An interview with Tania Bass, dress and costume designer to world class skaters including Miki Ando, Sarah Hughes, Emily Hughes, Pang and Tong, Ina and Zimmerman, Michael Weiss, Jeremy Abbott and more. Her website is www.taniabass.com. Her dress for Sarah Hughes was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 2002. She talks about how she got started in the business, what goes into a great dress, and how many Carmen dresses she’s had to make over the years. 56 minutes, 46 seconds.
Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:
On her most embarrassing skating moment: I walked into a competition and I saw a girl tying up her shoelaces, dressed up with her competition dress, and I saw the back of the dress and I was like, oh my God, somebody’s either copying my work or doing better than me [laughs]. And I was really jealous and crazy, and said, oh, let me go see what the front looks like. And she gets up and — it was one of my costumes [laughs]. I was so embarrassed. That was, like, really really bad. She must have thought, why is she so excited? So that is my big story, because I don’t skate.
On never having skated herself: Well, I’m originally from El Salvador, where we don’t have very much ice skating [laughs].
On moving to the US and starting her design work: The original reason I came here was to learn English, which I never did. I was going to go to the university and most of the work was in English, so they said it’s better if you know English. And I’m still here [laughs]. I got a job with these Italian designers, who were all men, I was like a Gal Friday, we’re talking 1970s here. I worked for all of them, and my ex-husband used to have a men’s boutique, he came in to buy some of the merchandise and that’s how we met. And we started a business, and it was like we never got separated for 21 years.
I had a sportswear business, and in that business I also had some people who did ballroom [dancing], and at that time the Hustle [dance] was coming along, and so was roller skating, and some people were asking me if I could do some of the stretch costumes, there was a major competition in Switzerland. And I said, look, you know, I know how to design, and I never went to school, but it’s a creative part of me that does it, you know? So I said, I can always try. So I had a girl lie down on the floor, I took a piece of paper [laughs], and you know how the detectives draw the bodies when they’re dead? I did that, and I made her the first unitard [laughs] that I ever made. I didn’t know what I was doing, but Sonny and Cher were really a big deal then, so I made a nude costume, a nude unitard, and then we lined it and sewed a lot of chunky stones on it to try to imitate that kind of costume. But in Switzerland it was such a big hit that people started calling me for costumes, and costumes, and more costumes, to the point where I abandoned the sportswear and started doing costumes, mostly ballroom costumes. When I think back, you have to be young and fearless to do this. I look back and I go, how did I do it? How did I get into that?
On the differences between making costumes for ballroom dancing and for skating: In the ballroom world, not all of them have perfect bodies. That’s one reason that I love the skating world, the bodies are a lot easier because most of them have good bodies. The business of ballroom, the people that have the good bodies are the instructors, and then you start getting into the older people that have money and want to use it as a hobby, and they start just learning how to dance and they get into competing. And a mature person doesn’t have the same structure as a teenager or a person that’s skating at a high level. The [ballroom] instructors were first coming to me, and then the best of the best dancers, so we had like a little clique going on. So then the instructors started bringing me their students, and that’s when I started getting the experience of perfect bodies, a dancer’s body, and then a student who’s maybe a 40- to 50-year-old woman who’s maybe had three or four kids. It’s good-looking but it’s not the same shape. So that’s how I learned to handle all stages of the human body, male and female. And some of the ballroom instructors are instructors for pairs or dance, so back in 1996 some people started telling me, you know, I have these students who are actually ice dancers. And it’s almost like the same idea so you want to try it. My first official customers were Kyoko Ina and Jason Dungjen. And they went to the 1998 Olympics, and they did pretty well, but they are the ones who started it, when they were with Marylynn Gelderman. And it hasn’t stopped from there.
On her business, located in the New York theatre district: Normally I have three [staff members], and it goes sometimes from four up to twelve, if we have a big order or an order from a synchronized team. Most of them have to be trained before they get into the better costumes. My studio is like a little fantasy world [laughs], lots of beads and feathers and colors and photos of famous people. And people go, wow, I didn’t know this existed in old world New York. Because I live in the older buildings, in what they call Hell’s Kitchen. There are little things that happen in New York that are kind of fantastic that you don’t know about, running into a little shop with the crystals and all that. I am blessed, I sometimes even feel a little bad about people that don’t have the access that I do have, I’m right by the Garment Center, I walk there whenever I want ,and I can solve all my problems in a four-block radius, of fabrics and trimmings and feathers and elastic, and notions. Anything I need is one block away, and I feel very blessed for that.
