One of a Kind: Costume designers help ice dancers express their individuality through custom-made creations


by Morgan Matthews-Pennington

Costume designers give ice dancers the opportunity to express themselves through the designs that they wear on the ice. Whether one prefers a dazzling display of crystals or understated elegance, costume designers help ice dancers make their costume dreams come true. Yet these hard working and talented individuals that add the finishing touch of glamour to an ice dance performance are rarely spotlighted in print. Most of them aren’t famous fashion designers. They are often mothers, figure skating fans, and silent creatives driven by their love of ice dance and costume making. 

The skills required to create an ice dance costume go beyond what even the top fashion designers in the world must possess. Ice dance costume makers must master a range of costume styles, all in four-way stretch. I recall watching episodes of Project Runway in which the contestants’ models were sent down the runway in creations that were pinned and hand stitched together at the last minute. Those creations would never survive a Free Dance. Lifts, spins, and knee slides test the limits of costumes, so they have to be made not only to look elegant and fit well but also very sturdy. Additionally, because the temperature at competition arenas is often much warmer than in practice ice rinks, skaters tend to sweat a lot in their costumes at competition. Altogether, ice dance costumes have to look runway-worthy while performing like athletic wear. 

There are typically three ways that ice dancers obtain costumes. They either borrow or buy a costume from another skater, order a ready-made costume, or buy a custom-made costume. When I was a competitive ice dancer the ready-made costume business was much smaller than it is today. Most ice dancers either borrowed costumes or bought custom-made designs. There were a few famous ice dancers whose costumes were borrowed multiple times over by ice dancers at lower levels. Many of Tanith Belbin’s costumes were worn by Novice and Junior level ice dancers when she was done with them. Belbin’s mother was a talented seamstress, so there was never a shortage of Belbin’s beautiful dresses to go around. 

Custom-made costumes are expensive. The labor involved in making a custom-made costume is extensive and the materials involved are pricey. The most costly materials are usually the Swarovski crystals that adorn nearly every ice dancers’ costumes. A common refrain among ice dance coaches upon seeing a costume for the first time is, “Add more crystals.” Some costumes are made nearly entirely of crystals with very little fabric. Not only are the crystals themselves pricy, but the process of affixing them to a costume is painstaking. And if they aren’t affixed properly they can scatter all over the ice when the costume is worn which can warrant a deduction from the judges and the need to purchase and affix more crystals to the costume. Some ice dancers have famously bucked the crystal trend. Ice dancers Gabrielle Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron’s costumes toward the later years of their career contained virtually no crystals. They opted for an understated approach that favored attention toward their skating over their costumes. But crystals or not, having a costume custom made is an extensive and expensive process. 

I used to adore the process of having a custom-made costume made for me. The first step was to develop a sketch of the proposed design. Some of the costume makers I worked with did their own sketches, while others used a third party to develop the design. To help them develop a design, I would send a sample of my music to the costume designer or, if they were local, have them visit a practice session to see my partner and I perform the program that they were designing a costume for. The designer would then prepare multiple sketches along with fabric swatches and crystal samples to present to me, my partner, and my coaches. Some of my coaches were very involved in the costume design process, attending every fitting, while others just made slight suggestions for alterations or additions once the costume was completed. 

Once a design is selected, my costume designers would develop a rough bodice for the costume, sort of the costume designer’s version of a rough draft, which I would I try on and the costume maker would alter. Once the bodice had been pinned and shaped in a way that resembled the finishing product, he or she would pin the skirt directly to the bodice to see how it hung. For the “piecey” skirts that were popular in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s, the process of pinning on a skirt was especially meticulous. I recall hours long alteration sessions during which my costume designer would repeatedly move a piece of chiffon up or down half an inch until my coach was satisfied with the results. Yes, I was pricked with a pin more than a few times. And yes, it was challenging for my teenage psyche to handle having several pairs of eyes closely inspect something on my body for hours on end, occasionally discussing parts of me that needed to be covered or accentuated. But that was the business. 

