GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Susan Hubbell once found a piece of lace from the 1920s, probably the last such piece in existence, and paid hundreds of dollars so she could cut it up for a figure skating costume.
Her daughter, former Sylvania resident and American ice dancer Madison Hubbell, never wore it in competition.
She once spent more than $1,000 on rhinestones for a glittery jewel of a costume, one that sparkled like a million diamonds, and her daughter wore it once before packing it away.
“It was incredible. The thing was solid, tiny little rhinestones,” Susan Hubbell recalled with a chuckle. “But it happens all the time, I’ll make a costume and they’ll change their mind, or they want to go with a different feel, and all it does is hangs in the closet. Nobody ever sees it again.”
Madison Hubbell, left, and Zachary Donohue perform during the free dance event at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, Calif. Hubbell and Donohue still rely on Hubbell's mother to design and sew their costumes.
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Well, millions of people will see some of her handiwork this week.
Madison Hubbell and her partner, Zachary Donohue, are among three American ice dance teams with a shot at the Olympic podium when competition begins Monday with the short program. And while they are unlikely to challenge the favorites, Canadian superstars Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and French rivals Gabriella Papdakis and Guillaume Cizeron, Hubbell and Donohue still have plenty of confidence.
That’s because they’re fresh off an upset win at nationals, when they beat teammates Maia and Alex Shibutani and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and still believe their best is yet to come.
Perhaps part of the reason is the confidence they have in their costumes.
There are plenty of professional designers in figure skating, and the best charge thousands of dollars for custom looks. But the 26-year-old Hubbell has always insisted her mother design and sew most of her outfits, going back to when she first started in the sport as a 5-year-old.
“There are people who make really amazing costumes, and as you can imagine they’re very expensive, so it’s not really rare for moms to make costumes for little girls starting out,” Madison Hubbell explained. “Yeah, at a certain level it becomes more competitive, but luckily my mom went to college for fashion design and she’s been sewing since she was young, so really, she is a professional.”
In ice dance more than any other discipline, what you wear matters. Outfits must match the rhythm and feel of the music, conveying the right set of emotions to the crowd, without hindering the intricate and often athletic step sequences of the rhumba, samba or waltz.
That’s why teams often go through multiple costumes before picking the right one for competition, and why Susan Hubbell once cut up a $600 piece of vintage lace for a “Great Gatsby” program.
“She still holds that over my head,” Madison Hubbell said, laughing.
Susan Hubbell’s regular job back home in Ohio entails interior design work, and she’s also worked in a Mexican restaurant to make ends meet. But the time she spends in her downstairs studio, working on costumes for her daughter and Donohue, is more like a tireless labor of love.
Sometimes, she’ll spend 20 hours trying to find precisely the right materials for a design. Or she might spend 20 hours sewing the more intricate sections of a suit or dress.
There is pressure, too. The costumes ultimately end up on figure skating’s biggest stage — “In high-definition, too!” Susan Hubbell points out — and much like the dresses that actresses wear to the Golden Globes or Academy Awards, every bit of them is dissected by the critics.
Too frumpy, they might say, or the wrong choice of colors or textures.
“Oh my God, the criticism is ridiculous,” Susan Hubbell said. “I will say that we’ve done some incredible costumes, I feel like, and we’ve done some that if I looked back I might change in some way. But if I look at the overall realm of figure skating and what people put out there sometimes, on a whole — the world, global level — I think you’d look at Madison and say she’s in the top percentile.”
In fact, her costumes have impressed so many people that other skaters have asked Susan Hubbell to design for them. But she generally begs off, preferring to work only for her daughter.
“When I take something on for someone else, I feel an obligation to put that before Madison,” she explained. “I want Maddie to know that she can count on me no matter what.”
Even after the design process has become immeasurably more difficult.
Three years ago, Hubbell and Donohue moved their training base from Michigan to Canada so they could work with renowned coaches Marie-France Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon. Their training partners, including Virtue and Moir, have forced them to elevate their dancing to a new level.
But what’s been good for their skating has been terrible for Susan Hubbell’s car. It’s a 12-hour drive to Montreal for fittings, and sometimes it takes multiple fittings to get things right.
Susan Hubbell doesn’t complain, though. She’s at her happiest making her daughter happy, and how could Madison Hubbell get much happier than by stepping on the ice at the Olympics?
In a costume that her mother designed, no less.
“For the Latin (short dance) someone else designed the costume, because Latin is its own creature,” Madison Hubbell said, “but my free dance costume I’m wearing is made entirely by mom. She designed it, hand-beaded everything, and I can’t wait for people to see it.”
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