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Behind the seams with figure skating dress designers

NBC Olympics.com - A coach, a choreographer, and possibly a mental health coach or sports psychologist are all an integral part of a figure skater's inner circle. But behind the scenes, there's someone else working hard to make sure the skater looks and feels their best - the costume designer.

"They name the coach, the choreographer, they list the music, they'll even list the composer. And they don't list the dress maker, the costume designer. I'm always stunned. I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, guys, this is really an integral part of this program.' Not that this is gonna make or break the program, but honestly, it's a very important part. It really is," designer Pat Pearsall said to NBCOlympics.com in an interview.

There's nowhere to go in the U.S. to learn to be a figure skating costume designer; instead, most are self-taught.

Madison Hubbell's mother makes her dresses, along with the costumes for her ice dance partner Zachary Donohue. They shop for materials together near their Montreal, Canada training base. Susan Hubbell makes the 12-hour drive to Detroit to Montreal several times per season for fittings and adjustments.

"It is very special, I definitely feel a big connection to her support when I'm able to wear something she's made," Madison Hubbell said. "It's nice to take a piece of her out there on the ice with me."

Los Angeles-based Lisa McKinnon, for example, was a skater in her youth and professionally. She began making her own dresses when she was 10 or 11: "I was never happy with what anybody else made for me so I started designing my own things," she said.

Jan Longmire fell into designing in the '80s while she was pursuing her own adult skating aspirations in Southern California. She was already designing display pieces and costumes for theater and Renaissance fairs when she was approached about designing for figure skaters. Rhythmic gymnastics soon followed.  

Pat Pearsall, who's based in Houston, began when her youngest daughter took up skating and there was only one designer in town. That person was hard to get ahold of, so she made the costumes herself. Soon, other parents were putting in their requests.

And Susi "The Costume Lady" Hubbs - who also owns two bridal stores in Colorado Springs, Colorado - got started working with skaters when they came into her dancewear store looking for tights. She also designs for ballet companies.

We asked these designers about their process and all the ins and outs of the importance of a skating costume.

What's your figure skating design philosophy?

McKinnon: I think it depends on your look and what fits you the best. It's like fashion. Maybe you shouldn't always wear what's the trendiest thing to wear at the moment because it might not suit you and it's better to do your own thing. You'll still look trendy because it looks good on you. I think it's the same thing. But I do think it's funny sometimes when people jump on the latest trends because that's what it's like in the moment.

Pearsall: The costume needs to be exactly what it should be for that particular piece of music, and that particular skater, and that particular program. If it checks off all of those boxes, for me, that's a wonderful, wonderful costume. I don't care who makes it. If it really is I think perfect for that music and that skater, then that's a great dress.

Hubbs: Fit! Fit is not just is it close to the body. But it's also, the half inch moving the neckline up or down makes a drastic difference. A half inch shortening or lengthening a skirt makes a difference. The proportions of the skirt versus the sleeves versus the body to make their body look as pleasing as possible. I don't always feel like it needs to be completely related to the music. I can listen to music and see shapes and colors. That's true. I can listen to a choreographer say, 'I have this very romantic idea for this.' And referencing all of my years of sewing for the ballet world, I can come up with what I think is romantic. But really, for an athlete it has to fit so that they don't think about it. It has to look good so that they feel good about themselves when they're trying to perform. Because if somebody's in a costume that's uncomfortable or unflattering, it affects their performance. But that would be my philosophy. It has to fit well and basically flatter them so that they feel good about themselves as they perform.

Longmire: The skater matters. The skater's input matters. [And, as Longmire famously said of Ashley Wagner's "Delilah" dress in 2014: "I'm not building her a dress, I'm building her a suit of armor."]

How do you start your design process?

Pearsall: The music is the very first part of this. I usually will loop the music so that I listen to it maybe 20 or 30 times. I'm doing meditation while I'm listening to this music over and over and over again. The dress and the style really starts to create itself. The creative process really starts in that moment. By the time I've listened to that music maybe 20 times or so, I have a pretty good idea of what the direction should be for that dress, what style. The details we iron out later: things like sleeves or no sleeves, necklines, skirt styles, that stuff.

