Ice Network

Talent behind the costumes: Designers talk shop

From preliminary sketches to final fittings, creating outfits no simple task
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Operating in relative obscurity, costume designers have the important responsibility of bringing a skater's vision for an outfit to life on the ice. -Sarah S. Brannen

Everyone has an opinion on figure skating costumes. From beautiful ladies dresses to dance costumes that range from elegant to downright peculiar, the costumes package the program. 

For the most part, skating designers and costume makers labor in obscurity. Occasionally, a big name from the fashion world like Vera Wang or Roberto Cavalli steps in, and they get a lot of attention. But the majority of the highly skilled designers creating most of the costumes fans see on ice are not household names. At this time of year, they are swamped with work, creating costumes that will bring programs to life on the ice in the upcoming season.

One of the biggest names in skating costume design, Jef Billings, got his start working with Bob Mackie on The Carol Burnett Show, but most skating designers learned to sew as children.

Brad Griffies was a singles skater. Del Arbour was a roller skater and ice dancer. Several designers had children who skated and used their sewing skills to make costumes for them.

"Because of the nature of what we do, because there is no formal training, we are all self taught," Jan Longmire said. "No one ever came out of fashion school and said, 'I want to design for figure skaters.' And, if you design it, you have to be able to make it. Skating is a very peculiar thing."

Griffies says he read sewing books and studied costumes to see how they were put together.

"When I was 13 or 14, I started sewing a little bit because my grandfather sewed," Griffies said. "I was always a creative child, and he and my grandmother got me a sewing machine one year. I started making skating costumes for friends when I was about 15. I don't know any of the lingo or anything. I kind of fake it till I make it."

Arbour learned to sew as a child and went on to take sewing and tailoring classes, eventually teaching tailoring herself.

"I started sewing when I was 5 years old," Arbour said. "My mom let me play around with the sewing machine; she used to make all my clothes. When I started skating, I made my own costumes. When my kids started skating, I thought, 'Why don't I do what I like?' I started in my basement and kept going."

Longmire was taking skating lessons as an adult when she mentioned to her coach that she liked to sew.

"She asked if I'd be interested in making skating costumes," Longmire said. "She introduced me to Burt Lancon, who was going to nationals with his pairs partner. He took me down to L.A. and showed me where to buy fabric. He bought some white fabric, and he took me to Hollywood, where he knew someone who dyed fabric."

Growing up in a family where everyone sewed, Pat Pearsall learned the skill at an early age. She started making skating costumes for her daughter 20 years ago.

"I had a lot of trouble getting dresses here in Houston," Pearsall said. "I was happy to pay someone to do it, but it just wasn't possible. So I started making her dresses myself, and one thing led to another ... you know how these things mushroom. People would say, 'Where did you get that? Could you make my daughter one?' For years, I didn't take this very seriously; it was sort of a side hobby."

Many skaters in Boston get costumes made by Yumi Barnett-Nakamura, who learned to sew as a child in Japan and also first started making skating costumes for her daughter.

"Ten years ago, we bought a dress for my daughter on a website for $400, but she wanted to alter it. So, I said, 'OK, mama's going to make it,'" Barnett-Nakamura said.

Susi Hubbs, known as "The Costume Lady," is a ballet dancer. She learned to sew in a 4H group and started making her own costumes when she was 13. She ended up with a workspace in a dance shop in Colorado Springs, sewing costumes for dancers and other performers. Skaters coming in to buy tights saw her dance costumes and asked her to make outfits for them.

First, the music

Regardless of a designer's background, each one goes through a similar process when creating a costume. Most designers start by listening to a client's music. They ask skaters to send their measurements and a photo and, sometimes, to share their ideas about possible color choices.

"I ask for detailed cuts of their music because I'm a music freak," said Longmire, who designed Ashley Wagner's Black Swan and Samson and Delilah costumes. "I do tons of research on the composer, or watch the movie. Then I do lots of research on the skater -- how they move, how they land. A Black Swan for Ashley is not going to be a Black Swan for someone else."

"I've been very fortunate that when I hear the music, the music will tell me what to do," Arbour said. "I have a rule that the skater makes the last decision. I feel that the skater is out there all by herself or himself and he or she needs to be comfortable. The worst thing is worrying about your costume."

Generally, designers send several sketches to from which to choose. Griffies sends sketches in black and white, and doesn't talk to his clients about color until they have chosen a design.

"I listen to the music and I look at the skater and think, 'How do I want this skater to look? What do we want to show off on them? Do they have long legs, or a great back?'" Griffies said. "I design what I think is going to look stunning on the skater."

Skating costumes present a particular challenge, because they have to please not only judges stationed just a few feet away but audience members sitting in the back row and fans watching on television as well.

"I try to think of doing detailed work but also having detail that works from far away," Griffies said. "Most of the people who watch skating are watching online or on TV, and a lot of stuff gets lost. It's always exciting to see something live, because the sparkles really pop under the arena lights."

