Designers Bring Couture, Character to Ice

costumes-pizzacallaby Jacquelyn Thayer | Photos by Liz Chastney, Robin Ritoss, & Julia Komarova

At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, one of Denis Pizzacalla’s designs saw the spotlight as Tessa Virtue stood on top of the podium in an elegant white dress (pictured, right). The costume was newly created for the Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 free dance with which Virtue and partner Scott Moir captured the gold medal. This season, the designer, based in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, hopes for another podium run: he’s the man behind the new free skate costumes for 2013 World bronze medalist Javier Fernandez of Spain and Canadian pair Kirsten Moore-Towers & Dylan Moscovitch, fourth at the 2013 World championships

While Pizzacalla can count Fernandez and Moore-Towers & Moscovitch among his highest profile long-time clients—having worked with both regularly since the beginning of the current quadrennial—ice dance has comprised a key part of his competitive efforts. Several young teams from the Mariposa School of Skating, including Junior Grand Prix competitors Lauren Collins & Danny Seymour, count among his current clients, while his years of work with former Mariposa students Alexandra Paul & Mitchell Islam through the 2012-13 season offered another stage for international exposure.

Pizzacalla, who balances his competitive workload with his duties as costume designer for Disson Skating’s annual series of productions, studied theatrical costume design at Ryerson University. In 1987, soon after finishing school, he found employment as a cutter in the wardrobe department at the CBC, where he worked for 13 years. 

“CBC at that time used to do a lot of skating shows – things like Kurt Browning’s specials, Liz Manley’s specials, and stuff like that,” he said. “It became sort of necessity that if you were going to be working at the CBC, you were going to have to learn to make these skating costumes. So I just threw myself into it and tried to learn as much as I could from the woman that was there, and it just started to grow from there. You know, we would do a skating show and then we would have certain skaters in the show that were still in the competition part of their careers. They would approach me as we were doing the show and say, ‘I really love the way your stuff is made. I need somebody to make my stuff for me for this year and design it.’” 

Pizzacalla’s approach to competition design has been shaped by both style and necessity.

“I think that because of location and because of the skill set of trades that I have available to me, I never really try to compete with someone like Jef Billings, who is more of a glitzy kind of costume designer,” he said. “I would say that I have a certain kind of style that I’m comfortable with. I tend to like doing more fashion-oriented dresses, like street clothes that work on a skating level. I also, because of my background as a theatrical costume cutter, tend to like to bite into things that tell a story or try to create a character.”

British designer Sophie Whittam is another looking ahead to the visibility offered by the Olympic stage, with clients Penny Coomes & Nicholas Buckland, two-time British national champions, likely Sochi-bound. “It does give me the opportunity to go the extra mile and push my boundaries to create truly exceptional costumes,” she says. 

Whittam, a former competitive skater, left the sport to pursue her interests in fashion, going on to study design at Chesterfield College, run a boutique, and work as a fashion technician in the BA (Honours) Fashion Design program at Sheffield Hallam University. But while still a teenager, she cut her teeth sewing costumes for friends still competing in the sport, paving the way for her later focus. In 2009, she began Sophie Costumes in Sheffield, and since then, Whittam has worked with several of Great Britain’s highest-profile skaters, including longtime dance champions Sinead Kerr & John Kerr.

Like Pizzacalla, Whittam points to the personal style that shines through her creations.

costumes-whittam“My favorite costume designs are the ones which reflect my personality the most,” she said. “I love all things beautiful and bling, whilst I love the intricacy of combining unusual fabrics and stones. I have really enjoyed working on Penny Coomes’ short dance dress (pictured, left), it is a masterpiece! It has a vintage, yet Hollywood glamour feel to it, a fabulous combination of bling—Swarovski, sequins, and pearls!”

Whittam, too, notes the impact her background has had upon her approach to design.

“I think it is evident in all my designs and costumes that I love what I do and I enjoy it,” she said. “Also being a skater myself, I have the knowledge and understanding of what it feels like to wear costumes and to perform in them. It is so important to feel your best in competition—after all, that is what all the hours spent training are for!” 