McKinnon: I like to listen to the music a lot when I design; I just have it on repeat while I'm sketching. I sit down and I just start sketching with the music and it just sort of happens. Then, I do the sketch and I send it to my client. For the elite skaters, there are a bunch of people behind them, who also need to look at it and put their two cents in on what they think. Some of the skaters want to show all their coaches, all their choreographers, judges, and the packaging people.

Longmire: I start with a need to connect with the skater. If there's not a connection I can't really thread a needle for you. Sketching is a serious part of the process, not just to get my idea out there but to coach myself through the building process. I can tell if I can do a realistic sketch of it, how in fact it that's probably gonna work or probably not gonna work. How to fits, it's not gonna fasten in the back, through that [sketch].

Hubbs: They usually have something in mind. I do a very rough sketch and we have a lot of fabrics here on hand. We go down and we look at fabrics, sometimes we're inspired by a fabric. That combination of choosing color and fabric and any input from the other people involved in this program put together a rough sketch, and I say I'll see you in a couple weeks.

Where do skaters commonly draw inspiration from? How do they convey their ideas to you?

McKinnon: They do a lot of sending me stuff from Pinterest. Sometimes it's more what type of color that they're thinking, or a specific style that I need to draw inspiration from. So we talk a little bit about that to narrow the field down. Sometimes it's very open. I do have clients that are just, totally just do your thing, we're completely open, it can be anything. That's always a lot of fun. Also if there's a specific story to the program, then I need to know what the feeling is behind it and what they're trying to achieve. Like the message they wanna send with their program, with their choreography, and with their costume.

Hubbs: The kids come very often with a coach or choreographer or they come with specific instructions. I want them in purple, I want it to be inspired by Alice in Wonderland. I want it to be lyrical and flowy. There's some word or phrase or photograph or something that already comes with them, which is fine.

Longmire, on the other hand, prefers not to take suggestions from pictures that skaters bring in. She prefers that her skaters have something personal to say in each of their costumes.

Do you think about hairstyles or accessories when you're designing?

Pearsall: My job is basically to make the dress. I'll do wrist pieces and cuffs, that kind of thing. When it comes it comes to their makeup and their hairstyle I basically stay completely out of that.

Longmire: I think the skater's hands are beautiful. I appreciate what they do with them. So to me, it gets lost [in gloves]. I just consider hands to be so much more beautiful than mittens. I know a lot of people think that's part of the costume. That helps the costume be more effective. I think that's just a preference. Hair ornaments I think are gorgeous. I will always make a hair ornament. I don't like scrunchies and stuff like that. But I'll do something with glitter on it, some little pieces, wrap-around thing that helps that bun look not so dorky. Come on, it's a bun, it's dorky!

McKinnon: We usually think through hair accessories and gloves. I do make the gloves. We discuss the whole look. It can be an afterthought. If it's a Spanish program for example, you probably want to have something in the hair. We do make that, too, so it goes with the colors or the crystals of the dress. It's usually a package situation. Most elite skaters don't necessarily have hair accessories all the time. When they do, we would do it all in one package.

Hubbs: There's one lady, I've never met her. She contacts me every January. She lives in Vancouver, BC, [in Canada] and she has me make head pieces for her skating daughter. I don't make the dresses! She sends me a picture of the dress and then asks me to make a headpiece.

Do you work by yourself or with a team?

Hubbs: My work room is inside one of the bridal stores. I have one lady that works with me almost exclusively helping with costuming. Although, she doesn't do the skating costumes, per se, unless it's pants for the boys. Most of it is me. Then I've got another gal that does most of the bridal alterations. I've got a crew of people that do bridal stuff, but it's really just me and the one other that work on costuming.

Pearsall: Basically I work alone. I pretty much always worked alone. There have been times where I've had people with me, brought in people where I've been really busy. But most of the time, I work alone.

