This Is Why Zac Posen Ruled the Tonys Red Carpet

Zac Posen Bernadette Peters Tony Awards - H 2015
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Zac Posen Bernadette Peters Tony Awards - H 2015

The designer, who created eight looks, opens up about dressing Broadway's biggest stars (Bernadette Peters and Kristin Chenoweth included).

Eight dresses for seven actresses must be a new red-carpet record, but if anyone deserved favored-designer status at Sunday night’s Tony Awards, it has to be Zac Posen

The Manhattan-born Posen is a passionate lover of Broadway, a self-avowed theater geek who studied acting as a child and routinely attended musicals and plays with his mom, Susan, a former mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer who sits on the board of her son’s company, House of Z. All of which means there was a certain symmetry when Posen turned up on the Tonys red carpet with a bona fide Broadway legend on his arm: Bernadette Peters, who of course was wearing a custom-designed gown based on a look from his Resort 2015 collection. 

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That was merely the start of Posen’s Tony-night style dominance. Before dashing back to Radio City Music Hall on Monday afternoon for a photo shoot — “I really should have slept there,” he said only half-jokingly — Posen took a few minutes to talk to Pret-a-Reporter about what it takes to outfit the ladies of Broadway. 

You mentioned on the red carpet that Bernadette Peters was your dream date, for more than one reason.

We have to rewind more than a decade ago: Bernadette was my first custom commission when I was just starting my company, from my parents’ living room. It was in 2002, when she was going to host the Tonys, and that’s how we met; I made her a custom dress.

Of course, I was in love with her long before that. When I was very young my mom took me to see Sunday in the Park With George, in which Bernadette was starring, and according to my mom, I came out singing and humming [Stephen] Sondheim. Bernadette has been a muse of the house over the years and has become a dear friend. So as soon as I was invited to the Tonys this year, my immediate thought was that it would be my dream to go with Bernadette Peters. I just think she’s spectacular, inside and out.

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Her gown was indeed perfect, starting with the color.

She picked the color! It’s a celadon green, or a sort of poison-apple green. She’s never worn that color with us before, but she was drawn to it immediately, and it suited her perfectly. I wanted her to look clean and chic, and like a sexy, strong woman. Backstage after she presented, she was singing, and we realized: It’s a Gilda dress. Her hair was up, otherwise she could have done the Rita Hayworth hair flip. 

You had the distinction of dressing seven women for the Tonys last night; with Kristin Chenoweth’s two gowns, a total of eight looks. 

It’s a huge honor. But I also think it’s very important for designers to be representing not only 20-year-olds, but women of every age, and demonstrating that beauty comes in all ages and diversity.

Most impressive was that each woman looked distinctly different. What are your quick takes on a few of them?

Let’s start with Laura Michelle Kelly, whom I met when she was in final dress rehearsals for Finding NeverlandHarvey [Weinstein] had me come in to take notes about the costumes about two weeks before the show went up. I gave him pages and pages of notes, and some were incorporated, which was a really cool feeling. Anyway, Laura is a powerhouse; red is perfect for her.

Debra Messing is another example in which everything worked, the design with her body type, the color of the dress with the color of her hair. And she is such a perfectionist.

I was thrilled to dress Jennifer Grey through this experience, because I’m a huge fan of both Cabaret and Dirty Dancing, and it was such a lovely moment to see Jennifer with her father. She’s also a great example of how you become friends with someone through fittings. 

And Judy Kuhn, from Fun Home, looked really sleek and beautiful in cerulean blue, a gown that actually was from my Z Spoke collection. I loved that ultimately everything you saw of ours showed a really good range not only of silhouettes, but also of price points. 

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Any favorite moments about any of the actresses and their looks?

Absolutely: When Annaleigh Ashford won [for best featured actress in a play for You Can’t Take It With You], and she reached in the pocket of her gown to take out her speech. We did pockets on her gown and on Laura Michelle Kelly’s; they’re for your credit cards or your Tony speech. 

This year’s show has been nicknamed the Vogue Tonys, with Anna Wintour’s involvement in upgrading the look of the red carpet, and enlisting the legendary costume designer William Ivey Long to oversee that. At what point did you get involved?

I knew about a year ago, after meeting with [UTA agent] Mark Subias and [theatre producer] Jordan Roth, and I was starting to hear that there was an idea of revamping the look of the Tonys. For me that was exciting and very much needed, so it’s been in my head for a while. 

When did Anna and Mr. Ivey Long reach out to you?

They contacted us for Kristin two weeks ago; fashion moves fast.

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How did you approach the two looks you did for Kristin as a host of the evening, versus the ladies who were attending?

Anna had actually approved the looks she thought could potentially work from my collections and from other people’s work, but the magic of dressing all happens in a fitting. I met Kristin at the Vogue offices with William Ivey Long, and we had a selection of dresses ready. She’s a petite woman, even in the scale of samples, so for her first gown, in silver sequins, it was truly one of the most complicated alterations I’ve ever had to do on a beaded gown, re-proportioning and shaping every line with Mr. Ivey Long’s approval. We meticulously made it work. Her second dress, in navy, was also perfected up until the last minute.

I saw Kristin after she went up the red carpet, and I asked, "How’s the dress?” and her response was, “So good it’s like a heart attack.” Kristin has wanted to have a major moment with us for a long time, and this really felt right.

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It’s so clear you love theater; when might we see you do the costume designs for a show?

I would actually be interested in doing both the sets and the costumes for the right show. I always think to give things your best, it has to be a project that really piques your interest, from the director to the talent and of course the story. At the stage my business is at, I’m interested in working with great collaborators. My dream would be to work with Sondheim if he ever wrote a new show.

Theater is about making people dream and bringing a sense of joy and emotion to it. That’s something Bernadette and all these great actors have brought to me and my being over the years. It would be very fulfilling to be able to give that back.