Newsflash: Native Michiganders Meryl Davis and Charlie White just won the first gold medal in United States history for ice dancing. They did it while wearing costumes designed by Northern Michigan’s Stephanie Miller. Read on for our interview with the Northern Michigan designer who makes costumes for Olympic skaters Davis and White:
Ice skating costume designer Stephanie Miller and her business partner, Luanne Williams, don’t have a website, storefront or business card. Their business doesn’t even have a name. They don’t need any of that: the skating community just knows them as “Stephanie and Luanne,” creators of some of the most sought-after dresses and costumes in the world. Miller lives in Kingsley, where even her own neighbors weren’t aware until recently that she’s a designer for skating stars. This week, Miller’s designs can be seen on Olympic ice dancers Meryl Davis and and Charlie White, representing Team USA and their home state of Michigan in Sochi. We caught up with Stephanie for a tour of the world of ice skating costume design:
How did you get into fashion design for ice skating? That seems so specific.
Well, after I learned how to skate, I got involved in synchronized skating. And I was always trying to help them with their costumes. Of course, they would never listen to me, and we always had these ugly costumes. Which always made me mad. And then I started competing in ice dancing and I started doing my own dresses. People would stop me and say, “Hey, who designed that?” And I’d say, “I did.” I know how to sew, but I don’t have the patience for big projects, so I’d design them and go to Luanne to have them made.
How long does a dress take?
It could take a couple days, working on it and then leaving it and moving to something else to give it a break. I’ll lay some stones out and then walk away and come back. Sometimes it takes days just in my head because I’m trying to figure it out. Sometimes I think about it for weeks. But then I’ll just see something, like a billboard sign with some scrolling on it, and I’ll say, “Oh, I think I’ll do something like that.”
So, billboards … what else inspires your designs?
Everything. I’m always looking at fashion. I have books and books of things I cut out. I get the prom magazines; I go through and see unique colors or stoning. I look at color combinations. I’ll put something together and people will say, “ I would never have guessed that would turn out like that,” and I’ll say, “Neither did I.”
How many dresses have you worked on?
Oh, thousands. And every dress I’ve ever done is in a book.
Do you have a favorite?
Every year, you know, I probably have my favorite of that year. Because every year it’s different. But Meryl’s are always my favorites. She always has the best costumes. This year I liked the lavender/orchid-colored one. She’s worn it at nationals, and we added more stones before she left for the Olympics.
What’s Meryl like to work with?
Meryl is funny; she’s a visual person. She kinda knows what she wants. But her mom will come in and say, “Meryl said not that many stones, but just stone it up. Make it ‘Olympic.’” Cheryl [Davis] and Jacqui [White] are wonderful parents. They come see us every week. They come without Meryl and Charlie, just to talk about the costumes.
We saw an interview with Cheryl and Jacqui, where they mentioned how hard it was to get Charlie to give up his preference for plain, all-black costumes. Did you have a hand in that?
That was me. I said to Charlie, “Okay. You gotta give up the black. It’s either ruffles or stones. You pick.” And he was like, “Ooookay. Stones.” And so I really stoned it up for him. So that was the end. It was done; he was on his way. And he never said another thing about it after that.
What differentiates a so-so dress from a great dress on the ice?
A great dress has to not be an overkill. It has to look elegant. It has to fit the music. It can’t look like you got the front finished but didn’t have time to do the back. The dress has to be balanced. You know? Sometimes the girl’s small, and you just put so much dress on her, it’s like, “Oh, is there a skater in there?” We call that the ‘happy birthday’ dress. That’s when the kid wants everything on it, from every dress they’ve ever seen.
What’s with the “stones” anyway? How did stones become a thing in ice skating costumes?
Well, it was sequins in the beginning, because the stones weren’t as available. And they had prongs on them back in the day ,and the prongs would snag. Now they use flat-backed stones and everything’s pretty much glued on. Sometimes they’re reinforced with—and don’t be saying this—dental floss. Dental floss actually works better than thread. It’s not gonna break.
How much does a dress cost?
Probably on the low end is $700, and that doesn’t give you much. If you see Meryl’s dress and you like it, well, you’re not gonna get that dress for $700. We have what we call the “four easy payment” plan: First you get a bill for fabric; then Luanne sews the dress and she’ll give you a bill for the sewing; I’ll give you a bill for my labor for stoning that dress; and then you get another bill for the stones that were used on that dress. So you’ll have four bills, so your husband won’t know what you’re spending on your kid. Because people don’t want to know what they’re spending.
So, back in those early days of designing your own costumes, did you ever picture yourself one day having your creations appear on Olympic ice?
No. I always laugh because I was always good in art; I wanted to go to art school and be an art teacher. But it never happened, you know; you fall in love, you get married, you get divorced, and then you go, “Oh, there goes everything.” But then you find it somewhere else. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise. Because I still get to do my art—painting with stones and putting the unusual together.