After multiple alteration sessions, my costume designer would reveal a final product, crystals and all, for me to try on. Since I usually had multiple costumes developed at once for compulsory dances, original dance, and free dance, I got to feel like a princess popping in and out of the dressing area wearing one glamorous creation after another. 

My costume makers found their way to making costumes for ice dancers through a variety of routes. Some started making costumes for ballet, ballroom dance, gymnastics, and even belly dance. Some were parents of ice dancers, such as Sandra Copely, mother of ice dancers Katherine Copely and Dean Copely, who is a renowned costume designer and made several beautiful costumes for me for the ‘06-’07 season. Other ice dance moms who make ice dance costumes include Susan Hubbell, mother of Madison Hubbell, and Michelle Belbin, mother of Tanith Belbin. 

Mothers aren’t the only family members who have come to enjoy making figure skating costumes for their family. Adrienne Carhart, who comes from an ice dance family, started designing and making costumes for her sister after an injury took her off the ice.

“I started sewing skating dresses when I was 15 years old, but I had been sewing with my grandmother since I was a little girl,” Carhart said. “I underwent reconstructive hip surgery and had to take a year off the ice, but I wanted to stay involved in the sport and so I started sewing my sisters’ skating dresses. I am the oldest of four girls, all of whom are ice dancers, so there were plenty of dresses to be done! I started making dresses for some other skaters at my home rink, and from there the sewing and designing only expanded. Since then, I’ve continued to make my sisters’ costumes and their respective partner’s costumes, as well as my own.”

Adrienne’s own experience as an ice dancer gives her a unique perspective in her approach to costume making: 

“Being an ice dancer has helped me tremendously when it comes to making ice dance dresses. From a technical standpoint, after performing lifts and spins I have a better understanding of how the costumes can affect a program and how to avoid designs that could interfere with certain elements. I have also had the experience of skating under competition lighting and seeing how certain colors and stoning patterns look. I’ve continued to learn how to best highlight each ice dancer, from which colors look best (on) the ice to which stones will give the desired sparkle. However, I have found that my ice dancing has benefited my sewing the most artistically. After training with my sisters every day and seeing their programs develop, I have a deeper understanding of the storyline and feeling they want to convey. This really comes into play when it comes time to design their costumes.”

Adrienne recently retired from competitive ice dance and plans to continue making costumes for other skaters. She is currently working on her sisters’ costumes for the upcoming competitive season and plans to continue making costumes for at least as long as her sisters continue competing. Adrienne’s costume making is not only an impressive artistic endeavor, but also a way of continuing a family tradition that her grandmother started and a beautiful labor of love for her sisters. 

The best costume designers create costumes that not only reflect the theme of the program that they are designing a costume for, but also express the individuality of the skater that they are designing a costume for. The costumes they create look like an extension of their client. As a result, their designs are as timeless as a skater’s individuality. Perhaps no other contemporary ice dance costume designer embodies this ability to capture a skater’s true essence with the costumes that he creates for them than Mathieu Caron. Through his business, Feeling Mathieu Caron, Mathieu has created some of the most iconic ice dance costumes of the last decade. Gabrielle Papadakis and Guillame Cizeron wore his creation for the gold medal winning performances at the 2022 Olympic Games. In 2020, Mathieu worked with Madison Chock to create her famous “snake” costume that won the ISU award for best costume that same year. Before that, Mathieu was the creative genius behind many of Tessa Virtue’s costumes. According to Mathieu, his creative inspiration comes from the character that his clients convey when he meets with them:

“During a creative consultation, my initial inspiration comes from the person I am working with,” Caron said. “The emotions and feelings you will express and experience in your new outfit are at the heart of my creative process.  Every project is an opportunity to create something special and new.”

Mathieu’s creations are as unique as the individuals that he works with because he puts his clients’ individuality at the center of his creations. 