McKinnon: I have a team working with me here. Sometimes it's just two, but it's been between two to five people. It's hard to find seamstresses that have the skills working with stretch materials and knowing everything you need to know about that. They're hard to find. So I do have my freelancers that work with me so I just continuously hope that they're always available - which they're not, unfortunately!

What's different about designing for figure skating than other costuming projects?

Longmire: Everybody says, 'You make a costume. You sew.' This is not sewing. Sewing is side seams and maybe putting elastic in the butt. That's it. This work with your hands. You're attaching appliques on top of appliques; you're attaching stones and sequins and pearls. I work a lot with pearls, too. You're attaching that on top of the appliques. You're painting with these materials. The sewing part of it, my dog could do that. It's not about the sewing other than you gotta know how to make a decent fit and so forth. For everybody who does this, they are producing a piece of art. They're just using fabric to do it. But they're not sewing it, they're painting it. This whole exploration of colors and texture and everything. That's all done one stone at a time.

Hubbs: In my ballet world, I usually get full rein on design questions. I do a lot of headpieces for ballet, pretty intricate tiaras and such. But not a lot for the ice skaters.

How do you put rhinestones and other decorations on a figure skating dress?

Hubbs: My rhinestoning is pretty free form. I seldom do very distinct patterning, put it that way. I look at it like pointillist paintings, where you may have a cluster of little points that create a shape. I had no experience, obviously with rhinestoning when I started working with skaters. What I do is definitely more organic. It is highlighting what's there rather than creating something new.

Pearsall: It usually takes me a day to make a dress and a day to stone it. If it's a lot of stoning or if it's really detailed, it can take me two days to do the designing and stoning. But basically, I've been doing this 20 years so I'm pretty fast at it. When I sit down to stone a dress, I put the dress on a board so it's kind of flat and I can move it around. If it's a dress that has a design on it, I freehand draw that design on the dress to start. That's the first thing I do. I follow the sketch. That sketch is the blueprint. That dress will look exactly like that sketch when it's done.

McKinnon: It does take the strongest glue on the planet to secure these crystals. It's part of the process to ensure that everyone's safe handling the crystals because the glue isn't good for you to breathe it in directly. You do have to wear protective masks. It's the same actually when you're airbrushing or dyeing fabric, you should always wear protective masks from fumes. It's usually safe in that sense, but definitely have it ventilated. It does take a lot of hours to apply crystals and you use a lot of glue. On the more encrusted costumes it's a lot of crystals. It's a lot of hours in front of glue. It's one crystal at a time so it's quite a process. Sometimes they need to be sewn on as well, depending on the size and how intricate things are. Sometimes you use other types of beading, like beads, and also bigger crystals that you sew on. It can be both.

How much bling and sparkle is too much?

Longmire: When it gets out there it's just gonna be a bunch of lights anyway. Nobody sees, other than the judges as a skater's going by, kinda up close what the pattern is or what was the point of that whole thing. It all gets a little lost out there and everybody knows that. But if you don't do it, it's missing. It's weird. If you do it, it's not noticed, but if you don't take that extra care, it is noticed. Or it's noticed that it's not quite up to the quality of the world class.

McKinnon: Yes, there is a limit. Usually it's actually by weight more than the look. They do weigh a little bit. When you do put on a lot, especially the bigger ones, the costume gets pretty heavy right away. There's a balance. You need to know exactly how much you can put on without it affecting the skater. Because if you would cover the entire thing, it might be a problem because it does weigh you down a little bit and nobody wants that. Sometimes you can fake it and you make it look like it's completely covered in crystals, but as a matter of fact it might be different kinds of crystals that are lighter.

Pearsall: [for Mirai Nagasu's dresses in particular] We are keeping in mind the weight of the stones, the weight of the dress, and something that people that people never think about is the weight of the glue. That is a consideration in her dresses probably from this point forward.

[Pearsall also noted it's likely more of a psychological effect than a physical one. The dresses ultimately weigh from a little under a pound to a little more than a pound, on average]

What happens to old figure skating dresses?

