Tony likes him: Cabaret costume designer and frustrated architect William Ivey Long

“I’m exhausted. How thrilling,” said William Ivey Long, the Tony Award-winning costume designer, one recent afternoon in his Chelsea town house. On Broadway, Mr. Long has outfitted the players in Cabaret , Chicago , 1776 and Smokey Joe’s Cafe . He has a dozen more shows in performance in other thespian capitals around the world. Come the evening of May 5, the North Carolina native will add a new role to his repertoire: fund-raiser extraordinaire. Mr. Long is the honorary chairman of a benefit that night for the Parsons Dance Company’s debut season at City Center, with dinner and dancing to follow at the Supper Club. Lee Radziwill, Wendy Wasserstein and John Guare are his honorary co-chairmen.

“I’ve never done any organizing or fund-raising before,” he drawled sprightly. “One doesn’t think of it. One thinks of oneself as a child. Why would I possibly be doing some grown-up thing like that for? Something so responsible and fiscal?”

Mr. Long, 50, has been a member of the dance company’s board of directors for about eight years, having met the company’s founder, David Parsons, some 15 years ago when Mr. Parsons danced with the Paul Taylor Company and Mr. Long designed the costumes. Mr. Parsons’ great talent impressed Mr. Long immediately.

“Elegant. Muscular. Ebullient. What else can I say? David is known for splitting his pants when he dances. Paul Taylor, like Twyla Tharp, like their dancers to wear ‘real’ clothes, so the trick designing for David was how to make a crotch gusset with an extension he couldn’t rip. And he’ll always do that extra bit he can do that no one else can when they dance, just to show you.”

Over the years, they became friends, Mr. Parsons and various girlfriends visiting on summer weekends Mr. Long’s house in the Berkshires, near the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. “I associate David with summer and relaxing. Relaxing as much as any of us can. Relax? We can give a nice show of relaxing, but really we’re ticking like a time bomb.”

Cats named Earl and Earnest were tickled aside to make room on the kitchen table for coffee cups and Easter cookies brought from a recent trip south. “Ticks,” he joked, pouring green-candied mocha beans over the plates of bonnet- and bunny-shaped cookies.

Mr. Long had just buried his father, who died in North Carolina after a long illness. “I’m in complete denial,” he said. “That’s the Southern way.”

Through the kitchen door, his town house garden was just going green with the season. The artist Louise Bourgeois lives next door. Mr. Long recalled how Ms. Bourgeois telephoned after he put up some defining walls in his garden. “William, William,” she quietly protested, “you’re cutting me out of your life.”

Mr. Long described himself as “a frustrated architect.” He has no less than eight houses in various stages of renovation, including ones the Berkshires, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. In Manhattan, his town house, built in the mid-19th century, is also his office. From the racks of costumes, including the dress Cabaret star Natasha Richardson stained with spilled egg during the prairie oyster scene, to writer and good pal Paul Rudnick’s wicker furniture, deaccessioned into several heaps in one of the front parlors, the décor is comfortingly madcap. A sort of attic chic one expects in the amusing houses of eccentric, aristocratic Englishmen, but is surprised to find here in a city pasteurized by decorators.

“I’ve got this strange fantasy about myself,” Mr. Long said. “Creating this time that was, and never was.” And what would he need a closet for, anyway? Clothes hang on racks in his bedroom.

“I know no other way to treat clothes except as costumes, so I put them on racks and cover them,” he said.

Mr. Long does not consider himself a fashion arbiter, although he keeps abreast of the fluff.

“Been to a fashion show? Seen the catwalk? Never. Never been to a fashion show,” said Mr. Long, whose big break on Broadway was designing costumes for Tommy Tune’s Nine in 1981. “I use fashion when it interests me. Ignore it when it doesn’t. In the theater, using ‘fashion’ can backfire on you in a big way. The storytelling is the important thing. Designing for a character the questions are, Would this person choose something of the moment, or something retro to wear, or something that makes them feel good?”

It was love for the theater, not fashion, that led Mr. Long to his career as a costume designer. “I wanted two things,” he explained. “To tell stories, because I come from North Carolina and that is storytelling soil, and I wanted to make beauty. My two driving forces, and they’re not the same thing.”

Mr. Long’s parents, Bill and Mary Long, both graduates of the drama school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, were theater professors. Every summer since 1940 in Manteo, N.C., they helped stage The Lost Colony , the nation’s longest-running outdoor drama, written by Paul Green. It became a family affair; William Ivey Long is now the production designer of the show. William Ivey–called William Ivey because “it would be too boring and too not me to just be William Long …The Ivey gives it oomph because ivy is a weed and weeds have vigor ,” he once confided to Paul Rudnick–studied French history at the College of William and Mary, art history in the graduate program at U.N.C. Chapel Hill, and then attended the Yale School of Drama, where his housemates included Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver. Other schoolmates were playwrights Wendy Wasserstein, Christopher Durang and Albert Innaurato. Mr. Rudnick was a Yale undergraduate at the time.

From Yale, Mr. Long came to New York in 1975 and took rooms at the Chelsea Hotel with the sole purpose of meeting Charles James, the legendary American couturier. Although Mr. James resided at the Chelsea, getting to know him wasn’t easy. For three months, Mr. Long’s notes slipped under Mr. James’ door were not responded to. Until one night, while watching Bruce Jenner win the gold medal for the decathlon in the 1976 Olympics, the following plan occurred to Mr. Long: “As no one would hire me to make costumes, I decided I would make them anyway, on dolls. I slipped a note under Mr. James’ door that explained that I was having trouble re-creating the bodice on a doll of Marie de Médicis I made, based on Rubens’ Coronation portrait; would he help me? Minutes later, ding-a-ling. ‘Hello, this is Charles James.’ It was the mad way, and from then on I cooked dinner, I walked the dog–Sputnik–I painted the bathroom, and I learned and learned and learned.

“I’m all for self-educating,” Mr. Long continued, looking out to his garden, where ivy and flowers waited to bloom. “I always feel that one is never educated enough. Why, you can be magna cum laude and dumb as a stick,” he said, not naming names.

Billy’s List

Quiz time!

1. “Dazzling Gold” and “Dazzling Silver” are:

a. Brooke Astor’s nicknames for Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta.

b. two new Estée Lauder fragrances.

c. the two star attractions at Body and Soul, the Sunday-only club.

2. Who recently declared, “I’ve had it. I want to look pretty. And I’m over couture. The new hippie sexy stuff is it for now”?

a. Courtney Love.

b. Pia Getty.

c. Pamela Lee.

3. Isabelle Goetz is:

a. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s hairdresser.

b. Kenneth Jay Lane’s housekeeper.

c. the Los Angeles heiress and Vogue shoe editor who recently sang the virtues of human growth hormone in The New York Times .

Answers: (1) b; (2) a; (3) a.

Tony likes him: Cabaret costume designer and frustrated architect William Ivey Long