While the dress is the product, the skater is the model, making design of key importance to many competitors. Though many skaters place their trust in the hands of their designers, whether outside professionals or family members, others play a more central role in the creative process. And some, like Madison Chock, who won U.S. ice dance silver in 2013 with partner Evan Bates, create for themselves. 

“I’ve always been involved in the design process of my costumes,” she says. “But for the past few years, I have designed them on my own.” 

Chock, who is interested in pursuing a future career in design, points to some practical positives of designing her own pieces. “The great thing about designing my own costumes is that no one knows my body better than me,” she said. “Therefore, I know what looks best and will flatter my figure most.” 

While Chock & Bates, who train at the Novi Ice Arena, have presented programs with themes as wide-ranging as Cirque du Soleil, Les Miserables, and Dr. Zhivago, Chock’s own style remains a connecting thread.

“I think my personal style is always changing and evolving and it definitely carries through in my designs,” she said, “though I always try to stay true to the character I am portraying on the ice.”  


Sparking Inspiration

Character, and theme in a broader sense, is, indeed, one major factor setting competitive skating design apart from high fashion.  

“It really always starts with the music and the program,” says Pizzacalla.  

While a character-driven program can simplify the designer’s task, abstract music selections can open the door for diverse sources of inspiration.

“I always tend to get a feeling about a piece of music, whether it’s a color, or whether I feel that something is ethereal or contemporary or period,” Pizzacalla said. “And then I think, okay, well who does that kind of thing that gives me that feeling?” 

Haute couture has inspired some of his work this season: Fernandez’s long program, for example, evoked thoughts of Gaultier.

“I think that I look for ideas from certain designers that I think are going to speak to the right look,” he said. “And sometimes a dress wants to have a Chanel kind of quality to it, or, you know, it really just depends. A lot of times, I will spend a lot of time flicking through magazines, and it can be some designer I’ve never even heard of, but when you see it, you think, yeah, that’s the feeling I’m going for.”

Whittam also cites high fashion as her primary guiding light. 

“I have such a huge library of collated images which I love. It could be a simple detail, a shape, color, anything,” she said. “I am constantly inspired by other fashion designers, particularly when the Haute Couture collections come out, as this is more along the lines of my work, where you can explore and be the most elaborate, the most creative and inventive. I like to take ideas from the stage and screen, and pop stars such as Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, and Michael Jackson. The stage and screen, fashion magazines, and the latest catwalks also keep my work current and interesting.” 

And Chock seeks ideas by perusing a variety of sources.

“My inspiration can come from anything and everything,” she says, “from fashion magazines, Pinterest, artwork, current trends, to colors in nature.” 

For certain concepts, the best ideas can come from a look towards the past. Pizzacalla was in the middle of designing costumes for Moore-Towers & Moscovitch when he was interviewed.

“Right now with Dylan and Kirsten, I know that between myself and the choreographer, we’ve talked a lot about their free skate,” Pizzacalla said. “The choreographer really wants it to make it feel like they’re out on a date. We’ve talked about it having a kind of Noel Coward feel to it—dapper, with a smoking jacket, and ladies in lovely cocktail dresses.”

Music choice can sometimes present a puzzle for the experienced designer, especially in a sport where athletes keep returning to the same musical choices. “Often I will have previously produced a costume for a particular piece of music, and then a new client will have the same piece,” Whittam said. “I like to make sure that I approach it with an open mind and as a blank canvas, an opportunity to explore my design skills further.”

Pizzacalla notes the difficulty that can arise while working with a client who has found her own inspiration.

“People will come with a picture that they have found in a magazine and I have to try and figure out how to make that into a skateable dress,” he said. “A lot of times, people will see things and say, ‘Oh, I love that,’ and you have to figure out, ‘Well, how are you going to keep that on?’ When it’s a picture of some very flimsy sheer dress or something, you think, ‘Well, you’re not going to get through two competitions in that dress.’