Hubbs, who specializes in costumes for boys and men, bases her designs on fabric choice rather than sketches. She usually brings the skater into her studio to look at fabrics.

"The skater, parents and coach and I design together," she said. "It's easier for me to work when I'm inspired by a fabric. Fabric choices are limited here, and you can't touch it online. I prefer to find a fabric I want to work with and work the design around that."

Fitting

Many designers live and work far away from their clients, so the design and fitting process has to be done long distance. Skaters are given careful instructions on how to take their own measurements, and they usually send several photos. Designers email sketches, knowing full well that, these days, the skater will be looking at them on a small phone screen.

"I generally don't do more than one fitting," Longmire said. "I get the thing almost built and then we test it out, and if there's any weirdness, we find that out."

Griffies, who lives in Atlanta, does most of his work long distance. He sends the constructed garment to skaters to try on, and then they send it back so he can make any necessary adjustments before he does the beading work. Griffies specializes in glamorous crystal-encrusted costumes, like the dress Gracie Gold wore for her Beyoncé show program. He says he can spend as much as 30 or 40 hours hand-beading a dress.

Hubbs and Barnett-Nakamura do most of their work for local skaters, so they're able to do fittings in person.

"I make each girl's pattern. You can buy patterns, but it's not right," Barnett-Nakamura said. "Each girl is different; everybody has a different curve."

Research

A costume based on a movie or historical character can entail quite a bit of research. Pearsall relies on Hollywood to do most of the research for her.

"The best research is done by big companies like Disney," she said. "They do extensive research when they do period pieces."

"The germ of the idea has so much to do with knowing the skater," Longmire said. "It's so subliminal. Putting Ashley in yellow, I wouldn't have put anyone else in a yellow dress. I looked at all of the Samson and Delilah movies and all the girls had a yellow dress on."

"Sometimes, I'll see a detail in a painting and think, 'That would be a cool little beading detail,'" Griffies said. "With any kind of skating dress, it's all been done before -- it's just how you can put a new spin on it. I look back to the past, old skating dresses, and I'll think, 'That's cool. How can I modernize that and make it look cool now?'"

Fabric

Whatever the design, the next step is to sew the costume. Skating costumes are tricky on many levels; the fabric must stretch and move with the athlete.

"Some people want to be Scarlett O'Hara," Longmire said with a laugh. "I tell everybody, it's a rubber suit, it's spandex. It has to go through this torturous thing for four minutes and, hopefully, not have any malfunctions. It has to serve all these functions but appear delicate. The Japanese costumers are brilliant at this; they make these tough garments look like gossamer."

Using experience from the beginning of her career, Longmire always starts with white fabric and dyes it herself.

"There's no structure, there's no boning, there's nothing holding that thing up but the body inside it," Longmire said. "The fabric is fairly cheap. If it doesn't stretch in four directions, you can't use it. We're swimsuits, basically. I use white illusion mesh and dye it. By the time I'm done with it, you can't tell what it is -- it just floats."

"This kind of fabric is very challenging," Pearsall said. "Twenty years ago, dresses were made of zippers and all kinds of heavy velvet stuff."

Pearsall says that the key piece of equipment for sewing the stretchy fabric is a serger, or overlock machine, which makes a four-thread stitch while trimming the fabric and allows the seams to stretch. However, it's possible to be creative with fabric.

"In my sewing for skaters, I tend to use more non-traditional fabrics," Hubbs said. "I use fabrics that don't stretch and make them work anyway. I made one that was a Lycra leotard, but it was all silk chiffon over it. I like textural things where there fabric does the speaking."

The finished costume

"All of us work differently," Longmire said. "You never get into a groove where you say, 'OK, another call from another skater.' Every single time you want to do it better, you want to get engaged more with the music. I enjoy it at any level."

In the coming season, look for costumes by Longmire on Jason Brown, Tyler Pierce, Philip Warren, and Jessica Calalang and Zack Sidhu. Leah Keiser, Ashley Cain, Bradie Tennell, Tim Dolensky, Alex Johnson and Ernie Utah Stevens will wear Brad Griffies designs. Arbour made costumes for Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter as well as Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit.

Pearsall, who made Mirai Nagasu's costumes last season, said she would "probably" design for her again, as well as for Megan Griffin and Andrew Civiello. Hubbs will make costumes for Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim as well as Joseph Johnson and Trevor Bergqvist. Marissa Castelli, and Alexandria Shaughnessy and Jimmy Morgan will wear costumes by Barnett-Nakamura.

"As long as you feel great in what you're wearing, it's not going to matter," Griffies said. "If you go out and skate like Michelle Kwan, wearing a sack, you're going to win. If you go out there and you feel great, that helps you skate better and perform better."

"The ice is like a canvas," Arbour said. "You can put anything you want on it. We want to make the skater look the best that they can, fit the music and make them feel comfortable when they're skating. You can tell right away, when they put it on and they start to smile, you know it's a home run."