Figure skating dress design with an edge

By Erin Barney

Gail Johnson didn’t fit in with the other figure skating moms.

She wasn’t wooed by elegant melodies or charmed by gaggles of twirling toddlers. She didn’t love glitter. Sequins weren’t her thing.

But in an effort to save a few bucks, Johnson found herself more closely tied to the sport and its culture than most. She decided to make her five-year-old daughter’s dresses herself rather than pay an expensive designer.

“They should have hung a skull and crossbones over the door [of the skating world] because of how expensive and how time consuming it was going to be,” Johnson said.

No, Johnson most definitely did not belong.

Fast forward 30 years—Johnson is buried even deeper in rhinestones and chiffon. Literally.

As the owner of Illuminescent Design, she produces hundreds of custom, hand-sewed masterpieces for skaters each year, all from a cluttered corner of her home in Glen Ellyn. Her sewing machine is wedged between endless bolts of fabric in Jolly Rancher shades, mountains of beads and binders stuffed with costume sketches. Her creativity hardly has enough breathing room.

“This is organized, I swear,” she said.

Despite the tight space, her business has grown exponentially since designing for Gracie Gold, Team USA’s top Olympic figure skater.

Gold’s family bought Johnson’s dresses throughout her early career, but when the Chicago-area native took silver at Junior Worlds in 2012, higher-profile designers began to fight to get her in their designs. Johnson said everyone from Brad Griffies to Vera Wang tried to hand Gold a $4,000 dress. But wearing a famous name came with an unseen price.

“I can’t even tell you how many people it took to arrive at what [Gold] was going to wear, and the skater’s [opinion] is usually at the bottom,” Johnson said.

Even Gold’s measurements weren’t prioritized over the designer’s vision. Johnson remembers the tearful phone call from Gold: Brad Griffies’ design was beautiful, but it didn’t fit and the heavy stones threw her off balance.

Johnson couldn’t afford to give away custom pieces, but was heartbroken over her client’s predicament. She gave Gold two properly fitting dresses to wear for the remainder of that Olympic season.

“It ended up being an easy call. I really just love her as a person and her whole family. Lovely people,” Johnson said.

Good karma found its way back to her in a big way.

One of two looks, the light pink dress with an edgy black trim, rocked the skating world. “Project Runway” contestant, Nick Verreos, called it, “the best look of the 2014 season.” Gold’s photo was used in United States Olympic Committee promotions and appeared on the covers of Sports Illustrated and People Magazine, Johnson’s name right there with it.

“To walk into Walgreens and see her in my dress on magazine covers, it’s like, ‘Oh my god!’ Completely indescribable,” Johnson said.

On the surface, all was well, and Gold was on pace for a storybook season. No one knew she was still unhappy and had plans for another big change.

Just five months before the 2014 Olympic games in Sochi, Gold left her coach, Oleg Epstein, for Frank Carroll—a cringe-worthy move in the skating world. Johnson said a mid-season coaching change is ill advised, and so close to Sochi? Catastrophic.

Carroll threw everything out. Gold’s music, routine and the season-favorite dress wouldn’t see the ice again.

“It was hard on everyone, but she really had to,” Johnson said. “She was such an emotional wreck.”

Even though Gold didn’t wear her dresses in the Olympics, word of Johnson’s designs still spread. Her client requests quickly surpassed the amount of fabric and time she had—a problem she was happy to have.

Johnson found her way back to the big stage through Lithuanian ice dance teams, Swedish and Croatian champions and Philippine National medalists. She’s even poised to repeat the Gracie Gold saga with another Chicago-based Olympic hopeful, Paige Rydberg.

Rydberg, 17, is a four-time national and international champion for Team USA. After placing fifth in the 2013 U.S. Intermediate Championships, she went to Johnson for a dress worthy of her newfound attention.

“I had seen them on some other people,” Rydberg said. “They were always the ones that caught my eye on the ice. She’s a creative lady and thinks of some really amazing things.”

But Johnson’s dresses go beyond beauty for Rydberg—she has never sacrificed mobility for pageantry.

Rydberg’s coach, MaryBeth Marley, said it’s painfully clear when a dress is working against her. She fidgets with a sleeve or hem, and her jumps aren’t as clean. But her Johnson originals never cause those problems.

“When you have a dress that’s not comfortable, you think about it a little,” Rydberg said. “You can’t move as freely and can’t focus on your program.”

“But Gail’s are so comfortable. I don’t even feel like I’m wearing one.”

Each dress is the culmination of Johnson’s aesthetic, a skater’s vision and the U.S. Figure Skating Association’s costume regulations. Ladies must have a continuous skirt and no more than 50 percent of their skin showing, which, in Johnson’s opinion, is way too generous.

“Imagine taking half of your clothes off,” she said. “That’s kind of ridiculous, right?…There are things I have to make and I feel like those people are out of their freaking minds.”

But she aims to please. Johnson is a business woman first and an artist second, so anything the skater wants, she gets.

Well, almost anything.

One skater requested a dress embroidered in bones, while another wanted to incorporate a swim cap and goggles into her look. Neither radiates couture, but Johnson said she’s willing to take risks as long as she stays on trend. Designers at every level are expected to study fashion and incorporate current concepts in their designs.

“People come to me and trust that I know what ‘right’ is,” Johnson said. “They also trust that I know what current ‘right’ is. It changes every year.”

That trust makes for a unique relationship between skater and designer. Johnson finds herself emotionally invested in each client’s success, no matter how many times she designs for them. This causes her some heartaches—like when the media bashed Gold for changing coaches—but said it ultimately makes her a stronger designer.

“There are some days when I’m like, ‘No, I can’t make another dress,’” Johnson said. “But I realize I’m blessed to do what I do.”

Photo at top: Gail Johnson, owner of Illuminescent Design, displays one of her custom creations (Erin Barney/MEDILL)