Photo by Leah Adams

It’s the finals at the 2004 World Figure Skating Championships, and Bulgarian ice dancers and gold-medal contenders Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski are having the skate of their lives. The two have just nailed an intricate lift and are flying intertwined over the ice, when an enormous flap of chiffon whips up from Staviski’s fluttery costume and plasters his face with a rippling turquoise shroud. The skater maintains his footing, and the pair go on to silver, but the moment itself is ruined, forever cast as a for-yuks sports blooper. Later, a bemused commentator can only observe, “That doesn’t happen in many other sports.”

Maybe not, but clothes happen in other sports, playing their part not only in physical performance but symbolic presence — the footballer’s padded shoulders bespeak brute strength, the equestrian’s jodhpurs a certain regal bearing. Yet no sport demands glamour the way figure skating does — or is stigmatized because of it. And for better or worse, skating is almost certainly the only sport that attracts devotees solely on the basis of sparkle, color and shine.

Of course, like that of other disciplines, skating wear has to allow for optimum movement while following set guidelines. (After Katarina Witt appeared at the 1988 European championships in a getup involving ass-enhancing, feather-trimmed trunks, the “Katarina Rule” was established to enforce modesty.) Where it differs is in its singular obligation to amplify the dramatic concerns of music and choreography and, of course, look pretty. Hair and makeup count. You won’t find many other male athletes cultivating the flowing tresses known as “skater’s hair” (think Russian champion Evgeny Plushenko’s flaxen mullet) to impart an illusion of speed. Even something as simple as a girl’s evolution from ponytail to updo can signify her readiness to be taken seriously on a world stage. And while the cost of equipment looms large in many disciplines, a single costume for elite skaters can run anywhere from $1,500 to something approaching 10 grand. (One crystal-encrusted dress that Vera Wang designed for Michelle Kwan, who passed on it because it weighed too much, reportedly cost the designer nearly $50,000.)

There’s no doubt that the fast-moving fashion show has much to do with skating’s status as one of the highest-rated sports on TV, but it’s that same parade of spangled Lycra that undercuts its image as a worthy athletic endeavor — it’s all too easy to laugh off a competitor, no matter how talented, when he’s wearing what looks like a Cirque du Soleil castoff.

Few know the ups and downs of skating fashion better than L.A. designer Jef Billings, who’s one of the sport’s pre-eminent clothiers. He’s the first to admit that figure skating is rife with bad taste. “You can look like 40 miles of bad road and still go on to win,” he says, before ticking off examples of outfits that give the sport a bad name — a bat-wing blouse forced on pairs skater John Zimmerman (recently a make-over hunk on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), or Olympic champion Ilia Kulik’s infamous yellow-vinyl giraffe-print ensemble. Billings himself is known for knockout creations, and as a go-to guy when extra oomph is called for. When Sarah Hughes needed to elevate her image from fresh-faced up-and-comer to mature contender, Billings designed an understated beaded lavender dress — in which Hughes, who’d never won a major international competition, scored her Olympic gold.

Yet while Billings acknowledges that flashy costumes are integral to the sport’s popularity (“They ought to send Joan Rivers to cover the competitions”), he has reservations about their importance. “Why not put everyone on common ground?” Billings asks, suggesting that skaters wear the same standardized uniform so that they’re judged on skill alone. An eminently reasonable idea, it’s also a radical one that networks and sponsors would no doubt rail against — to say nothing of wannabe ice princesses and their moms.

Ideas of reform aside, it was Billings who recently designed one of the season’s most gorgeous costumes. For U.S. bronze medalist Jenny Kirk’s program to music from Chicago, Billings created a white-gold flapper outfit from sheer imported net, hand-beaded in an elaborate art deco pattern with crystal, rhinestones and iridescent French sequins, all built over a nude leotard accented with rose pink, so that when Kirk jumped or spun, the swinging beaded fringe revealed a demure flash of color. It was a stunner, a couture marvel that could have graced a red-carpet Beyoncé instead of lutzing its way across an ice rink. Like the most desirable designer fashion, it was the sort of dress that brings on daydreams of bodily perfection, glamour and admiration — and no doubt inspired more than one little girl to take her first step onto that diabolically attractive, slippery surface.

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