by Jamesetta M. Walker
Janet Jackson is a style chameleon. The 51-year-old singer/actress/new mom can flawlessly transition from cherub-faced girl next door to sex siren to sizzling dance queen. Helping her convey these many personas is Robért Behar, Jackson’s chief stylist and costume designer for more than a decade. His job is to make sure that “all details of the garment work and move and have a purpose,” he said in a phone interview from California. “There is nothing done frivolously; everything is in the right spot at the right time.”
Hampton Roads concertgoers will get a chance to see how art, science and mood come together in the costuming for the “State of the World” tour tonight at Scope in Norfolk. In his arresting French accent, Behar discussed what it is like working with a down-to-earth icon, and what it takes to make her feel at ease in a constant dance routine. Here are excerpts.
Walk us from conceptualization to actualization when it comes to a tour, and how this differs from prepping Janet for red carpet appearances.
A red carpet appearance is just one moment. It’s a matter of making Janet, ‘Janet’ for that moment. A tour is a whole different thing because a tour is manufacturing her inspiration, manufacturing her visual, her view of what the tour is about. When we work on a tour, we always start conversations with images, references, collecting some months before.
Janet always makes you feel welcome, feel comfortable to express yourself. She is absolutely fantastic that way. She also is the creator of all the things. I’m able to be in (the process of) sketching and design, but I listen to her. It is a fantastic and unique collaboration.
How is the costuming meant to reflect the mood of “State of the World”?
Janet represents a very powerful human being, a strong woman, but at the same time a certain softness. Normally we’d go into a futuristic approach to the costumes. At this point in time we went for a more approachable and a more street (take), but still remaining in futuristic ways. That’s the expression of the state of the world – slightly dark, slightly light, too, because we use a lot of white. It’s a mix of the world and all its beauty.
Janet is no stranger to touring and the importance of image. What things are you two doing differently now than, say, for the more pared-down feel of the last tour, “Up and Close and Personal,” in 2011? How are you pushing her to evolve?
(Chuckles) We don’t push Janet to evolve. Janet constantly evolves. This is what I always say to her, “Thank you for allowing me to be a better me.” She always has pushed me to further the look, to strengthen the image, and stuff like that. When it comes to creating, we have to remember that her tour is almost a straight hour and a half of dancing. We have to work around that; we have to work around finding exceptional fabrics that also are appropriate and help her throughout the show to be able to dance 90 minutes long. So we evolved with the fabrics.
We’re always looking for stretch fabrics that allow her to bring her arm all the way up and bring it down, and the garment doesn’t look crazy, or for her to go down and do the move to the floor, come up and still look intact. I’m always in search of new and improved material. For example, the one that we have right now on tour is a bond and stretch, and it’s matte – it doesn’t shine; it has an elegance to it. Janet is an incredibly elegant woman. We want to keep that in mind – and also being able to dance. … So it’s sort of a puzzle to allow her to be active, but still look on point.
I’m guessing there are multiples of costumes?
Absolutely. … Multiples of costumes for her, multiples of costumers for the dancers. There is always enough in case there is an accident. Listen, they dance. I have never seen people dance that hard, you know. The clothes have to be unbreakable. But that is not the reality of things, so there is a backup.
Are you present at every tour stop?
No. We create the wardrobe. I do a few runs with her and then halfway through I’ll do another couple more, just to make sure that everything is on point all the time.
How would the woman who is not a superstar channel Janet’s effervescence when it comes to style?
(He interrupts the question, laughing.) She’s got to be born with it! She’s got to be born with it! What reflects Janet is individuality, and when a woman is an individual not driven by outside sources, is doing her own thing, that’s when the magic happens – the grace and the elegance and the charisma comes. Because that makes you unique.