Costumes on Ice
Part III: Men
After two parts of this series about costumes in figure skating, and with multiple proof of how they contribute to programs and overall impression, it's time to admit that I personally prefer to watch skaters wearing simple black sportswear during their practices. Especially the male skaters. Simple dark clothing shows nicely on a white surface, emphasizing each movement, and concentrates your attention on what element was performed, how clean it was etc. And in men's discipline this athletic side of the sport is particularly impressive for me.
Yet male skaters also have their say about the importance of the costumes in figure skating.
"A costume has to suit the music; the costume will be successful when music and costume complement each other. If the music is subdued, a black costume can be very beautiful, but when the music is cheerful, colour can fit really well," Jorik Hendrickx of Belgium argues my sympathy to simple costumes for men.
Denis Ten, who skates for Kazakhstan, has used a lot of black and white in his costumes lately, clarifies: "Of course, black and white are the most classical choices, but everything depends on the main idea of the program. For example, a big part of my "Totentanz" program (free program for season 2010-11), is to very dark music, so the black colour in the costume prevails. The program is about the battle between good and evil, the main character of the story has a pure soul, but dark forces overcome him. Yet he remains a good person deep inside, this demon doesn't destroy his nature. That's why I added the white colour to the costume as well. I also tried to show the colours merging and dissolving into each other the same way both sides of the character - demon and angel - are united in the end.
I want to, and I do, use bright colours too, but as you see, at times the music just suggests something different."
Well, maybe variegation indeed contributes to energetic and sparkling programs, but sequins and rhinestones, isn't it a bit much? "Why not? Like I said before, everything depends on the program and the character the skater wants to show," answers Denis. And Jorik brings up his costume from last season as an example: at the Nebelhorn Trophy 2011, it wasn't completely ready. And, in his opinion, it looked much better later in the season when Swarovski stones were attached: "They do add something extra to this costume."
"The costume is an integral part of the program," Denis continues. "It is very important that the design of the costume follows the theme and the choreography of the program. Sometimes the story behind it has a very deep meaning and the costume is one of the crucial tools to pass this meaning on to the audience; to explain the portrayed character".
That is true. For example, the story behind Czech skater Michal Březina's free program had a direct impact on his "twofold" vest; the music has two distinct themes, and so does the costume. "We wanted to show a normal person who becomes someone he always wanted to be, but didn't dare. The character switches from this ordinary guy to a rock-and-roll type person and says 'That's the real me'," explained Pasquale Camerlengo, who choreographed this program. He also brought the initial idea for the costume; it was later translated into drawings by Michal's (former) coach Karel Fajfr, who completed his first degree in architecture.
Coaches are often part of the design team. Carine Herijgers, who has worked with Jorik since he was 10, is one such all-round coach. "My first skating costume was homemade. I just wore black elastic [training] pants, with a white shirt and a glittery belt, to add some creativity to it," Jorik recalls. "But when I changed coaches, I also changed to real skating costumes, as my coach makes them. To this day, she still does. When I was younger I just let Carine do her thing, but since I began participating in the European and World championships, I started having more input in the designs. Now we both check what fits the music best and decide together what it will be."
Apparently Jorik is also creating costumes for his sister Loena, who is a skater too: "Actually it is pretty much the same process as with my costumes. Usually my coach and I discuss it, and then we seek the approval of my sis and mom."
Sometimes it's not that easy to come to an agreement and find a common denominator. This is what happened to Denis' favourite costume for his "Sing Sing Sing" short program: "Already when we were choreographing this program, I had an image of the costume in my mind. I took an active part in the creation of the sketches and was very determined that some yellow colour should be used with this music. Others didn't approve of my idea, but the final version of the costume was the one you saw at the Olympic Games, and I was very happy with it".
As with any other skater equipment, a costume malfunction can become a pitfall; in a worst-case scenario you might even get a deduction. In less tragic cases the skater would "only" be constantly distracted by the costume during the performance. This happened to Brian Joubert at the last Europeans and to Viktor Pfeifer two months later during Worlds, when the straps attaching skates to the pants broke/came undone and they were forced to quickly bring the pant leg up while skating. Or like it happened to Jorik at Coupe du Printemps 2012: "I stepped out of the triple Axel, my blade got stuck in the back of my pants and made a huge tear. Since this was at the beginning of the program, I had to skate the whole routine with that flapping piece of fabric." It didn't prevent him from winning this competition though...
