Vera Wang is known for designing lavish red carpet gowns and brides’ dream wedding dresses, so she knows a little something about making a major impact on an important day. And nothing she does crystallizes that skill more than her work creating the eye-catching costumes worn by figure skating’s most iconic competitors at the Olympic Games for the past 20 years.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Wang told PEOPLE in an interview for its special issue The Best of Olympic Figure Skating. “If one strap were to break, or if the beading on the sleeve gets caught when they turn, their whole Olympics is over. That is how serious it is. It’s absolutely nightmarish!”
There’s few people better other Wang fit for the job, especially considering she was a figure skater herself before getting into fashion. “I understand the physics,” she said. “I think people are fooled by the nature of the costumes and the ease and the musicality and the choreography. It is an extreme sport.”
Still, despite the stress she faces with each costume she designs, Wang — who was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame for her contributions — is always up for the challenge. This year, she will be credited for designing the costumes worn by American figure skater Nathan Chen, the 2017 US Men’s Figure Skating Champion, at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul.
“I am so honored that Vera and her team will be creating my costumes. Vera’s knowledge and understanding of figure skating along with her extraordinary talent for design make this collaboration incredible,” Chen said in a release.
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In honor of the 2018 Winter Games on Friday, Feb. 9, we caught up with Wang to look back at her most iconic design moments from past Olympics.
Wang had been designing bridal for several years when she was approached by Nancy Kerrigan’s coach, with whom she’d skated, to make the figure skater’s costumes. “At first I really didn’t want to do it … She said, ‘I want you to do Nancy’s dresses for the Olympics’ and I said, ‘What are you talking about?’” the designer told us. Ultimately, she decided to give it a try and dressed Kerrigan for “nearly four years,” including the 1992 and 1994 Olympics.
When it came to designing Kerrigan’s pieces, Wang “was trying to enhance her physique. She had a beautiful long neck and I always tried to create a neckline that was higher for her.” Wang’s also the person behind the “illusion craze” Kerrigan started with her 1994 costume’s sleeves.
“I started the stretch illusion craze on her. That is a very, very delicate fabric,” she told us. “My worries — even though I loved the transparency of it and the fact it very much hugged the body — I was always concerned it would rip!”
At the time, Kerrigan and Wang’s collaboration was groundbreaking, making New York Times headlines for the multiple-thousand-dollar price tags in comparison to the homemade costumes worn by her competitor Tonya Harding and past Olympians including Dorothy Hamill..
Wang calls Michelle Kwan, whom she costumed for the 1998 and 2002 Olympics, “an actress on the ice,” with an athleticism that meant her outfits “had to give her a feeling of freedom. She needed to feel she was almost in a bathing suit.”
Kwan’s other requests? “She did not want anything near her neck. She had to feel that her neck was free. And she didn’t like skirts with volume. She felt when she rotated in the air, any extra fabric was an added burden,” Wang said.
The stress of making sure every piece was just right definitely got to Wang at particular times. “I remember breaking out in a cold sweat sometimes six months before dressing Michelle. I’d just think, ‘Oh my God. She loves beading. I’m putting it down the side of her dress. Is that going to mess up one of her triple jumps?’ It looks so effortless and it’s not,” she said.
The two remained so close that Kwan wore Vera Wang to her wedding in 2013.
After all of the other costumes Wang had created, there was only one moment when she wanted to quit: the 2010 Olympics, which was also her first time dressing a male figure skater. “With Evan , I tried to back out in July. I woke up one night with hot flashes and a rash. The technology of designing for him worried me,” she said.
The process of designing figure skating costumes for a man posed a much different challenge than designing for a woman. “We had to quadruple stitch the seams. Triple stitching was not enough for his torque,” Wang told us. “And Evan, being a man and having to jump incessantly, was very conscious of the weight of fabric. It had to be as thin as possible.”
People’s special issue The Best of Olympic Figure Skating is available now on Amazon and wherever magazines are sold.
— with reporting by Eileen Finan