What Goes Into the Olympics' Most Dazzling Costumes, According to U.S. Figure Skating Stylists

Olympic Skating Costumes
Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Winter Olympics are almost upon us, and you know what that means: we'll see scores of figure skating costumes so bedazzled the KiraKira app wouldn’t even do them justice head our way. With a newly-revived interest in figure skating thanks to the success of I, Tonya, this year’s competition is sure to be one of the most-watched events of the games—and, as always, the stakes are insanely high. So in addition to bringing their killer triple axels to the ice, skaters are sure to bring their best and brightest ensembles to really stand out. After all, an unforgettable costume is half the battle when it comes to leaving an impression on the judges.

While we can expect the costumes in PyeongChang to be as over-the-top as ever, the art of crafting the actual garments has evolved greatly in recent years. Costume designers like Pat Pearsall, Jan Longmire, and Lisa McKinnon are behind the most in-demand looks, which also happen to be comfortable enough for a skater to twirl across a rink without fearing a wardrobe malfunction. “The fabrics are much lighter weight now than they used to be, and they have great performance stretch,” says Pat Pearsall, who counts seven-time U.S. national medalist Mirai Nagasu among her clients. “The colors have also gotten better, and same goes for the closures we use on dresses. Nobody uses heavy metal zippers anymore, thank goodness, and the use of flesh mesh has allowed designers to really get creative and that makes a much better dress.”

Before the games begin, we have the behind-the-scenes scoop about what really goes into creating an Olympics-ready look. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about the art of creating a jazzy figure skating costume, straight from the experts that do it themselves.

VIDEO: Meet Olympian Maia Shibutani

The Design Concept

The initial costume planning stages are crucial, and each designer takes a different approach. For Jan Longmire—who has designed costumes for 2017 U.S. national champion Karen Chen in the past—the first step is “zeroing in on who the skater is as a person,” she says. “Once I've connected with them and I know their personality, then I can get into the music—but the music comes second for me.” From there, Longmire begins to suss out the details. “A lot of the design works itself out when I start to sketch,” she says. “I paint a portrait of the skater in fabric and beads based on who they are and how they feel. Then I go into the story of who wrote the music, because everybody's got a story and this adds to their story in the end, whether or not the judges or the audience get it.”

Olympic Skating Costumes - Longmire Sketch - Slide
Courtesy Jan Longmire

For Lisa McKinnon—who has also worked with Karen Chen in the past and designed 2018 Olympics looks for skaters Maia Shibutani, Vincent Zhou, Alexa Scimenca Knierim, and Christopher Knierim—it’s pivotal to know a skater’s own costume wishes before getting started. “After I get to know a skater and listen to their music, I ask for any initial input in terms of the design—the silhouette, the style, the color, a high neck, beading—and about any insecurities they might have,” she says. “Then I put all of that together in my head, sit down, and listen to the music on repeat while I'm sketching.”

While McKinnon and Longmire have a vision for the costume before listening to the skater’s song, Pat Pearsall takes a different approach. “For me, the first step is listening to the music,” she says. “A skater will usually send me a clip, and I listen to it 20 to 30 times while thinking about what goes with the genre of the music. Then I pick a number of sketches that work, send them to the skater, and from there, we decide on color, neckline, and whether or not it will have sleeves. After that, they send me their measurements and we add the costume to the production schedule.”

The Color

There are plenty of factors that go into deciding what color a skater will wear for his or her performance—and again, music plays a major role. “I usually have a pretty good idea of what colors go with the music once I’ve heard it,” says Pearsall. “If the music is jazzy, I’ll often go with red or blue or black. Really flow-y music usually goes with blues, and very romantic music gets the lighter colors. Of course, there are times when a skater has a very definite idea of what color they want, too.”

For Longmire, getting the color just right is a pivotal part of the design process. “My fabrics are all dyed,” she says. “I want to be in absolute control of the colors, so I only buy white fabric and then I do all of the dyeing work on my stove at home. A lot of it ends up in the garbage because it didn't work out, but I can shade-dye and ombre and do anything I want.”

Olympic Skating Costumes - Chen - Slide -1
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Construction

Once the fabrics are ready, the designers get to work creating the garment itself. And while they usually have a good idea as to what it’s going to look like, there’s plenty of room for adjustments along the way. “I know how I'm going to build a costume in terms of snaps and hooks before I even present the sketch to a skater, but after the dyeing is done, I start cutting and sewing and taking things apart,” says Longmire. “It's a constant editing process, and I think we all take apart more than we put together.”

Because costumes are rarely pull-on, most follow a relatively standard framework in terms of closures. “There are usually snaps at the top of the shoulders on both sides, and sometimes you have hooks and bars at the neck or loops and buttons,” says Pearsall. “I never use zippers because they break. And if the zipper breaks, you're not going to be wearing the dress!”

While most designers balk at the idea of using zippers specifically, they avoid using any unnecessary hardware in general. “It’s always better to have the least amount possible,” says McKinnon, a former skater herself. “I really understand what a costume needs in order to feel comfortable, so I try to stay away from complicated, constructed dresses. My trick is that I keep the actual dress as simple and stretchy as possible, and then I really make it stand out with the details.”