The more unusual attire you have, the more dangerous it can be. So with all due respect to creativity: skating costume should first of all be functional and avoid superfluous details, if possible. That's why an interesting idea of transforming the costume Denis had in mind for "Totentanz" in the end didn't work out: "Initially we planned to have a surprise built into this costume. When the program started the costume was supposed to be almost all black and then as the story unfolded, I was planning to unbutton a central part and reveal the white colour and light side of the character. Later we abandoned this idea, but I still have those snaps, unused."
Stéphane Lambiel was the one who taught me that everything in a skating program is connected; every single detail should have a meaning and be carefully thought out. This was true for the high collar and balloon sleeves of his "Tell" costume (short program 2009-10), inspired by "The Tudors" TV series. There was also meaning in the red patches of "raw meat" on his black costume for "Carne Cruda" (short program 2007-08). He says his programs are like his "babies", that's why - like every responsible "parent" - he needs to be in control of every part of his "baby's" evolvement.
Stéphane has created his costumes since he was a child, and even the earlier, simple ones, like the black shirt and pants with the red belt he was wearing at junior Worlds in 2001, were already his idea. Turning pro he still keeps the bar high. His program to Rachmaninov's "Prelude" told the story of a soldier and his navy blue costume resembled uniforms from that time. His leather jacket for "My Body is a Cage" had disjointed wires on it to symbolize how disconnected his character was from the world.
How far was he willing to go with his costumes and ideas? "There were no limits!" he claims. And some were indeed on the edge. One of most original, nonstandard and debatable costumes he will always be remembered for was the famous "Zebra", used in his free program in the 2005-06 season. It was so noticeable that the Olympic museum in Lausanne asked Stéphane to loan them this costume for an exhibit.
Some people were rather shocked by the "Zebra's" bold combination of colors and textures, but Stéphane felt like provoking and getting a little extra attention during the Olympic season, and thus didn't mind the criticism: "I was not taking notice of what people were saying, the opinion of those close to me was more important. And what I really loved about their reaction is the development from the first impression to what they thought about it later, when they agreed: 'It was right'. I pushed them so hard that at one point they started to like it. That made me happy because it was not an easy step to take, to put all those crazy ideas into one costume. And at the beginning people around me were saying: 'No, it doesn't work'..."
Like all the other skaters, Stéphane emphasizes that skating costumes should be comfortable and explanatory: "It has to be stretchy, light and you should be able to move in every direction. Then comes the idea of the choreography, of who you want to be on the ice." But it's more than who you want to be on the ice, it's also about who you are as a person. For Stéphane the costume was always an additional application of his artistic nature, the way to express himself and to declare to the world: "Hey, this is who I am!". Like with his "Zebra" costume, he recalls: "It was that period in your life when you're twenty, you are in search of who you are, you try to become someone... And you say: 'You know what? Maybe it is not what everybody says it has to be, but it's who I am, these are my convictions and I want it to be like that'. And you are so convinced that even something that was not meant to work works, because you're sure of it."
Of course, that doesn't mean that the costume always has to be complex and extravagant. When asked about his favourite costume, Stéphane takes some time to think and surprises me with his choice: "I really loved one costume, it was very simple: black, with loose blue sleeves (the costume he used for his free skate at Euros 2004 and exhibition in season 2005-06 - ed.), but it was my favourite and I felt very comfortable in it. I felt my spirit in this costume. I probably loved the feeling I had back then [wearing it] even more than I loved the costume itself. I don't think I would feel the same way if I wore it today though."
Maybe it's the most important thing about the costume after all: that it has the spirit, and captures the personality of the skater who is wearing it.
"Never judge a book by its cover," the English proverb says. But the cover, if created thoughtfully, reflects and represents the book. Sometimes a skillfully made cover - catchy but not kitschy, which fits the story and makes a good introduction to it - might entice you to choose this book among many others, and open it.