I have a side hustle as a stylist to classical musicians, and I’m always interested in hearing the performer’s point of view about what he or she wears on stage. So when I was pitched by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to explore the fashion background of soprano Leslie Ann Bradley, I jumped at the chance to chat with her about her views on concert wear in the classical world. She will appear in “Water Music” with the Toronto Symphony June 2 and 3.
Your mother was a huge influence on your interest in fashion. How did she make the leap from farm life in Port Perry, Ontario, to running a women’s clothing store?
I think Mom just had an instinct and a passion and she followed it. Mom came from a household that valued hard work and agriculture, but also music and creativity. I think Mom had a talent for visual arts and she found her way to expressing that through fashion. She always tells the story of how at the age of eight she coordinated her first fashion show with her eight siblings by using second-hand clothing and dress-ups. She also used a large industrial extension cord as her “microphone” and bed sheets tied to a clothes line as “professional stage curtains.” I love that her instinct was so strong at such a young age. She has really just followed that instinct all the way to building a business.
Wow – it sounds like she always knew how to stage a show! Tell us about your first fashion retail job.
My mom opened her boutique called JILLIAN’S in Port Perry in 1998 and she hired me to help from time to time. I was mostly folding or steaming clothing, but I had the opportunity to watch first-hand how mom worked with her customers. What amazed me about Mom, and still does, was how she was so good at styling. Something that looked nothing at all on the hanger would completely come to life on her clients. I also loved watching how Mom’s clients left feeling so good about their purchases and more importantly, feeling good about themselves. Over the years, I moved up to being Mom’s Assistant Buyer and then things really got fun. We would travel to see what designers were bringing out for the next season and I would watch Mom pick and choose clothing that inspired her. Most recently, Mom and I went to the Coterie Show in New York, where we picked up some new handbag lines for her boutique. It was so much fun.
Did this job prepare you in any way for the stage as an opera singer?
If anything, it gave me a huge appreciation for people in the fashion industry. In opera specifically, I admire the men and women who are able to bring music and drama to life by way of their visual talents and skills.
So, I hear you own shoes auctioned off by Oprah Winfrey! How did you feel when you first opened the box to see what you bought?
I think my heart stopped! Oprah was having an auction of some of her clothing and shoes to raise money for The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. I have always admired Oprah, so much so, I even know we have the same shoe size, and when I saw these beautiful golden Lanvin pumps up for auction….well, I placed a bid and said a prayer and… fortune smiled. I’m looking at those shoes in my closet as I write this and asking myself why it was so important to me to have them. I think the answer is truthfully that at that particular time in my life, I was in need of some courage and Oprah’s shoes helped me feel empowered. I don’t mean that to sound materialistic. I mean to say that fashion can lift you when you feel down, it can inspire you. It can also tell a story about your life.
Doesn’t sound materialistic to me – fashion can definitely affect your mood in a good way, and Oprah is an inspiring woman, so to literally walk in her shoes is a cool thing. As a concertizing soprano, I assume you wear a lot of gowns. Any favourite designers?
I do indeed wear a lot of gowns. My favorite designer is Debora Ward, she has designed probably 80% of the gowns I have worn over the years. Debora began her career working for a major Canadian fashion house and now she runs her own business near my home town of Port Perry, Ontario. Debora is a true master; equal parts creative spirit and perfectionist. I have gowns she made for me a decade ago that still look brand new because she takes so much care with their form and craftsmanship. Debora is amazing with colours and movement of fabrics, she also knows my body and designs what flatters me best. I really value the relationship we have developed over the years; she has my total trust.
If you were asked to sing at a fancy gala, but the theme is edgy and modern, with no gowns allowed, what would you wear instead?
Ok, so first I would panic and second I would call my mother. In fact, I’m going to do that now. Alright, the answer is I would borrow my Mom’s leopard print knee length jacket with a faux fur collar and a pair of really modern, edgy earrings with some serious bling to them. And heels, of course.
I think the attire of classical musicians needs an overhaul. Why is the classical genre so much slower than pop, rock, country, blues and music of the modern age to adapt to a modern look?
I am really not qualified to answer this question. I certainly am much more classic in my clothing choices than my mother, for example. But many of my singer friends are very fashion forward in their choices. In particular, I seem to have a lot of really glamorous mezzo-soprano friends. And in general, I think singers take great care in their sense of style. If we are speaking about the classical industry at large, I might offer that we are indeed different than pop, rock, etc., because our genre is so much older and so steeped in tradition. I know that when I prepare something musically, I try to go to the heart of the piece, honouring when and where it was first performed and by whom. Often times this music is from the 18th and 19th century, so perhaps that subconsciously affects my wardrobe choices. But I honestly don’t know the answer. What I know for sure, is that I am very fortunate to have a mother in the fashion industry; I have relied on her time and time again. And I truly believe that when artists from different industries come together to create something beautiful, everybody wins.
Leslie Ann Bradly appears at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra “Water Music” concerts Saturday June 2, 2018 at 7:30 PM, and Sunday, June 3, 2018 at 3:00 PM, both at Roy Thomson Hall.
The Lanvin pumps that once belonged to Oprah