Bikini Bottom by Way of Party City

Posted May 10, 2018 7:36 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — To bring to life the wackadoo cartoon world of Bikini Bottom in “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical,” designer David Zinn went for a bright, found-object aesthetic that mixes “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” Etsy craft, classic MGM musicals and acid-house clubland. In this world, a mermaid’s tail is festooned with rubber gloves.

It’s not often that the answer to the question “What are you wearing?” is Target, Party City and Comme des Garçons. “Who can say that?” Zinn, 49, said, laughing, on a recent backstage tour of his most inventive costumes for the show. “Drag queens and SpongeBob SquarePants, that’s who.”

Zinn received Tony nominations for both costume and set design, two of the show’s 12 nods.

— SpongeBob

Although he is, technically speaking, a sponge, the title character has a fairly straightforward costume. “When we started workshopping the show, the first thing we did was explore what we needed to do in order for people to recognize Ethan (Slater) as SpongeBob,” Zinn said. “We gave a little nod to the color of the character with the shirt (pointing to the gingham fabric), which we made with squares because he’s … square. My MFA dollars at work! Ethan is so athletic that the pants really had to move and stretch. We also wanted SpongeBob to have Fluevog shoes, but we gave them a danceable sole. I wanted the vibe to feel like the early ‘90s: Deee-Lite! The East Village! Fluevogs!”

— Patrick Star

“Stoner surfer guy” is the idea behind the basic costume for SpongeBob’s best friend, a dimwitted starfish. But his most magnificent accessory is a crocheted cape, handmade for the show, which is brought out during “Super Sea Star Savior,” the gospel-themed musical number in which Patrick (Danny Skinner) becomes the prophet of a sardine cult.

“Five or six years ago, people were yarn-bombing on trees and stuff, and I thought it was a cool vibe, that maybe we should yarn-bomb the theater,” Zinn said. The director, Tina Landau, “liked the idea but thought it was a little soft for us, but I kept all these crochet ideas in my head. And then of course the fringe has these sorts of mylar curtains that are a bit of a theme for us — it’s a little sparkle thrown in.”

— Squidward Q. Tentacles

For Squidward’s big dance number, “I’m Not a Loser,” Zinn went all out. “That’s what Squidward (Gavin Lee) would fantasize about: He just would be at home, watching 1940s and 1950s dance movies,” he said. “When the number starts he’s wearing the pants already so we needed a tailcoat that, when he put it on, would make the pants feel fancy. The color is minty/sea foamy, with gold lamé lapels. And it’s all hand-beaded.”

Putting on the coat requires “an unbelievably quick change,” Zinn said. “In a way the coat closes itself; magnets are our friends.”

For Squidward’s chorus of sea anemones, Zinn sneaked in a little tribute to one of his favorite designers. “They have a sequined tailcoat, a kind of paisley-sequined vest, and lapels with a velvet collar and a nude inset,” he said. “The nude inset is my nod to Theoni Aldredge’s ‘Chorus Line’ finale — that was the touchstone of elegance for me.”

— Goldie

So named because he looks bit like a goldfish, Goldie is “one of the 9,000 people that L’ogan J’ones plays,” Zinn said. “He is a good example of what went into making Bikini Bottom: sculptural, colorful, using found objects in a fun way.” The hat is built from pompoms and aquarium grass, the skirt is made of beach towels, and the sleeves are stitched out of sweaters Zinn found on Etsy. “Some of the costumes are on the warm side, I’m not going to lie,” he said.

— Clown Fish

“The ruff is made of fabric, balloons, ribbon and tulle netting,” Zinn said. And if Clown Fish (Kelvin Moon Loh) looks like an escapee from Party City, it’s because much of the material for his outfit was actually sourced there. “One of the things you do as a costume designer is get people excited about the crazy journey you want them go on, and that includes the shop (building the outfits),” Zinn said. “Eric Winterling had found these balloons and he was like, ‘I think, maybe …’ and I was like, ‘Yes! You got it!’ ”