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Crystals

A sparkling ice-ready look is all about the details, and as the design process moves forward, the designer’s vision truly begins to take shape. “I decide to block out certain parts or throw in nude fabric here and there, and then I just go crazy with the decoration,” says Longmire. “I love bling—I’m not into ‘simple’ or ‘elegant.’ I'm going for what's going to light up the ice. These people are skating on a big white space, so if you're conservative about the bling, it just gets lost. There’s something called the ’40-ft rule,’ which refers to the fact that you can't see an intricate design once you’re 40 feet away. That may be true, but you can definitely see that a costume is blinged out!”

Olympic Skating Costumes - Longmire Detail - Slide

Crystals play a key role in a look—and we’re not just talking about any old rhinestones here. “I usually use only Swarovski, because I can count on the quality,” says Pearsall. “It's very trendy right now to use big chunky stones, but that can be too heavy on some dresses. The weight can add up pretty quickly. I’ve been doing Mirai Nagasu’s costumes since 2014, and this is the first time that it’s actually been an issue for her because she’s doing a triple axel in both of her programs and she's really aware of the weight of the dress. We wanted to be very careful about that, so she and I had many discussions this year about the weight of the stones and the glue. We wanted the dress to be what it needed to be for the choreography, but we didn't want it become an issue. For her red long program freestyle dress this year, I ended up taking off large areas of the Chinese patterning to make it more asymmetrical and lighter.”

Olympic Skating Costumes - Nagasu - Slide
Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

While too many crystals can weigh a skater down, the stoning process is painstaking work for the costume designer in itself. “I use glue to apply the crystals one at a time by hand,” says Pearsall. “It can take a day and a half to stone a heavily patterned costume, and it's rare to make anything with less than 2,500 stones. Some have up to 5,000.” Unsurprisingly, the decorations don’t come cheap. “Crystals are the most expensive part of the process, outside of the labor,” says Longmire. “Crystals are obscenely expensive. You can easily put $400 into a costume just from the bling—and that’s being conservative.”

The Timeline

While the crystal application alone can take over a day, the timeline varies by designer. Pearsall says that her work typically takes a full three to four days over a weeks-long period, whereas Longmire’s fabric dyeing adds a decent chunk of time. “It takes me 10 to 12 days from start to finish because I do everything by hand—and we're talking 10 hour days,” she says. Her total time spent per look for an elite skater? “At least 200 hours.”

McKinnon has her own methods of streamlining the process. “For the first fitting, I try to keep things to a minimum and we just do the base of the dress,” she says. “That way, we can really make sure everything fits perfectly before we start doing detail work. Of course, there are times when you don’t even have a chance to do a fitting at all when you’re working with an elite skater or someone overseas—I’ll have to make an entire dress without a fitting and just send it off. It’s extremely important to know a skater’s body type and proportions really well in that situation, and I definitely take fewer risks when I do that.”

For the Winter Olympics, McKinnon actually created two of what is essentially the same look for Maia Shibutani. “We never really make two of the same costume just to have a backup, because everything is fixable—if a hook comes off, you can fix that,” she says. “But I did make a second dress for Maia’s short program this year. It was part of her progress this season, because she and [her partner Alex] wanted to keep upping their game. So we made a second more colorful dress that leaves a stronger impression, and she's bringing both of them. She’ll use one dress for practice and the other for her actual performance.”

Olympic Skating Costumes - Shibutani - Slide
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Rules

Like everything in the Olympics, figure skating has its rules—and that applies to the costumes, too. “The guidelines change every now and then, but every girl always has to wear a skirt—she can't come out in a leotard on its own,” says Longmire. “There’s also the50-percent rule, which states that 50-percent of a skater’s body has to be covered with fabric. And nude fabric counts as ‘naked’ areas, so you have to have more coverage than that.”

The application of the rule is questionable at times. “It’s mainly concerning how much of the dress’s front is covered with material, but no one seems to be at all worried about the back of the dress—there could be no back of the dress and that wouldn’t bother them at all.” Pearsall says with a laugh. “I have actually measured the fronts of my dresses and even when it’s within the guidelines, I’ve been told it might need more coverage. You basically have to do fractions to figure it out, so I tend to err on the conservative side to avoid adding any more fabric onto the dress later on.”

Olympic Skating Costumes - Chen - Slide - 2
Joosep Martinson - ISU/Getty Images

While enforcing the percentages comes with challenges, it does help prevent wardrobe mishaps out on the ice. “A costume needs to be constructed in a way that we don't have a malfunction—especially for the girls who have developed into obvious women,” says Longmire. “You’re not going to have a costume malfunction when you’re covering up a 12-year-old, but when you’re covering up a richly-endowed 18-year-old who has to grab her leg, pull it over her head, and bend backwards, you're just praying you did your job right.”

Olympic Skating Costumes - Cohen - Slide
Getty Images

Other than coverage concerns, there are general guidelines given to skaters’ in terms of their wardrobe choices. “After nationals, the US federation told Karen Chen that they didn’t want to see her wearing white, which is the same thing that happened when I was working with Sasha Cohen back in 2006,” says Longmire. “For Sasha, we made the same dress in red and started a controversy over who liked the white one versus who liked the red one. It worked to our advantage to have them be identical in every other aspect, but Karen didn't like the idea of reproducing the dress in a different color and we were running out of time. I don’t know what she’s coming out in, but as long as she found something that makes her feel confident, that’s all that matters.”

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