insight - François Barbeau

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Occupation - Costume designer

Costume designer François Barbeau has worked with legends of film and theatre on more than 400 shows, and at 76 the Montrealer’s just getting started.


The route to François Barbeau’s office at Cirque du Soleil wends past several workshops for shoes, wigs, and fabric-making, each a tidy explosion of colourful rolls and sample bits of this or that. Just as acrobats’ arched toes are gripping rings that sway in mid-air from the ceiling of a nearby rehearsal gymnasium, these workshops are kinetic too, with dozens of artisans bending over repairs, sewing sequins onto freshly dyed cloth, or pulling individual strands of hair through custom-moulded masks. All costumes for performers in Cirque’s 23 productions worldwide are handcrafted here from scratch, including the textiles, in headquarters the size of a city block in east Montreal.

Barbeau, a consultant to the circus leading a team in materials research, emerges from his desk as a rather tall septuagenarian, dressed in black. A first question, “What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?” – intended to elicit something like “why, my Emmy, of course” – bombs. “I don’t think this is very interesting for me,” he says, a little annoyed. But he allows further questioning, and soon Canada’s foremost costume designer for stage, television, and film – recipient of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest distinction – is graciously opening the door to yet another workshop; this one strictly no-photo. It’s the equivalent of the top-secret research wing of Willy Wonka’s fantasy factory.

“You realise when you leave your studio, where you have US$250 in the budget to make a costume, it’s like a holiday coming here,” says Barbeau, spreading creations across a drafting table. There’s lamb’s leather dyed with a sponge; some kind of polymer moulded with impressions of 3-inch nails, tie-dyed samples for the Beatles-themed Las Vegas show LOVE, repeating identical motifs in lycra, velvet, organza, lace, and metallic appliqué. “You’re inventing materials that could be possible, and it’s wonderful.”

Hung nearby, a rejected experiment: men’s pants pleated to look like honeycomb-folded paper bells, which proved overly cumbersome to move around in. “You’re dressing choreography; first, you have to serve the acrobat,” the designer explains. “But I hope to use them one day.”

Fabrics must not only be extremely light, but they also have to endure two circus shows daily, six days a week. So Barbeau – who is known for his artisanal approach – created a signature ‘sublimation’ technique: unusual patterns are computer-scanned, and an inked image is heat-transferred onto fabric, crafting the illusion of texture and heft. A costume featuring the silhouettes of liquorice nibs would appear rippled to the audience, for example.

In another set of swatches, the team has magnified a butterfly’s wing until its original form evolves into bold essential swirls; this extrapolated pattern is later printed onto different materials, in various hues. “Polyester never looked so good,” he jokes, picking up a version in rust, black, and turquoise. He’s right, of course. This lab is about costume alchemy: it’s Cirque giving Barbeau licence and the resources to transform his profession. So has he ever thought of commercialising these unique fabrics, turning them into the next Lady Gaga-esque prêt-à-porter? “I think we should stick to the costumes for now,” he snips.

Days later, he welcomes a visitor to his personal atelier, a homey space in Montreal’s artistic Le Plateau neighbourhood, where nearly 60 years of a life in costuming are neatly archived by his niece Josée into snap-lid boxes containing textiles, buttons, props, and old costumes (all routinely harvested to make new outfits).

Ideas sketched in watercolour or raw umber ink are pinned to bookcases (overflowing with memorabilia and research on exotic dress styles); and paint brushes and more sketches rest on his desk in the far sunlit corner. He can produce 25 an hour. Periodically during the interview, he disappears to retrieve decades-old examples from the 400-plus theatre and television shows, operas, ballets, films, and live shows he’s designed for.

By the time L’Académie québécoise du théâtre praised Barbeau for lifetime achievement in 2000, he had worked with every major director in Montreal, and nationally; and abroad, for directors such as Robert Lepage and Jacques Lassalle, at renowned venues including the Comédie Française. He’d also collected the first two of a series of Genie Awards (Canada’s version of the Academy Award), for artistic direction of Claude Jutra’s 1973 film Kamouraska, and Eliza’s Horoscope in 1975, starring Tommy Lee Jones. An Emmy Award in 2001 recognised his costumes for the Cirque show Dralion.

Actors he’s most enjoyed working with over the years aren’t divas who check themselves in the dressing room mirror; they share his belief that costumes help reveal a character. Gerard Depardieu, in theatrical and film versions of Tartuffe in 1984, and more recently in Nouvelle-France in 2005 (which garnered Barbeau a Prix Jutra) was a force of nature, yet Depardieu submitted to the designer’s vision. Adds Barbeau, “I think it’s better that he likes you, than not.”

These days, new generations of talented Quebecers are discovering the 76-year-old, who’s just finished collaborating with wunderkind Xavier Dolan on Dolan’s third film, Laurence Anyways. “I’ve been a freelancer all my life; your next job is always the most important,” he concedes. Ignoring trophies perched atop a bookshelf, he’d rather show off a recent letter from a 13-year-old fan in Reading, England, who writes that after watching Dralion on DVD, she’s been inspired to become a costume designer like Barbeau. It is, he admits, the best compliment of all.

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