Watch the Stage

Published December 3, 2015

Es Devlin is more of a “stage wizard” than “stage designer.” Over the last five years, Devlin has moved mountains for Kanye West on his “Yeezus” tour, mounted Jay Z on a giant LED cube for “Watch the Throne,” and granted Miley Cyrus’ undying wish to fly around arenas nationwide riding a tube steak during “Bangerz.” The requests she receives are often outrageous, but budgets in the millions alleviate the pressure. “Sometimes you think, ‘Fuck, I wish we had a bit more money!'” she confides, “but normally what you think is, ‘God I’m really glad we had to sit down and ask ourselves difficult questions about what was the most important thing and refine the design.'”

At 44, Devlin has already scratched the Pet Shop Boys, U2, and Rihanna off her list of dream collaborators, and has just secured a new client in Adele. The English pop powerhouse announced her tour off the back of record-breaking album sales, and now she’s turned to Devlin to ensure she can wow audiences with more than a megaphone vocal.

Since July 2014, Devlin has also exported her expertise to the creative team at Louis Vuitton, bringing her explosive spectacle to their catwalk shows and Vuitton’s city-hopping “Series 2” and “Series 3” exhibitions, now headed to Singapore. While her diary is filled with projects through 2018, Devlin cleared a small window to say “Hello.”

TREY TAYLOR: What have you got on the go at the moment?

ES DEVLIN: I’m working as creative director for Adele on her TV performances at the BBC and a one-off concert at Radio City Music Hall. I’m also designing Adele’s tour, which has just been announced.

TAYLOR: Is she much different to other artists you’ve worked with?

DEVLIN: Adele has a really strong and clear visual aesthetic. The collaboration has been very much about bringing to fruition her very personal and detailed vision of how her music translates into image. Many of the design ideas come directly from Adele describing exactly what she wants to see on stage. There’s a sense of being part of history-in-the-writing when working with her. She’s being compared to a lot of artists at the moment, but the whole point of our fascination with her is that it’s because she is entirely unique—her work has emerged from her unique set of cultural and personal circumstances. She’s a one-off storyteller, and we all want to hear the next chapter.

TREY TAYLOR: You’ve also worked very closely with Kanye West since his “Touch the Sky” tour in 2005. Has he made you sign an NDA?

DEVLIN: No.

TAYLOR: Is he a mad genius?

DEVLIN: He’s a demon creative; he’s an absolute force of creativity. He wakes up every morning and before he gets out of bed, he’s already usually written a few chords and sung them out from his bed down to the engineer who is downstairs, ready to write them down. I can’t say anything negative about him. He really is one of those few people on the planet who is entirely uncompromising in his vision and that’s what we all live for as collaborators. We want to collaborate with someone where anything they make is a life or death situation for them. If it’s not good, it’s basically death for him. But that might not be true now, you have to ask Vanessa [Beecroft] if that’s the case. He may have mellowed. Certainly when I speak to him he sounds pretty mellow with the kids and everything.

TAYLOR: Does he ever loosen up or get silly?

DEVLIN: I’ve got a nice story about him and [Louis Vuitton Visual Creative Director] Faye McLeod, actually. He came to our Cruise show, which was a lovely meeting of worlds, because having worked with him for so long and having him turning up at the Cruise collection in Palm Springs—where I was working with Faye—he was very generous with us and with his time. He invited us to come and hang out at this gorgeous hotel and he was just sitting there writing a beautiful song. He was riffing on a Nina Simone track. There were some models there along with Faye and [Faye’s creative partner] Ansel Thompson. While he was singing away on this Nina Simone track, he just started singing to Faye directly, just going, [sings] “Faaaye, Faaye, Faye”, just singing along which was a lovely little consolation of different collaborators.

TAYLOR: How did she react to that?

DEVLIN: She is cool as a cucumber. She’s Faye McLeod! You very rarely meet anyone who Faye doesn’t know. She’s not star struck in any way. She really takes people at a level of their human value rather than any status submitted to them.

TAYLOR: How did you first get involved working with Louis Vuitton?

DEVLIN: It was Faye and Ansel who reached out to me. I can remember it was the end of July 2014. I was sitting up a hill in Spain, where I tend to go on holiday, and they rang up and said, “Would you be interested in coming to collaborate with Nicolas Ghèsquiere?” So we had a little chat and I spoke to Florent Buonomano, who is Nicolas’ right-hand man. I spoke to Nicolas, Faye, and Ansel and they sounded like good people. I dived in and started working in August on the October Spring/Summer ’15 show.

TAYLOR: You hadn’t really done any fashion previously, had you?

DEVLIN: The only word in that sentence that is wrong is “really.” I just hadn’t done anything to do with fashion. I hadn’t done any at all, like nada, por nada.

TAYLOR: That must have been daunting.

DEVLIN: I have been approached by a few fashion brands over the years to do things, but it never felt quite right. Either it was too short notice or felt a bit sketchy. I genuinely just liked the sound and feel and vibe of these people. Then once I got going on it, it became a process of osmosis. I really had nothing to measure it against but Nicolas [Ghèsquiere] and I share a frame of reference.

TAYLOR: In terms of working together, what is it that you bring to the equation?

DEVLIN: I think it’s very helpful that I am from the outside of Louis Vuitton. Although I’m learning a bit now about the fashion world, coming as an outsider is totally helpful because you only react in a certain way for a short period of time. As soon as you learn the ways of any given genre, you start to behave like an insider, a little bit from the establishment. The other thing is that my nature of storytelling is time-based, narrative-based, music-based, storytelling-based, because of the way I work with theater and opera. That’s what [Faye] really wanted when she was looking for me. She wanted that art direction, more than design—someone who considered design moment by moment, as in how that piece of plywood joint with that piece of mirror and that piece of projection and that sound make an audience feel.

TAYLOR: Do you almost design backwards, thinking about how the audience will react and then putting the pieces together?

DEVLIN: Exactly. It’s a little bit like a piece of music. So if you’re making a symphonic bit of music, there will just be this sound that you couldn’t possibly pick apart because once those sounds fuse they become this thing. That is always a way that I attack problems to source an answer.

TAYLOR: How quickly does a show’s set come together from conception to completion?

DEVLIN: I guess probably four months, four or five months leading up to each show. We might spend longer, like for the May 2016 Cruise collection in Rio, we already started talking about it a couple of months ago.

TAYLOR: As Nicolas Ghèsquiere’s right-hand, what does Florent Buonomano do?

DEVLIN: Because I am not inside the studio, I can’t speak at all on how much of his input is on the clothes, but certainly in terms of collaborating with Faye, Ansel, and myself, he is a very crucial and wonderful collaborator. He was a child star if you look him up. His sister also works for Louis Vuitton who is equally beautiful, they are both very exquisite looking people. If you walk into a room, you’ve got Ansel, Faye, Florent, and Nicolas. It’s a very pleasant room to be in just in terms of the level of beauty around you. Florent brings this gorgeous showbiz energy to things, which balances really well with Nicolas, who’s quite cerebral and has an incredibly purist approach.

TAYLOR: What can you tell me about the upcoming work you’ve got with Louis Vuitton?

DEVLIN: We are now working towards March and the Fall/Winter 2016 show and taking “Series 3” to Singapore. Then towards March and on to May it becomes a continuum once you dive into next year. In terms of what the substance will be, it’s literally contingent upon Nicolas. He really drives the process; he and Florent will start thinking about the clothes, they gather a little palette of references and they share it with Faye and Ansel and myself and then we all gather around as a team and start cooking something up.

FOR MORE ON ES DEVLIN, VISIT HER WEBSITE