesaver. After this the costume department is free to make all the costumes and all that is left is fine-tuning the minor details after seeing the stage rehearsals.
As we mentioned before, an artist is the one who can make sense of simple concepts: lines, shapes, patterns, and colors, and bring them together to say something. For the common person, this level of visualization is hard, but for Iñaki, it’s very natural.
“The thing is, I’m used to making costumes, and I’m used to seeing in my mind from flat to 3D. Though adjustments are necessary, nothing I have imagined has gone terribly wrong.”
Amongst so many successes, two ballets stand out to him above the rest.
“I have two favorites for different reasons. The Nutcracker, here in Spain because it was my very first ballet. It was very intense, with many many hours of work: a very long project. And the second one was the La Corsair in Tallinn. It was the easiest place to work. The people from the theatre were very easy and nice, always learning from each other. It was very good. And of course, the product we made was beautiful and it worked very well.”
Iñaki’s goal in his productions is that they would be alive, not a static, fake 2D experience. This big effect is found in the small details.
“My idea is to try to create something believable, that you believe what you see. This often comes through textures and small details. For me, if you see a rock that is round, this is fake. The rocks need to have edges, the gold needs to shine like gold, and the jewels can’t look like plastic. Through these kinds of details, I try to create a bubble on stage and make it like a fantasy.”
From the imagination to the research, to the sketches, fabric, sequins, thread, patterns, fittings, budgets, lights, scenery, storytelling, sewing, adjusting, and so on…one can see that every costume is a piece of art and should be treated as such. Next time you get to look at so much beauty whether you are an audience member or the one wearing the costume, let yourself be moved by just how much beauty a person, people, are able to create through hours of teamwork and dedication.
“Many people think the designer is only painting a picture, but the design isn’t only the sketch, you also have to choose the fabric you have to know about how it moves, about the amount of fabric to have for this movement. It’s so much more complex than just making a sketch. For the costume makers, each tutu you wear is a result of many hours of cutting, pleating, gathering, sewing by hand and machine. And then you have to make it work on a stage also with lights, and scenery, and distance. With all these things behind, we need to take care of these creations and know that we need each other on stage.”