Designer Vera Wang knows the ins and outs of competitive figure-skating outfits because she has both worn them and designed them.
As a child, Wang had visions of Olympic gold when she did all those early morning workouts at the rink and traveled to countless competitions, including the annual national championships in 1968. She didn't make the U.S. team, so she traded her blades for high heels and hasn't looked back, building an all-encompassing lifestyle brand that includes fashion, accessories, tabletop housewares and stationery.
Still, skating clearly has a place in her heart -- "It's a very special sport," she says -- and she keeps a hand in it by designing costumes for some top Olympic contenders, including men's world champion Evan Lysacek, as well as previous medalists Nancy Kerrigan and Michelle Kwan.
Wang got back on the ice for the first time in years this past fall with Lysacek and enjoyed it, although she's a little more nervous about injuries as a 60-year-old mother and business leader than she was as a teenager. But the session wasn't about her, it was about him -- understanding how his body moves and his particular balance of artistry and athleticism.
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"You wouldn't want someone to lose Olympic gold because their sleeve ripped off," Wang says.
Other considerations when designing for competitors: The outfit has to sparkle like evening-wear but function like workout gear, it has to stand up to the considerable wind generated by skaters' speed, and it must be show-stopping from every angle, unlike a Hollywood-starlet gown that is usually photographed straight from the front or back.
"This is more pressure than an Oscar dress in a strange way," she says.
The costume also has to complement the music. "I have to have the music for a skating costume," she says, "and that's not the way I normally work."
Wang, who has a spot in the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame thanks to her costumes, shares some thoughts on outfits from Olympics past. Only Kerrigan's are Wang's designs.
Michelle Kwan made a gutsy move in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, by wearing a periwinkle stretch-velvet dress, Wang says. It was a look reminiscent of Dorothy Hamill.
"It's a bit retro to go that simple. It was a statement of confidence. Dresses had gotten so ornate."
Nancy Kerrigan wore a neon yellow dress with a pink beaded bust line at the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway -- and it was one of Wang's favorites because it took Kerrigan out of her usual comfort zone as a sophisticate. "Neon is extremely active. You think of it for a cyclist or football or a swimmer. It has a feel of modernity and techno."
Also in '94, Kerrigan wore a white outfit with black illusion sleeves, a trick Wang also uses on the red carpet to create a sexy, suggestive silhouette without baring much skin.
Irina Slutskaya of Russia might have been trying to channel Dorothy Hamill in her glittery red dress in Turin, Italy, in 2006, but Wang says that only the dark, short hair captured the former gold medalist's spirit.
Slutskaya's jewels are more traditional for a later generation than Hamill, who favored outfits that were sleeker and understated.
Back in 1976 at Innsbruck, Austria, Hamill let her moves, not her sparse pink outfit, make the statement, Wang says.
The lower neckline, however, did show off her hair, which Wang describes as "the wedge haircut that inspired the country."
The midnight-sky blue combo that Shizuka Arakawa of Japan wore in Turin, Italy, in 2006 "isn't my taste," Wang says. It's a little too showy, but it did make Arakawa look like a risk-taker, which might have been the intention.
Italian Carolina Kostner wore a snowflake-covered outfit in 2006 that employed the sheer-illusion look that Wang likes for the ice.
"She has a more womanly, mature style, but this outfit brought out her youth and whimsy," Wang says.
American Sasha Cohen is a chameleon when it comes to her costumes, the designer says. "You never know what Sasha is up to.... One minute she's Carmen, the next minute she's Gisele."
Wang says Cohen was probably intimately involved in the creation of the ombre-blue dress covered with sequins worn in Salt Lake City in 2002 -- she is for all her outfits.
Even better than the blue one, Wang says, was the red number with a sunburst-yellow hemline. "That dress was very beautiful."
There was a bit of a jumpsuit craze in Turin, Italy, and Russian Elena Sokolova's Tina Turner-style black-and-champagne outfit fit right in, but Wang says she's not a huge fan.
She adds that this particular look was very severe and without even a hint of whimsy.
Still, she says, there's no denying the dramatic effect of a Turner look-alike, complete with spiky blond hair, catching air on a turn.
Ukrainian skater Oksana Baiul liked "a lot of everything" on her dresses, and a frilly pink outfit from 1994 was no exception, Wang says.
The fringe, the fur trim, the beads were all very much part of a trend among the Eastern Europeans then.