Willa Kim, a two-time Tony winning costume designer who crowned chorines with longhorns and draped Duke Ellington’s hoofers in ermine and feather boas, died Friday in Washington state, where she had been staying with a niece on Vashon Island, according to the New York Times. She was 99 and had been in poor health.
Born in L.A. to Korean-American parents, Kim had a fantastic eye for detail and a streak of the outrageous that thrilled audiences, excited directors and gave actors a sense of ownership of their roles. Having served an apprenticeship with the legendary Broadway designer Raoul Pene du Bois on
such Golden Age shows as Wonderful Town, Gypsy and The Music Man, she won her first Tony Award in 1981 for Sophisticated Ladies, which recreated a Harlem jazz club and was built around Ellington’s music; and her second a decade later for The Will Rogers Follies, which was staged by Tommy Tune and featured chorus dancers in bovine outfits complete with horns and rope tails. She earned four more Tony nominations as well.
Kim created the clothes for Victor/Victoria including those for the star, Julie Andrews, making her Broadway comeback in the 1995 musical adaptation of the film, both of them directed by husband Blake Edwards. She starred in the title role as a woman playing a man impersonating a woman. In a televised interview with Newsday theater critic Linda Winer, Kim addressed the challenge of also working with Andrews’ differently shaped replacements in the hit show, Liza Minnelli and especially Raquel Welch, especially the latter who, as Kim noted, “was legendary for certain things, and she doesn’t want to minimize any of these.”
In the same interview, Kim acknowledged one of her chief innovations as a costume designer, using Lycra jersey, which was at once form-fitting and stretchy, flattering figures and not requiring zippers and buttons. The material would become a standard part of the costumière’s arsenal.
Kim went on to design the costumes for over 20 Broadway shows, as well as many Off-Broadway and regional productions, including Sam Shepard’s Operation Sidewinder, Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Song And Dance. In addition, she worked in ballet, modern dance and opera, including a long association with Eliot Feld. Kim’s death was first reported by Broadway World.