Art Meets Activism: Michael S. Robinson Garment Wows at Met Gala

Last week, Michael S. Robinson, Head of Arts, was making finishing stitches on a stunning garment he created for Broadway producer Jordan Roth to wear to the 2021 Met Gala that evening. The next day, he was back at work at Poly, where his costume-making career began, making decisions in preparation for the Upper School play.

Jordan Roth in a coat by Michael Sylvan Robinson.Photo: Jamie McCarthy / MG21 / Getty Images for The Met Museum / Vogue  

In Gala news articles, photo captions read, “Jordan Roth in Michael Sylvan Robinson.” Very heady stuff for any designer, but Robinson is an internationally acclaimed fiber artist and mixed media artist. He has been Head of Arts at Poly since 2018. Roth is the Tony-winning producer of Broadway shows such as Hadestown and the new Pass Over and president of Jujamcyn Theaters.

The Met Gala is a fundraiser for its Costume Institute. This year’s Gala theme was “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.”

After a dress that Robinson had created was featured in Vogue Germany, the men’s editor, Michael Philouze, suggested Robinson as a collaborator to Roth. Jordan Roth came to Robinson’s home studio to talk about concepts. After he was chosen for the commission, Robinson collaborated on what Roth wanted the garment to express. “His intentions became the text of the garment,” Robinson said, including Roth’s own poetry. “We wear our identities in the world,” Robinson said, adding, “Identities are like clothes; they can be restrictive.” Working on this project, Robinson said he felt a “personal resonance” as to gender identity and queer people in the world. He described the process as a “dazzling collaboration.”

Michael Robinson Met Gala dress

The project began with design renderings and then went through five or six stages. The formal work began after July 4. Robinson worked with four young costume designers from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts graduate program in design and with Bill Bull, a professional dressmaker.

Michael Robinson Met Gala dress

The garment designed for Roth is a great example of Robinson’s textile work, which he has described as “art meets activism.” For Roth, Robinson created a full-length coat with a train that folds like peacock wings. Gold fabric served as the base for the garment. In the process, Robinson took photos of artwork, such as Botticelli faces, and favorite statues at the Met, which he then printed onto the fabric. He added sequins and pieces of fabric. The garment, which Robinson describes as  “wearable art,”  also features eyes.  The garment itself includes the words in bold, black capitals, “IDENTITY IS …” as well as Roth’s original poetry about identity. Built-in harnessing  supported the structure of the garment to make it easier to wear. On the Met Gala day, Robinson spent the final hours with Jordan Roth at the Mark Hotel, stitching until the last minute.

“The experience of working in the theatre at Poly influenced who I have become as a professional.”

Michael Robinson Met Gala dress close-up

Robinson credits Poly with giving him his start in costume making. He began teaching drama and art at what is now Poly’s Lower School in 1990 and moved to the Dyker Heights campus in 1996 and served as a Middle School visual arts and performing arts teacher, costume designer and costume shop supervisor, and Performing Arts summer program director. When Robinson returned to Poly in 2018, he remarked that he was “especially grateful to Poly for investing in my professional development in costume design. The experience of working in the theatre at Poly influenced who I have become as a professional.”  For Robinson, ​the Richard Perry Theatre brings back great memories of life-changing opportunities and long hours putting finishing touches on costumes before opening night of an Upper School musical. He credits Upper School director Sonya Baehr as “an incredible mentor and guiding presence.” And what Robinson learned at the side of David Higham, Theatre Manager/Technical Director Stage Craft & Construction, “an incredible talent,” is immeasurable, he says.

It was at Poly that Robinson created his first dress. That was for a dance concert in the 1990s. “I had never used a sewing machine before that moment,” he said. Robinson had envisioned his future as a Middle School drama teacher. But Higham encouraged him to become a costume designer. When Robinson had the opportunity to go to graduate school, he promised himself he would take every opportunity to work on his own visual artwork.

In 2019, one of Robinson’s works, “Venus Rising,” was exhibited during Rome Art Week at Counterweave Arts in Rome. This was his first opportunity to share his work beyond the U.S. Also that year, Robinson was the Work In Progress artist at the Textile Arts Center’s West Village studio in NYC.

Michael Robinson Met Gala dress close-up
Michael Robinson Met Gala dress

This has been an exciting summer for Robinson and the commission for the garment for Jordan Roth was a “special, high-pressure, and inspiring experience.” As Head of Arts, Robinson pays it forward, telling new teachers in the Arts Department that at Poly, we encourage artists to be able to say yes to opportunities to do their art on and off campus.

Robinson shared that the Met Gala experience brings him full circle at the Met. While working at Poly’s Lower School, Robinson worked at the Met two days a week in retail, such as selling jewelry associated with a Frida Kahlo exhibit. A painting by Robinson was once included in an employee art exhibit there. So, 30 years before his exciting night at the Met Gala, Robinson had already had a painting exhibited at the Met!

“Michael is leading the most vibrant independent school arts program in New York City,” said Head of School Audrius Barzdukas P’20. “He is weaving together working artists, master teachers, world-class performers, professional musicians, and renowned academics into a teaching faculty and program that is a true tapestry of creativity and inspiration for our students. Poly Arts are on the rise and Michael is leading us to new heights. I can’t wait to see the view from the top.”

Michael Robinson Met Gala dress