I have done a couple of off-Broadway shows and one major show on Broadway, the first Argentine Tango version, I was part of the costume making for that. And I did a couple of musicals and one Spanish music revue, and I also have done Ballet Hispanico, mostly flamenco and modern dance. A little bit of everything.
On first working with Kyoko Ina and Jason Dungjen: It was like magic, it was such an easy conversion [from ballroom]. And they were like perfect little bodies, and very easy to work with. And Marylynn was very easy to work with, with what she was looking for. And from then on it was everything skating. If you look at hardcore ballroom dancing, or even the Hustle when they have those moves where they go overhead and all around the body and they throw them around, it’s almost like pair skating. At a ballroom competition, they dance with the same costumes sometimes ten times. I’m not saying there’s never been any problems, but for me, I’m so used to covering every corner. And don’t forget, when I do a custom-made costume, I make them do splits and squats and backflips, everything, and whatever has to happen, it has to happen here so that it can be tweaked.
On the process of creating a skating costume: The first thing that goes through my thinking is, are we all going to work as a team? This is the most ideal, and I have had the best experiences with a lot of people, but sometimes you’d be surprised that a lot of people are not familiar with musicality. They don’t even know how to know, say, a Cuban dancer from a Brazilian dancer from a Spanish dancer. So what I want to know first is, are we all on the same page? And let’s say whoever referred them to me, I have to know, what do they know that I have to know. And I can say that because I’m old [laughs]. But what I’m trying to say is, that is the main starting point for me, how much do they know about me, and how much do they know about what they’re going to ask for. Because sometimes the coaches or whoever choreographed the piece, their ego is on the line and — again, I’m not trying to say I know everything, but if I have to tell them, what you’re presenting is, let’s say — Carmen is a good example. I have had people come and say, oh, you know, she’s like a senorita and she’s like Cuban, and I’m, like, okay [laughs]. Carmen is a Latin woman but a Mediterranean woman, it has nothing to do with the Caribbean. And you try to tell them, it’s more of a gypsy European feeling, and then I get the sense of what kind of team is going to be throwing the ball around.
Sometimes it’s only because if you are given a piece, and you’re told, this is what you’re going to be skating to this season — sometimes I don’t even understand how somebody will train and do all this and all that and really not research the piece. It’s almost like being in a movie, you have to research it and know what you’re doing. And I do that myself. When they tell me what they want to do, I research that and I make comparisons and I make different sketches and try to project. And when you go through all that work and then they tell you, you know, the coach didn’t like it, it’s not Spanish enough, or it’s not Latina enough — it’s sometimes hard to compromise, but your best work is only when everyone is on the same page. The skater should always take it upon themselves to know what it is, it’s like an actress. You have the job to do your own research and know why Tania is telling you, I’m going to give you this look or this color or this neckline. And then they say, well, I don’t like that. And I say, it’s not about [you], you’re projecting Carmen, so we’re discussing Carmen here. You have to almost be an actress, to know how to project the character that you have been given to play.
On how many Carmen dresses she has made: That’s a good question, I should start counting [laughs]. It never fails, at least two or three a year. And I have to accommodate to the personality and to the level of skating. I try to present my work as, okay, this is Carmen, but remember that this is 2013, and we’re trying to be a little more fashion slick from New York. That’s the difference between me and — and please, I hope that nobody takes this the wrong way — but sometimes the Russians, they stick to the book. So they present Carmen with the flowers and the little shawl around the hips. And I was just telling one of my customers, I just went to see a Carmen where the person doing Carmen was this beautiful Irish woman, and she played her with no shoes, and she danced on the table and she did the attitude, flipping to the soldiers and so on. And to me, that was the real Carmen. People are so used to the big heavy opera ladies that had to have a balcony built around their hips because they had to be big. And now somebody can have a big voice and not be that big, you know. There’s so many ways, there’s never ending ways of imagining and doing Carmen.
When you go to see a play, you know, they give you a briefing so that you are informed. A lot of audience members are not informed, they think Carmen comes with the little ruffles and the flowers. People should be more informed so that they can enjoy it when they see an actual more modern Carmen. I also have to look at the skater’s personality and see how much they can stretch it, how much can they do it.
