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Bradon McDonald: From Dance to Project Runway—and Back Again

Bradon McDonald: From Dance to Project Runway—and Back Again


The designer was a top-tier dancer before he was a reality show finalist. Now he’s collaborating with Jessica Lang, his former Juilliard classmate, on her new work premiering this week.

Photo by Stephanie Berger

When Bradon McDonald was a dance student at Juilliard, the prestigious school for the performing arts, he took to collecting unique, high-end fabrics, just for fun. "I loved it," he tells Out. "I looked at it as artwork I could afford to buy." At first, he just collected swatches, which soon turned into quilt covers and throw rugs. When his then-boyfriend now-husband bought him a sewing machine, McDonald became a man obsessed, dragging that machine around the world during his decade-long career with the Mark Morris Dance Group. "I would sew during the day and perform at night," he said. Quilt covers turned into bright and intricate bags, first presented as gifts to friends and later offered to paying customers.

Choreographer Jessica Lang was a lucky early recipient. "I am a proud owner of two BradonPAUL originals," she says, referring to McDonald's brand, which incorporates his middle name. "I still use them and they are over 10 years old. That's good quality!"

The two were fast friends at Juilliard and have remained close since. Now, they're collaborating professionally for the first time on Lang's new work, The Wanderer, premiering this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Lang, who has emerged in the last several years as one of the most promising and buzzed-about contemporary choreographers, knew right away that she wanted McDonald involved in the project.

"He really understands what type of clothing a dancer needs, all the problems costumes can present when you try to be so physical in it," she said. "And combine that with his artistic understanding of fashion and style, and his craftsmanship and technical skill, I just knew he had everything I was looking for in a collaborator."

Dance is a flash-in-the-pan kind of career: You train through your youth, perform through your formative adult years, and your body gives out just in time for a midlife crisis and the "What next?" moment. McDonald, by any standard, has managed to launch a remarkably quick and successful Act II after having made his mark in a critically acclaimed Act I. Reviewing his final performance for the Mark Morris Dance Group, one of the foremost contemporary dance companies in the world, Alastair Macaulay, the chief dance critic of the New York Times, wrote of him, "Every Mark Morris dancer exemplifies virtues of dancing freshly in the moment, but nobody makes each moment fresher than Mr. McDonald. In a company that seems full of heart, he seems to have the most heart of all."

A day after retiring from dance, he began classes at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, trading coasts to be closer to his partner. Within a few years he was nationally known as a finalist and fan favorite on Project Runway, consistently turning out smart and sophisticated winning looks that, to echo his dancing, were always fresh and full of heart. Currently, there are three components to McDonald's budding fashion business: the private commissions (custom bridal gowns and special occasion wear), the commercial projects (he has a line of dance wear coming in February for the dance apparel company Capezio), and his costume work for the performing arts.


Costume designer Bradon McDonald, choreographer Jessica Lang & dancer Kana Kimura | Photo by Milan Misk

Creating at the intersection of high fashion and costume is a tricky tightrope - especially given the frequency that "costume-y" is used as a put down by the Project Runway judges. "They're not looking down on costumes," McDonald explains. "What they mean is that it's not believable. Like someone's playing a character in a movie; they're not themselves." McDonald said he puts on different aesthetic hats when working in each world but that thinking differently in different settings breed cross-fertilization -- an innovative silhouette on stage, say, or a stretch fabric favorable for a dancer that makes its way onto the runway. According to Lang, this serves both the dancers and the dance. "[McDonald] knows how to make a visually stunning impact," she said. "But then he also knows that he has to make realistic fabric choices that can cope with the wear and tear of the performance and give us easy-care costumes to make repeatable wear and touring possible."

For The Wanderer, a tale of love, jealousy and loss set to the music of Schubert, McDonald and Lang devised a wardrobe of eight costumes: the Wanderer, the Miller's Daughter, the Hunter, the Brook, and four Others. The starting point of the design -- and of the work in general -- is a large fragile tree made out of white string (envisioned by Lang and made real by set designer Mimi Lien), which can be manipulated to suggest a forest or myriad other settings and props.

For McDonald, it was a strong catalyst for his contribution. "It was super clean, modern and had an organic line," he said. "The trick for me was because the set is stark and modern and the music is not and [Lang's] choreography is not -- it's lush and full and classical in a way -- I felt the costumes had to be a bridge between those two perspectives."

With his past in dance, his future in fashion and the present mixing and matching the two, McDonald is clearly adept at building those bridges.

The Wanderer is at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Dec. 3-6. Watch a video about the costumes below:

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