Pearsall: I usually tell them to sell the dress and use that as a deposit on the next dress. They usually will never sell the dresses. They never do! They're like, 'Oh my god, we would never sell your dresses, they're like works of art.' I'm flattered, but you know, that's probably what I would do - sell one and use it for the next one. They'll send me photos of their closets with all their dresses hanging, and they have quite a few.

McKinnon: I have all mine [old dresses]! I can't throw any away. It's one of those things that you can't really separate yourself from them sometimes. I know also there are figure skating museums and stuff, too, where the costumes will end up there.

Can dresses be cursed or have bad vibes for a skater?

McKinnon: Totally! It happens all the time. I think that a lot of skaters and coaches are very superstitious. I was like that. There's sometimes you feel like, something doesn't give you a good vibe. Usually it takes a few tries if that would ever happen. It can also be, an underlying factor to that could be that you never truly felt great in it. That might cause a thought of, 'Oh you know what, this dress just gives me bad vibes and I never skate well in this dress.' It can happen that way. If they just feel absolutely fantastic in the dress, it usually won't end up like that. It happens. 'Please make me a new one because I think this one is bad luck!'

Should you wash figure skating costumes?

McKinnon: Everything is washable. You can always wash everything in cold water and things like that. Some people wash them more than others. Sometimes it's nice to keep the skirt, if it's made of silk chiffon, you might not want to wash it so you just wash the rest of the costume. Men especially, they need to wash their entire costumes more often, I believe, than ladies. You have to keep that in mind too when you're making things, that they need to be washed. You don't do things like put paint on them that's all gonna come out if they put it in water.

Hubbs: Absolutely you should clean it, it's disgusting if you don't. I pre-wash all my materials so it's already been in water. If I've dyed something, gosh, it's been in boiling water so it's safe. Yea, hand wash it. I see no reason why not, unless there is some oddball material that can't get into water.

Pearsall: To clean a costume, I always tell people - and sometimes people never clean these costumes - they will just put some warm soapy water, probably Woolite or something very mild, put the dress in there and swish it through the soap. Rinse it well and lay it on a towel. Put another towel on top of it. Roll those towels up and just kind of blot it a little bit, squeeze it a little bit, unroll the towels and hang the dress up and basically that's it. Spot cleaning is never a good idea. If you spot clean a dress, depending on the color of it, and you just do one area, it will leave a line.

What kinds of costume emergencies have you experienced?

Pearsall: That's very different than a costume malfunction, I can tell you that! The biggest emergency we had ever would be a hook has come undone. That's about it. So that's about as big of a costume emergency as I've ever had on a dress, ever.

McKinnon: When a costume emergency happens, you just have to take it on and try to squeeze it in somehow. It can be really hard. Sometimes it's more like, 'Oh my god, we're switching programs right now. Can you make a dress in a week?' That can be a type of costume emergency.

Hubbs: The panty rides up, that's a big one. That's really it. Or, for the boys, especially the ones that are in their late teens, they're all of a sudden filling out or things change. Or we have little ones that have gone through a growth spurt and you have to patch in material. It's always something new and it's always something interesting!

 

And finally, how hard it is to get the nude or illusion color correct?

Longmire: I work with acid dyes, which, they sound scary, but they're not. It's just a kind of dye that you need to put in certain chemicals and boil the water and all that. But there's no nude. Anybody would call nude would be like a 'tan.' Basically what I came up with, my own recipe, is you start with a piece of white fabric, you throw in a little pink, you throw in a little yellow, you throw in a little teeny bit of turquoise, and then you test it out, and say, 'Let's adjust it.' Like making a soup or something.

Pearsall: Whenever I make a dress for someone I get photos of them so that I see their skin tone. Years ago, I was able to get 'flesh mesh' when it was being made in the States. If [parents] send me a picture, and the child is tan, I usually say, 'Do they tan a lot in the summer or is this likely the color they'll be in October and November?' I usually ask that question, because that's important. If it's a skater that's a lower level that I think will probably be done the very first of October, I'm more likely to have their dress match their summer tones.


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