Not everyone lives or trains nearby a costume designer like Caron. However, technology has made it so that skaters can obtain custom costumes from designers across the world. Iconic by Matthieu Caron offers an online tool that allows skaters to pick a style and input measurements to create a semi-custom skating outfit. The process is easy but not inexpensive, once crystals are added especially, and devoid of the creative experience that one gains from working one-on-one with a designer to obtain a custom-made costume. Luckily, technology has also made it easier for skaters to collaborate with costume designers from around the world to create costumes that express their individuality. Philipe Masse, a former ice dancer himself who now designs costumes for ice dancers around the world, including Eugenia Lopareva and Geoffrey Brossard of France and Hannah Lim and Ye Quan of South Korea, explains the merits of working with a costume designer to develop a custom creation, no matter where in the world you live.

“Well it’s for sure a totally different experience than going to your local skateshop. Especially today, it is so easy for a professional designer to create something from afar. So if you think about you could have costumes from all over the world and from all your favorite designers. For me, someone would want to work with a designer to develop their point of view as artist/skater. Because they have something special to support or express using costume as a vessel. It is my responsibility to really understand their need and to make the process easy for them. The process may be more expensive than a borrow. But (you) really get to experience a special creative process alongside a fashion professional.”

Just as in traditional fashion design, figure skating costume designers exist all around the globe, not just in big cities. We are lucky to live and skate in a time when coaches, choreographers, and costume designers can collaborate across the globe. This allows artistic collaborations to flourish that would otherwise never be uncovered. 

In the case of Carolina Paz of Carolina Paz studios, location is yet another form of inspiration. 

“Our studio is located in Pucón, Chile, a place where the presence of the volcano and nature constantly inspire us,” Paz said. “Designing costumes for figure skating is, for me, like weaving dreams with thread and crystals. Each design is a creation made with passion, creativity, and great care. It is truly an honor to see our studio’s creations shine on rinks around the world. This fills me with energy and reminds me that projects carried out with passion can reach any frontier.”

Carolina ensures that ice dancers who work with her benefit from the inspiration that she derives from her unique landscape without losing the interpersonal relationship that one derives from working with a costume designer in person. Carolina describes her dedication to developing a partnership with her clients. 

“I am passionate about listening to athletes and understanding how much they have worked to get where they are. My goal is to interpret what they want to express on the ice and reflect it in a design that enhances their talent. Every detail counts, and I strive to ensure that each costume is not only visually striking but also supports their performance. What I enjoy most is the opportunity to collaborate with athletes and be part of their journey. Seeing how my designs help them express their stories on the ice and witnessing their reactions when they put on the costume for the first time is incredibly rewarding. It is a perfect combination of art, sport, and passion.”

Carolina’s dedication to her clients’ vision is apparent in her design’s. While Carolina Paz is not a household name, her creations rival those of Vera Wang and Armani. Costume designers like Mathieu, Philippe, and Carolina put as much or more work and thought into their designs as famous designers while charging a fraction of the price of what a major fashion designer would for one of their creations. They don’t have big marketing teams and their creations aren’t found in magazine spreads, but they deserve no less appreciation. 

Like the artists who create giant, ornate mandalas in the sand on beaches only for them to be washed away by the tide, ice dance costumes enjoy a short moment in the spotlight before getting stowed away in closets and attics. I have a large box of costumes that sits untouched in my garage. At this point they are too fragile to hand down, yet they are too beautiful to get rid of. But I think there is a poetic beauty in having a box full of beautiful creations that were made just for me and that literally contain my blood, sweat, and tears, hidden away in my garage that only I know about. Like precious memories, they exist no less just because they are no longer on display. I imagine that sentiment is even stronger for skaters whose family members made their costumes. Costumes, especially those that are custom made, both create and retain memories for the ice dancers that are lucky enough to wear them. They are an artistic act, a technical feat, and for many costume designers, a labor of love that speaks to the essence of ice dance that keeps us all coming back, season after season. 

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