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Fashion forward: Designers, skaters on costumes

Competitors try to find perfect balance between style, functionality

Like many of her costumes, Alissa Czisny's 2011-12 short program dress was designed by a collaboration of her and her mother.
Like many of her costumes, Alissa Czisny's 2011-12 short program dress was designed by a collaboration of her and her mother. (Sarah S. Brannen)

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By Sarah S. Brannen, special to icenetwork.com
(08/20/2012) - The new season is beginning. Competitive skaters around the world have picked music to skate to, come up with programs with their choreographers and trained all their toughest elements. What's left before their new programs are ready to show the world?

Costumes!

Most skaters work with designers to come up with the perfect outfit to complement their program concept. A few moms design and make costumes for their famous offspring; Tanith Belbin's mother, Michelle, and Alissa Czisny's mother, Debbie, are particularly well-known for making beautiful costumes for their daughters. Many other moms, like Meryl Davis' and Keegan Messing's, have a big role in the design process.

Along with a handful of well-known skating costume designers like Tania Bass, Del Arbour, Jan Longmire, Pat Pearsall, Brad Griffies and Jef Billings, designers from the wider world of fashion sometimes dabble a toe pick in the frozen water. Roberto Cavalli designed for Carolina Kostner, and Vera Wang has worked with Michelle Kwan, Nancy Kerrigan and Evan Lysacek. And, of course, some skaters design their own costumes, as Kostner did last season.

Whatever the mix, designing a costume starts in the same place.

"We usually start by listening to the music and considering where the music comes from: ballet, movie, character," Czisny said. "We start with the ideas that come from the music and then look for design ideas that complement the theme. I must say, I think my mom is brilliant at designing beautiful dresses and costumes."

Usually, a skater sends his or her music to the designer, who does sketches and sends them back for review. From there, everyone has some input. Skaters will often tell the designer they like part of one sketch and part of another.

"Costuming is always a very collaborative, time-consuming and effortful process that we are involved in from the very beginning," Alex Shibutani said. "It is a mix of trying to be functional and attractive at the same time."

"Sometimes, if they have a specific character or movie title, I tell them to watch the movie, and get into the character and give me bullet points of what they want," said Bass, who has designed for many skating greats over the years. "Before they come, I do two or three sketches. I tell them to look at them intensely and tell me what you like, what you don't like."

"They send me a clip of their music, and I try to get them to send a recent photo or a video of themselves," Pearsall said, "So I can see their body type, their coloring, their skin type. I try to get an idea if there's anything they absolutely don't want, like a high neck or sleeves. We talk about the color, the skirt."

"Generally, the music will tell me what to do," Arbour said. "Sometimes they will send me a sketch, which is great. Sometimes I get input from the coach, but I have a rule that the skater has the last word."

Some choreographers are very involved in the costume design process; others leave all that to the designer.

"When I had my long program with Lori Nichol, she definitely put in her input of how she wanted it to look," Agnes Zawadzki said. "But my other choreographer, Scott Brown, doesn't have much input. I think it depends on the choreographer."

Like Czisny, both Courtney Hicks and Jonathan Cassar have a very close relationship with their costume designers.

"My mom has always made my costumes," Hicks said, "So she'll have an idea when we first pick the music, like color or design. We'll get the fabrics, and sometimes we'll change the design a little. When we finally start sewing it, it gets changed a lot. She designs it as she goes."

"My mother has made a lot of costumes for dance companies," Cassar said. "She asks what I want and she has really great ideas. Usually, a couple of weeks after we get the program, we start thinking about costumes: what's the line going to be, is it going to be a shirt and pants, or a vest, or a one-piece. I like things to be tailored really well. It's very easy for things to look bulky or too tight. There needs to be some freedom."

Arbour agrees about the importance of line, avoiding distractions like excessive hanging shreds of fabric.

"You want it all to meld together so it's a comfortable experience for the judges to see the skater on the ice," she said. "I don't want anything sticking out that makes you uneasy. I like to see the skater's line. At one point, they all looked like they were skating with a rag-bag on them; you couldn't find the body at all."

Even skaters who aren't actually related to their designer can remain very loyal throughout their careers. Patricia Economos has been designing and making Jason Brown's costumes since he was little.

"We pick the music, and then Kori [Ade] and Rohene [Ward] start brainstorming about costumes, and then we have a meeting with Patricia," Brown said. "Rohene's very out there. I love what he does, but we compromise and bring it back a little. They start talking about color and fabric. I'm very into it, but I really don't know fabrics and what looks good. I will try to have an opinion! I've never not liked a costume; I've always loved them. If I didn't like them, I would be honest about it."

Designers use almost all colors for costumes, but some people think one particular color is unlucky.

"I have some coaches who are so superstitious as far as wearing green," Arbour said. "They say 'Don't put that kid in green, because they're not going to make it!' Other coaches don't like white on the ice. I like white if it's done right. I think it's beautiful if it goes with the music. It's very soothing on the ice."

