Years ago, I was lucky to be a “fly on the wall” when Willa Kim was in town, designing dance costumes. I didn’t deal with her directly, but I watched her interacting with the costume shop, and I heard stories….
Willa Kim was so completely focused on her work that her age (80-ish) seemed irrelevant — except when you remembered that she won her first Tony award for Costume Design when she was in her sixties and her second, for Will Rogers Follies, in 1991 — ten years later. She was completely professional, she was funny, she loved dance and theatre and the people who worked there, and she really knew her stuff. (I heard that, when a lighting designer tried putting intense red light on dance costumes that were white, red and green, the metaphorical fur flew. Red light makes green appear black, and white appear red, which would have destroyed her designs; although petite, Willa could be very assertive when necessary!)
In fact, although I knew how famous she was, and had looked her up in Pecktal’s Costume Design: Techniques of Modern Masters, I learned a lot from reading her obituaries, because Willa Kim lived in the present — being much more interested in her current projects than in past glories. In 2003, Willa did a half-hour interview for the Women in Theater Project — in which she explains how she came to be the first costumer to make dance costumes out of Lycra stretch fabric, among other things. Click here to watch the interview, via Playbill magazine online. (And watch her reaction when asked about lighting design….)
Click here for her full obituary, as printed in The Seattle Times. She said her costume designs for the opera Turandot, at Santa Fe Opera (2005,) were the most interesting of her career. You can see a slide show of those, plus her deliciously witty design sketches for other projects, by clicking here, where there is a slide show from a curated exhibit honoring her work.
The book Designs of Willa Kim is available through Amazon.