Creative Talents of KCAD Fashion Studies Students Take Center Stage in Grand Rapids Civic Theater Production

Posted May 14, 2024 in Fashion Studies, Student

The Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s recent production of “Disney’s Descendants: The Musical” spotlighted more than the teenage children of iconic Magic Kingdom villains—it showcased the skilled student designers from the Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University Fashion Studies program.

Junior-level program students had the opportunity to design and construct costumes for the production during the spring semester in collaboration with the Civic Theater costume department. 
Following an intensive research, ideation, and refinement process, students created the final garments that actors wore on stage during the musical’s run from March 1 to 17. 

a group of theatre actors posing on stage in colorful costumesThe cast of Grand Rapids Civic Theatre's "Disney's Descendants: The Musical" om stage with costumes created by KCAD Fashion Studies students (credit: Studio3Twenty)

Professor and Program Chair Lori Faulkner sees real-world projects like this as vital aspects of the program’s curriculum. Past student cohorts have engaged in similar collaborations with the Grand Rapids Opera, Grand Rapids Ballet, and other organizations, all aimed at exposing students to industry realities and preparing them for success post-graduation.

“Working with organizations like GRCT is a great opportunity for students to test their skills and make professional connections in the industry,” Faulkner said. “This was not only a great learning experience but a testament to our students’ talents, as the actors were happy with their costumes and couldn't wait to perform in them, and the garments made it through the entire production."

A woman smiling into the camera as she assists a younger woman in the construction of a costume over a table filled with fabric, thread, and other sewing equipmentA GRCT staff member (left) assists Fashion Studies student Shiloh Beaton (right) in garment construction

GRCT Costume Designer Jennifer Lothian says that collaborative projects like this are as much a part of the theatre’s mission and identity as the stage productions themselves.

“GRCT is known for our productions, but also our amazing education department—this is the perfect combination of those two worlds. The students were able to complete a full design process—from sketches all the way to the final build—becoming costume designers themselves along the way.”

pieces of paper laying on a table with illustrations of costume designs on themConcept illustrations and fabric mockups from the collaboration between KCAD Fashion Studies students and GRCT

Students began the project by reading the script of “Disney’s Descendants” and taking direction from the production team before completing detailed studies of each character. They researched fabrics and trims to create design boards of their initial costume ideas.

Using feedback from the GRCT team, the students translated their rough ideas into polished renderings of each costume. Then, it was time to dive into construction. The first round of garments was created in muslin, an inexpensive cotton fabric, and put on the actors during a first fitting.

These “draft” garments helped reveal both aesthetic and functional issues with the initial designs that were then corrected in the final construction process using the chosen fabrics. After one final fitting to uncover any last-minute tweaks before showtime, the costumes were ready for the limelight.

A fashion designer standing next to a theatre actor wearing an elaborate pink dress
Fashion Studies students Zayne Cutrara (top, right) and Rogelio Villareal (bottom, left) assess the final fittings of the costumes they designed for GRTC actors

A man in a white turtleneck sweater watches as a woman in a sparkling purple gown twirls in the foreground

Unlike typical class projects, which unfold over a much longer process, industry collaborations like this push students to adapt to the pressure of tight real world production timelines where pivoting quickly and solving problems on the fly is part of the job. And especially when designing for stage actors, it isn’t just about how a garment looks, but how it works.

“Actors need to be able to do all the physical requirements for their role comfortably in the costumes while on stage,” said Faulkner. “The visual aesthetic of the costumes needs to be translated to the audience, so designers need to take many things into account when creating for stage or screen.”

For student Grace Anderson, the rapid and rigorous development process was an invaluable preview of what it takes to successfully design for a client.

“Learning the process of costume design from start to finish was extremely beneficial and eye-opening to understand everything that goes into creating an effective costume,” Anderson said. “It taught me a lot about time management and balancing multiple aspects of a project.”

A young woman in a black sweater hunces over the back of an actor wearing a purple costume gown, pinning a booby pinFashion Studies student Grace Anderson performing a final fitting for a cosutme design with a GRCT actor

The crowning moment came when students got to see the costumes they created being used live on stage.

"I knew the choreography would be very active and was able to design a dress with movement on stage in mind,” Anderson said. “While it was a little stressful to ensure everything fit properly and was easy to change into, knowing that tons of people would see my garment on stage was an incredible feeling. The cast was so amazing as well—it was exciting knowing my work would be worn by such a talented performer.”

A man wearing a regal costume kneeling down in the stage spotlight
(above and below): costumes designed by Fashion Studies students in action on the GRCT stage

Costumed actors dancing on a darkened stage

For Lothian and the GRCT team, the project was an affirmation of the incredible creative talent—both established and emerging—that abounds here in West Michigan.

“The students were so interested in the differences between theatre costuming and clothing and were constantly in communication about how they had to rethink the way of construction since theatre is so different— they had to design for both the character AND for the actor,” Lothian said. “The way that they were able to completely change the framework of how to build garments to make them work in this setting was very impressive.”

Participating Fashion Studies Students

  • Grace Anderson
  • Shiloh Beaton
  • Lili Castro
  • Zayne Cutrara
  • Rogelio Villareal
  • Reese Westmaas

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