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Former British skater creates dazzling costumes

Whittam combines love of sport with passion for fashion

Costume designer Sophie Whittam was drawn to skating costumes as a child.
Costume designer Sophie Whittam was drawn to skating costumes as a child. (courtesy of Sophie Whittam)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(06/20/2013) - Sophie Whittam is honest about the fact that costumes were part of the allure that led her into skating as a child. She watched skating on television and dreamed of learning to skate. It was not easy to follow that dream, as she grew up in Barlow, England, a tiny village near Sheffield in Derbyshire.

"It was a 45-minute drive to the rink each day, and skating became a huge commitment to which I was completely dedicated," said Whittam, who was a singles skater. "I loved the adrenaline of jumping, spinning and competing."

Her mother, a seamstress, made all of her costumes.

At 16, Whittam left the sport to pursue a fashion design course at Chesterfield College, where she learned sewing skills. Whittam said it was a huge decision to leave competitive skating, but ultimately her newfound skills led her back to skating.

"As a teenager, I was fashion crazy," Whittam said. "I loved everything fashion -- clothes, accessories, design, the works! Art and sport were always my favorite studies at school, and I thought I wanted to work in a job that I loved, not just a job to pay the bills."

Once she learned to sew in college, she occasionally practiced by making skating costumes for her friends in the sport.

"This grew and grew, making my connections to skating bigger and stronger. I quickly learned that this was what I was destined to do," Whittam said.

She launched Sophie Costumes (sophiecostumes.com), a custom design business, in November 2009, and moved into her design studio in December 2011. Her costumes are enormously popular with skaters in Great Britain -- including British ice dance champions Sinead Kerr and John Kerr and Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland -- and about 30 percent of her clientele is international. She's created custom skating costumes for skaters in destinations as far-reaching as Japan, Australia and the United States.

Her mother even works with her, running the administrative side of a new business of Whittam's: DRI-ICE, a range of unique training apparel and protective apparel that she believes will revolutionize the way skaters look and feel during training sessions.

When working with a client on custom costume design, Whittam will create sketches to suit the music, theme of the program and client's tastes. Once the design, fabrics and price are set, work commences.

Whittam brings her experience in the fashion industry to skating costume design. She ran a fashion boutique for three years and worked as a fashion technician at Sheffield Hallam University, in the BA fashion degree program. Then, she was hired as a prom/evening-wear designer at Forever Unique in Manchester, England.

"My ability to draft patterns purely from a client's measurements is a very refined skill and enables me to produce custom-fitted pieces," she said. "Also, working solely with stretch fabrics, lycras, meshes, velvets, etc., is an art in itself, something which only comes with practice and experience."

She said the response to Sophie Costumes has been overwhelming.

"The majority of my business is generated through word of mouth, when skaters notice my costumes at competitions and then get in touch," Whittam said. "Every day, I face a new costume and new client."

Whittam is launching a ready-to-wear line of dresses at the ISPO trade show (an international trade show for winter sports brands) in Munich in March 2014.

"I am continually inspired to introduce new and exciting projects/costumes to the sport," Whittam said. "It makes me proud to make skaters feel and look their best on the ice, and I will always strive for perfection."