As U.S. figure skater Michelle Kwan takes to the ice in pursuit of Olympic glory today, viewers around the world will finally have the long-awaited answers to their questions:
How well did Kwan skate?
Did she land the triple lutz that cost her the world championship last year?
And, as if this were prom night instead of the Olympics, what did she wear?
Few people understand the importance of that last question better than Mare Talbot. The Westminster costume designer has been making Kwan's skating outfits for four years and says the right costume can give a skater a competitive edge.
"How competitors feel in what they're wearing gives them a lift," Talbot says. "They feel like, 'I can do anything.' It's like going to a party in a new dress. If you look great, you have a great time."
Talbot is counting on Kwan to have a great time when she skates her long program today in Nagano, Japan (airing tonight on CBS). Yet even she doesn't know which of her designs the skater will wear when she performs to British composer William Alwyn's "Lyra Angelica" for the final competition.
"She has a new white costume that's off-the-shoulder and has gold beading, and a blue slip style one with tiny spaghetti straps that goes from pale on the top to deep blue at the bottom of the skirt," Talbot says. "The program is very light, lyrical and joyous, and I tried to give that feeling" with the costumes.
Although Talbot makes virtually all of Kwan's costumes, the skater surprised her when she showed up at the national championships last month sporting a blue velvet slip costume that Talbot had not seen before and, frankly, didn't like.
"It didn't fit her and wasn't very flattering," she says.
Talbot's designs have a sophistication and sparkle that have made her a favorite with the skating set since 1978. She's helped Kwan undergo a swan-like transformation from awkward preteen to grown-up beauty with costumes that are both understated and glamorous.
"It's easy to bring out her good points," Talbot says. "She has a beautiful back, and she's slender through her midsection."
She designs Kwan's costumes to emphasize the lithe 106-pound frame while elongating the 5-foot-2 skater's legs, designing skirts that drop to a point in front and back and rise up high along the sides.
Talbot works out of her cluttered Dress Right studio in Garden Grove, designing costumes for skaters from beginning level to Olympics-bound.
She hasn't stopped to count her clients but can rattle off an impressive list of skaters: Todd Sand and Jenni Meno, the husband-wife team who competed in the pairs competition in Nagano but left without a medal, and up-and-coming skater Angela Nikodinov, who placed fourth in the nationals in January.
Some of Talbot's clients who skate at the Ice Castle International Training Center in Lake Arrowhead represent other countries, including Korea, Belgium and Italy.
"I don't advertise, but everyone knows my work," Talbot says. "Michelle heard of me, and her father, Danny, called."
Whether she designs for Kwan or one of her "little ones just coming up," Talbot creates each costume to suit the skater.
"I never do two alike," she says. "The skaters like my costumes because they fit, and they go with the programs."
When creating a costume for competition, Talbot gets a tape of the music the skater has chosen so that her design complements the theme of the routine.
"I listen to the coaches, choreographer and competitor, especially the competitor," she says, "and I draw up several different designs that are suitable. Then they choose what they want."
When Kwan decided to skate as the princess of Taj Mahal last year, Talbot studied the native dress of India and came up with a short, sari-style costume.
"The costume helps you convey what you want to feel to the audience. If it's a period piece, I'll do research on the era to get the mood of the time."
Talbot handles the design, cutting and fitting of the costume and hires others to do the sewing and beadwork. Once the outfit is finished, she watches the skater practice to see how it performs on the ice.
"You're not a model; you're out there moving," she says. "It's important to see the costume from a distance. What looks wonderful up close might die on the ice or look garish."
Skaters have a reputation for sporting garish, glitzy costumes, but more ice princesses (and princes) have been adopting Talbot's less-is-more look.
"A costume should never stand by itself. It should enhance the skater, not distract or overpower so that all you remember is this glittery thing on the ice."
Costumes have to be both glamorous and functional; they're evening wear worn with sharp metal blades.
Men's pants have to stretch, while women's skating skirts should have a loft so that they move when the skater spins, Talbot says.