Nia Powell in Jenny Kan and Giulia Gallon's design

Wimbledon’s Costume students brought the subjects of Italian Renaissance painter Lorenzo Lotto’s portraits to life in a special event at the National Gallery on Friday 7 December.

In this blog we catch up with Jenny Kan (Yuening Jian) who is a BA Costume Design student (now BA Costume for Theatre and Screen) who shares her experience of working with her fellow Wimbledon students as well as student actors from The Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA) to present an immersive, costumed performance in a series of live tableaux, using the original portraits as backdrops.

Nia Powell in the finished design at the National Gallery

Jenny, please tell us a little about your background and how you came to study at Wimbledon College of Arts

I was born and raised in Guangzhou, China and before coming to London I studied for a joint degree in Digital Media Technology and Television Directing at Communication University of China. The time I spent in Beijing was life changing for me, as is my time in London!

In Beijing, I was lucky enough to be involved in a variety of television and film productions which taught me so much about the different specialisms within the sector. After trying my hand at different roles through practice and work experience, I realized that costume design was the path I wanted to follow. I don’t think I will ever regret that decision as I am enjoying every moment as a costume designer.

For me, London has always fascinated me as a centre for art and design, so when I was considering where to study abroad, it naturally became my first choice. I researched courses at Wimbledon College of Arts which is known as one of the UK’s leading specialist theatre institutions. I was impressed by the creative works of Wimbledon students. Also, a visiting exhibition curated by UAL at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Beijing (2015) was very inspiring.

Lorenzo Lotto: Marsilio Cassotti and His Bride Faustina (1523)

Lorenzo Lotto: Marsilio Cassotti and His Bride Faustina (1523)

How did you come to work on the costume that you presented?

This project was organized by our course leader Kevin Freeman. We were given a list of the paintings which were going to be involved in the exhibition. Most of the students chose their portraits and finished pairing up during the summer. There are some students who decided to do the project independently as well. However, my collaborator Giulia Gallon and I joined this project in the beginning of this term. We were both excited about the idea of having a collaboration between designers. After sharing our initial thoughts about the paintings, we came to an agreement to work on the portrait of Marsilio Cassotti and his wife Faustina in our first meeting.

What were your initial thoughts on the subject in the portrait?

Giulia and I were both fascinated by Lorenzo Lotto’s group portraits and we were particularly interested in the relationship among characters and their state of mind. Our initial idea was to create a contemporary costume that reflected the whole painting instead of specific sitter; a design that would investigate the marriage bond between Marsilio Cassotti and Faustina.

Please tell us about the research that you did to come up with your concepts.

We started the project by researching the painter as well as Marsilio’s and Faustina’s backgrounds. The portrait was commissioned by Zanin Cassotti, a prominent wool merchant from Bergamo, to commemorate the occasion of the wedding ceremony of his son and Faustina.

Initial design concept by Jenny Kan

Initial design concept by Jenny Kan and Giulia Gallon

Faustina is believed to be Faustina Assonica, who came from a noble family. The symbols in the painting suggest it is very likely that the couple married for love with the blessing from their families. This is quite extraordinary in a period when arranged marriage was popular.

The development and evolution of marriage, gender equality and marriage equality were investigated. The ideas were then developed into the abstract blended pattern on the bodysuit.

Colour and silhouette also played a crucial part in our design. The salmon red, which was a preferred color for Venetian brides, and the voluminous style of the period became our main visual inspirations. The sculptural structure of the costume is a result of the exploration of the masculine and feminine power in this marriage.

Could you tell me about the different stages involved in completing this project?

Giulia and I presented our initial design sketch in early October, finalising the design through draping. It was in this stage that we turned the conceptual design into a wearable garment. We had tutorial and technical support from both course leader Kevin Freeman and tutor Kathleen Ridley throughout the process. Our performers from ALRA came to Wimbledon for the first toile fitting in late October.

Subsequently, we made a number of alterations regarding fit and proportion and started production on the final costume. In a second fitting we tested the half-finished costume at ALRA, to see how it functioned in ‘movement’.

We had an extra fitting with our performer, Nia Powell, at Wimbledon the day before the final presentation with our tutors on 30 November. In this fitting, we were able to focus on detailing and styling etc. With the help of Kevin, we decided to shape the train in order to achieve a more fluid transition from waist to hem.

Our original idea was to have the elements of the costume that would be detachable and which could also be incorporated into choreographic elements of the performance. However, we decided not to pursue this route so that Nia only had to concern herself with acting rather than deal with the extra complication of detaching parts of the costume mid-performance. Although we were concerned about these modifications, our presentation was well-received and a final version of the costume was completed ready for the photo shoot.

What were the major challenges that you experienced on this project and how did you address them?

Managing our workflow and changing priorities was one of the biggest challenges. Our design required a lot of experimentation in printing and draping. The volume which was achieved by different layers of structure also made it difficult for construction. Also, this project was completed in tandem with another major performance project we were working on with the ALRA students (‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’) and Giulia and I tried very hard to balance the workload. Fortunately, at the start of the project we had worked together to make a very detailed work schedule which we both did out best to adhere to, so the project progressed as we planned.

Nia Powell poses in front of the portrait which inspired the design

Nia Powell poses in front of the portrait which inspired the design

And finally, what do you think are the major ‘takeaways’ from this project?

The most important thing I learned from this project is an understanding of the importance of collaboration and maintaining good communication between the designer and performers. We factored in regular communication with our performer Nia and spoke regularly about the design concept and the creative process. Nia also kept us up to date about the outcomes from rehearsals and I believe that through this robust communication we had a deeper understanding of the overall production and of our performer’s intentions for the character portrayal.

If you would like to find out more about this event at London’s National Gallery check out some of the coverage in the The Times and The Costume Rag.

Learn more about studying BA Costume for Theatre and Screen at Wimbledon College of Arts.