“But, you know, you get there in the end, usually. There’s always a way to get there in the end.”


costumes-chockFrom Conception to Construction

Indeed, for both designer and client, an idea is only as strong as its capacity to be realized. While design is already guided in part by ISU restrictions —female dancers must wear skirts, for example, and costumes must not distract from a dancer’s bodyline—the realities of on-ice movement, coupled with an aim for aesthetic appeal, can present their own tests.

“Each design faces its own challenges, as every costume is completely unique in every aspect from measurements, pattern drafting and cutting, to stoning,” Whittam said. “Occasionally, dresses can end up in as many as forty-plus separate pattern pieces with over 5,000 stones. There is a fine line between sewing and engineering in some cases!” 

As a skater, Chock (pictured with partner Evan Bates, right) is ever vigilant of the difficulties a program’s elements may pose to a piece.

“As our programs are made, I take into account the lifts and movements we execute, so I can make sure my costume won’t be restricting in any way,” Chock said. And it’s always good to have an extra set of eyes so I really value the opinions of my mother, my partner’s mom (who is an artist herself), and my seamstress.”

Whittam also points to the challenges involved in measurement, particularly when a standard four (or so) fittings may not be possible. “For overseas clientele and those who cannot attend a measurement session, I am reliant on measurements being accurate to ensure a right-first-time fit,” she said. “It is more complex making for adult skaters who have a more mature body shape as opposed to young girls. Similar challenges are faced when making men’s costumes.”

Pizzacalla knows well the challenges of creating for male skaters. After cutting men’s costumes for CBC productions, as well as for Stars On Ice, the territory became his niche as he branched out into competitive design.  

“There seemed to be a fair number of people who could tackle girls’ dresses, but there was a real void in the market for places for boys to get their costumes made,” he said. “A lot of mothers could manage to put together a skating dress for their daughter, but it was the poor mothers of the boys who seemed to really struggle with tailoring for them.” 

Pizzacalla’s advantage as a men’s designer allows him to craft coordinated pieces for a team.

“I think it’s always best when somebody does do both costumes,” he said. “I’ve seen some skating teams where the girl will just go off and get her dresses made, and then the boy’s mother is responsible for getting something made for him, and then there never seems to be a connection between them. So if I’m going to do a team, I like to do both costumes, so that I can keep control over the color palette and so that we can keep a consistency to it. It’s basically like trying to put together an outfit, but trying to put together two outfits that speak to each other.” 

But skating design at the elite competitive level also often presents another issue of more internal consistency. It is tough to please the eye of both rinkside spectators and at-home television viewers. Fine detail and textures can disappear at a distance, appearing to differently to spectators in the nosebleed seats. Certain patterns and striping may strobe onscreen, and colors can become washed out or take on a subtly different hue—what’s red on the ice may appear burgundy to fans at home. 

“On television you do have extra pressure,” Whittam said. “Often small details are ‘lost’ from a distance, but when skaters are sat in the kiss & cry, they will have camera close-ups, which will give spectators a closer inspection of your costumes. I like to think that my work looks just as impressive up close as from a distance.” 

And yet the construction process, as Pizzacalla notes, can sometimes become a simple expansion of the design. 

“I will often start working on a dress, and as it starts to appear on the mannequin, it starts to tell you what it wants, you know?” he said. “I like to let things grow for themselves.”

For skating designers, both professional and amateur, whether creating for prospective Olympians or novice regional dancers, technical snags and practical concerns may pale next to the greater question of innovation in a field shaped by its own sometimes-limiting guidelines and the whims of theme. But this, suggests Pizzacalla, may also become opportunity.

“Sometimes the most challenging thing is to not be doing something that you’ve done before,” Pizzacalla said. “How am I going to get this dress from concept to the mannequin, in a way that I haven’t done fifteen times before? Sometimes that challenge can be the most rewarding—when you start off kind of not knowing where you’re going, and you just keep working at it.”