Just as skaters sometimes use choreographers who might not normally work with skaters, so it goes with costume designers. Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff have turned to Bobby Pearce to design their "La Calipha" short program costumes.

"He's a Broadway costume designer in New York City, definitely not a skating designer," Donlan said on Aug. 11, in reference to his meeting with Pearce. "He gave us a cute little booklet, with sketches and sample fabrics for each part of the costume. Then we went to Paul [Ginandes] to have them made. Bobby came on the train from New York yesterday, with his little dog, and we all met at Paul's house and talked it over and solved the problems."

"Bobby Pearce is incredible, and he's done a fantastic job finding the compromise between looks and comfort," Speroff chimed in. "I like to be mobile and light; I don't like to feel tied down. My costumes in the past have allowed for a lot of movement. We're really happy with the costumes."

Inspiration

Many skaters love fashion and look for inspiration in fashion magazines. Designers follow fashion too, of course, but they seek ideas in a wide range of places.

"I've always been a huge fan of the movies from the '30s, '40s and '50s," Pearsall said. "I've studied designers like Edith Head, and Walter Plunkett, who did Gone With the Wind. But I've found inspiration in a restaurant looking at a menu and thought, gosh, look at these two colors together. If your world is creative, you can find inspiration everywhere."

"I try to keep up with the trends of fashion," Bass said. "Sometimes I get suggestions from coaches that I feel are outdated. Like, someone might want a dress like Kristi Yamaguchi had at the Olympics, and I'm like, 'Those were the days when they made skirts up to the ribs, but that look is outdated now.' Now the skirts are longer; it's an elegant look, more womanly. Sometimes I have to convince them that the trend is changing."

Designer Nick Verreos, famous for his stint on Project Runway, is a huge fan of skating and applauds the turn to runway fashion for inspiration.

"I take inspiration from a lot of the couture shows in Paris, New York and Milan," he said. "I've been very impressed with Yu-Na Kim and the Japanese skaters, who have incorporated some of those elements. You can see hints that the designers might have been looking at runway shows for inspiration. I'd love to see a female figure skater in something like the top of an Oscar red-carpet gown, something that looks expensive, and brings that sense of theater. "

Czisny and her mother keep an eye on all sorts of fashion, but sometimes a costume begins with the fabric it is made from.

"We find inspiration and ideas from many places, such as photos from designer couture or runway shows, bridal magazines, costumes from ballroom dancers or ballerinas, and even older skating costumes," Czisny said. "Sometimes, we even look for ideas in the fabric stores, at times coming up with the fabric first and then the design after that. That was actually the case with two of my 'shaded' dresses, the purple-gray dress from my long program in 2009-10 and the chartreuse-berry dress from my long program in 2008-09 -- both of those dresses were designed around the ombré shaded fabrics that we found and loved."

Speroff mentioned that for their Sleeping Beauty costumes, he and Donlan did a lot of costume research on their own.

"My costume, at least the top, was identical to a lot of pictures of what we saw that the prince was wearing in the ballet," he said. "We wanted it to be as authentic as possible."

Donlan would be happy with any costume inspired by ballet.

"I think I'm still in love with my Sleeping Beauty costume," she said. "Ever since I was a little girl, my mom would try to rip my tutu off me, but I would wear it everywhere. When I wear that dress, I feel like a little girl again, like a ballerina."

Coming attractions

Donlan was happy to describe the pair's new costumes.

"Andrew's going to look strapping," she said, laughing. "People are going to be bummed; his pants aren't going to be as tight! I'll have black velvet on, with long sleeves, which I'm thrilled about. I'll be toasty. I always have this skimpy dress on and I'm freezing, and Andrew's in velvet and he's too hot."

"It's funny, because I'm always hot and Gretchen is the opposite," Speroff agreed. "And she's always in dresses with no shoulders. So hopefully she won't be shivering uncontrollably at the beginning of the program. I've definitely had her shaking in my arms in cold rinks."

Brown debuted his new programs and costumes at the Glacier Falls Summer Classic.

"My short is black and pink, a shirt and a vest, kind of ruffle-y," he said. "My friend thinks I look like George Washington. I think we're going to shorten a bunch of things; it's too puffy. The pants are high-waisted and black, with studs along the sides of the pants. They're bell bottoms, with the same fabric in the V on the side."

Asked for a sneak peek at next season's costumes, Czisny demurred.

"I can't really give any hints on my dresses for this season yet," she said. "Of course, I'm sure they will be beautiful again, because that is one of the many parts of skating that I love: wearing the gorgeous costumes at competitions and shows!"

We'll give the last word to Verreos, who is well aware that despite the fashion element, figure skating is still a sport, and the costumes have to reflect that.

"It's a performance uniform," Verreos said. "It just happens to be bedazzled with a thousand Swarovski crystals."