Stage Style: Q&A with the Kinky Boots Wardrobe and Makeup Team

The smash musical's costume designer and makeup artist talk footwear and fashion in the run-up to the Tony Awards

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Matthew Murphy

Kinky Boots, the smash musical with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper and a book by Harvey Fierstein, will be up for 13 Tony Awards—the most of any production—this Sunday night. Adapted from a 2005 movie (which itself is based on a true story), Kinky Boots tells the tale of a shoe factory owner who teams up with a drag queen to produce the titular footwear in an effort to reach an untapped niche market. Costume designer Gregg Barnes, who is nominated for a 2013 Tony Award, makeup artist Randy Houston Mercer and hair designer Josh Marquette helm the team that has crafted the fabulous style of the show. Here, Barnes and Mercer chat with TIME about their education in the drag aesthetic and just how comfortable six-inch boots really are.

How much of the look of the play was inspired by the movie?
Barnes: Jerry Mitchell, the director of Kinky Boots, went to the actual factory as a research trip. A lot of the people that are in the film as extras are actually not actors—they’re workers in that factory. So even though we didn’t reference them specifically, he had taken pictures of those factory workers. The thing that came out of it for me in terms of costume is that they were much more colorful. There was an Elvis fanatic, and she had a jet-black mullet and a shrine to Elvis set up at her sewing machine. So we realized, we have license not just to have the drag queens be the colorful characters, but the people who inhabit the factory could have their own eccentricities too.

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Did you feel like there was more pressure on the visual aspect of this show, since fashion is referenced right there in the title?
Barnes: When they call you and say, we want you to design a play called Kinky Boots, the first thing that goes through your mind is, you better not mess those boots up! We learned as we went through this process that our experience developing the boots for the dancers in the show directly mirrors the story as it’s told in the film. They have to develop a boot that is a stiletto heel that a man can vamp in and whose weight won’t break. Now we think we’ve kind of solved it, but it was a lot of trial and error to get the boots to function properly, and then of course to make them look like kinky boots.

Mercer: In the beginning of a show, you always dream the wildest possibility that could ever be. In reality, you have to do it eight times a week, [the actors] have to get ready within an hour, they have to get up there and do it. For me consciously I made an effort not to make it a clown drag or a drag like Priscilla or La Cage, but more that editorial beauty drag.

Gregg, how familiar were you with drag queen footwear before this?
Barnes: I was a virgin; I knew nothing about it. So I bought all the past seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race; I went to a couple of drag shows. Really through the Drag Race reality show I gained this incredible respect. It’s really an art form; there’s so many facets to it. It comments on gender roles, politics, style—there’s a lot of discipline in it. I’m not wearing high heels myself right now, but I’m a convert to the form.

Randy, do you think drag makeup translates easily for the stage?
Mercer: There is that train of thought that if you’re not naked, it’s all drag. I’ve done theater since I was a kid—over 30 years—and I will say that there are some similarities. There are some tricks and tools that we use in all disciplines. But I always look at it this way: what I do needs to complement what everyone else has done.

What was most challenging about styling this show?
Mercer: For Billy [Porter, who plays drag queen Lola], he starts in the club in full drag. And then he goes to a boy after “Sex Is in the Heel” and then we bump him up slowly to a boy who likes to wear makeup. And then we have 11 minutes to get him into full Whitney drag, and then it’s the Las Vegas finale. With respect to the other [characters], with the costumes and the wigs and everything, the temperature they reach—you struggle to find products that are going to stay on in spite of all the sweating and dancing and physicality of the show. [The team used M.A.C. Cosmetics.]

What is your favorite pair of boots in the show?
Barnes: Oh it’s like Sophie’s Choice! I have to say I have a fondness for the pair of actual kinky boots—the red boots. They consist of three leathers that are piped with black so it makes the reds look redder, and one piece that’s foiled, one piece that’s crocodile, and one that’s just patent. They pay off because they are the heart of the story, that first pair of boots they create.

Have either of you tried on the boots?
Barnes: I did.

Mercer: Randy did not!

Barnes: We’d done all these things, we wanted to see if we could make them as comfortable as we could, given that they have a six-inch heel. So we put special neoprene, a high impact foam, in the insides, and built a lot of padding. But I put one on, stood up, and said, “Take it off, take it off!” They’re not comfortable. But nobody has ever ever complained a peep about any of it. I think at the moment of the show when they put all that stuff on, it’s such a joyous moment, and [they experience] the high that the audience is giving them. They don’t think about their feet until they’re back in the dressing room, and by then I’ve gone home.

Mercer: As celebrities and stars come backstage after the show, every one of them wants to put on the boots. People are now even attending the show dressed in kinky boots. Maybe they’re not comfortable, but people want to put them on!

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