The artistic collaboration between New York brand VPL and photographer Dane Shitagi feels like it was meant to be.
VPL is the renowned pioneer behind the underwear-as-outerwear movement, and recently reinvented itself as a high-fashion activewear label. Its name stands for “visible panty line”.
Shitagi is the Manhattan photographer behind the stunningly creative Ballerina Project, a growing portfolio of dance imagery that has been more than a decade in the making. His Japanese surname translates, literally, as “underwear”.
So it seemed inevitable that the two would meet and marry their respective artistic visions.
The results of the VPL-Ballerina Project’s pas de deux can be seen on both their websites, with the fashion label supplying its graphic activewear fashions for Shitagi’s recent additions to his ballet portfolio.
“We have known about the project for a while, as the photographer Dane loved VPL products and used them in his shoot,” Kikka Hanazawa, VPL’s president, told Lingerie Talk. “I wanted to find out exactly how we can help his artistic pursuit, and we met up finally. We needed to find a way to work together.”
Shitagi has created more than 1,000 images for The Ballerina Project since it began 14 years ago as a way to showcase the complementary crafts of dance, photography and fashion design. It’s enormously popular with balletomanes — the project’s Facebook page has more than 800,000 likes, the most of any ballet-themed account on the social media site.
And the appeal of the Ballerina Project is instantly obvious: Shitagi uses professional dancers, active or retired, from major American companies and shoots them in graceful, athletic poses against unexpected urban and rural environments. Masterpieces of composition, the images typically contrast the expressive human form with the built environment that envelops it, and often have a powerful emotional impact.
Many of Shitagi’s images are shot in the New York area, but he’s also traveled to Toronto, Seattle and Hawaii to capture his unexpected compositions.
The Ballerina Project supports itself by selling prints (many of them in black-and-white) and a subscription-based website that features the most recent work.
Working with Shitagi was a perfect fit for the trendsetting VPL. Not only did it give the company an unparalleled showcase for its new style direction, which it calls ProAction, but it allows VPL to immerse itself once again in the world of modern dance.
Launched in 2003, VPL has enjoyed a mutual love affair with dance in general (founder Victoria Bartlett once worked as a stylist for Madonna), and the ballet community in particular, for a long time.
A 2008 VPL collection was inspired by the work of dance greats Martha Graham and Vaslav Nijinsky, and the company has been dressing dancers for New York City Ballet promotions and magazine editorials for several years (that’s the NYCB’s Ana Sophia Scheller above, in a 2010 image used on the cover of the NYCB brochure).
And while it was ostensibly an underwear brand, the fashion- and function-conscious VPL always seemed to be evolving into the sporty, dancewear-like brand that it has now become. Early signs of the company’s new direction were evident in another of VPL‘s many collaborations, a 2011 gig in which Bartlett dressed New York’s Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet company (above) for an avant garde touring production.
It’s most memorable love letter to the ballet world, though, was the highly theatrical vest made from pointe shoes (below) that models wore to close VPL‘s 2006 runway show for New York Fashion Week.
“We think images of ballet dancers in VPL shot by Dane really echo the VPL fan’s ‘inner ballerina’,” Hanazawa said. “Our fall ProAction film captures the passion of modern women loving various sports, from tennis to spin to skateboarding. They are VPL muses [and] we wanted to transcend the norm of casting only fashion models. Our collaboration with Dane is another important step forward for our ProAction direction.”
VPL helps Shitagi not only be supplying outfits, but by recommending unique locales for his memorable shots. In fact, the dramatic image below, overlooking the Manhattan skyline, was shot from the balcony of Hanazawa’s West Village apartment.
Hanazawa said VPL has “many future plans” to support The Ballerina Project, including a possible exhibition at the brand’s Mercer Street store in SoHo. The company also plans to incorporate feedback from ballet dancers into the design and development of future fashion collections.
But VPL isn’t the only fashion underwear label collaborating with The Ballerina Project these days.
The youth-centric Australian brand Black Milk, famous for its pop-art graphic tights and bodysuits, is featured in numerous recent photos, as is the new KamaliActive line from legendary womenswear and swimwear designer Norma Kamali.
In a recent post on the Black Milk Clothing blog, Shitagi explained why he works with contemporary fashion brands in styling his photoshoots:
“It has been our goal and direction over the last 4-5 years to not play up on the stereotype of a ballerina,” he said. “Ballerinas are often depicted along these stereotypes and often become caricatures of what the public expects them to be.
“Because of this direction we have stayed away from leotards and typical ballerina-type costumes. We prefer to use fashion that is more organic or stated to the actual subjects that we work with.”
[ED. NOTE: To see the VPL x The Ballerina Project photoshoots in action, VPL has posted several short videos on its YouTube Channel. For a longer look at the brand’s new direction, watch the Pro Action film that highlights its fall collection.]
[IMAGE CREDITS: The main photo at the top of this article shows Isabella Boylston, a soloist with the American Ballet Theater in VPL. All images below feature VPL clothing, unless otherwise indicated. All © The Ballerina Project and Dane Shitagi.]