On her ready-to-wear line: It’s my bread and butter, it keeps me going. The custom-made business, it opens the door for publicity for me, but it also gives me a reputation of, it’s very expensive. But sometimes they don’t even know that I have a ready-to-wear line. And what I try to do is bridge the pricing, where you can have a nice competition dress and feel that you’re perfectly dressed.
On working with Emily and Sarah Hughes: If it wasn’t for Sarah and Emily, I wouldn’t be that well known. I have made dresses for people from all over the world, but it’s a little niche business. They made the name, and the business from Sarah — it slammed me, I was like, what? [laughs] I had countless emails, and Amy Hughes used to bring me books because people would ask for my autograph on their picture. And I would get mail requesting things from them. It was fabulous, those people are the best and they have treated me fantastically. I will never stop thanking them for what they did for me. They’re beautiful people.
On making multiple versions of dresses for Sarah Hughes: For Sarah, we had such a good rapport between her and Robin [Wagner, her coach] that we didn’t want to leave anything to chance. We would try one dress, and we would feel if she loved skating in it, and then we would have the same version with, say, less beads if she liked the comfort. It was a beautiful flow, it wasn’t even like work. Sarah would say, it bothers me here, or I don’t feel good with this thing here, and we would tweak it and tweak it. And that’s why we made her so many. Like for the red dress, we would make four or five, and then maybe even combine a little bit from different ones to find the real one that was going to work.
On Irina Slutskaya’s black unitard with beading: To me, that was like fireworks, like the ending of a fireworks where everything is pow, pow, pow, and you don’t know where to look, that’s what that was about. Irina is such an angel, I adore her.
On whether custom-made dresses are more or less work than ready-to-wear dresses: The ready-to-wear don’t have the luxury to be draped on your own body with your own measurements, and made in front of the mirror especially for you. I have a good record for fit, but it’s like, you buy a dress and I explain many beads you will have and what kind of fabric it will have and it comes in small, medium, large, and then the only task is to design it. And I give it to a contractor to make it for me, and they send it back here and we put the crystals on here, in the studio. To make a sample, like a custom-made, can take 60 to 80 hours, so if I make one and give it to a contractor to make them for me, and send them back to me — that’s why I have the workers here to put on the crystals, so I can give them directions. I have people ask me, do you sell them without the stones, so I can put them on, and I tell them, but that’s the point, it’s my design. If I just sell the shell, it’s no longer my design, it’s just like buying the base. It’s no longer a Tania Bass. I want to stand for quality, and I want to be distinct. We give the dresses the utmost care, so that they stand out in the crowd. I work very hard at making people happy.
On how many custom dresses she makes in a year: Realistically, since the economy fell, it’s been less. It was more predictable before 2009, when people had lots of money or credit available. they couldn’t make up their mind which sketch they wanted, and they would go, you know what, make them both. As the economy started coming down, they were like, oh, can you make alterations from an old dress, and then we’ll just have one dress made this season. And in the beginning, it hit me like, yeah, why not, but then it was repeating and repeating. And people would even come and just have both dresses made over, because they had no money or had lost their jobs or whatever. But it’s started coming back, last year I had people that were going through rough times have come in and ordered fresh dresses for both programs. So it’s started getting a little better, but it started getting a little shaky and difficult to predict after 2009. At the peak, in two seasons, I would make 200 custom-made dresses. And the ready-to-wear, we just stopped counting. It’s not horrible now, but it’s not like the good times when the economy was thriving.
On making men’s outfits: It’s about the same [as making outfits for women], but of course it’s always easier if you’ve got a great figure. And it’s best when you have a rapport with the person. I dressed Michael Weiss throughout his whole amateur career. I met him, I took his measurements, and then I didn’t see him in person for eight years, but I always dressed him. He used to tell me, I am in your hands, you’re the professional, you do it. And then you can get somebody who for some reason wants control, and they are afraid that they’re not going to see the product already done. And I have the advantage that I see the product already made, and that’s what sometimes starts the pulling back and forth. But I did a lot of men in ballroom dancing, so it’s very simple for me, very easy. I just love it when they can be very free and I can get more carried away with the design. When they’re conservative and predictable, it can be an elegant costume, but you feel a bit restricted that you can’t do something more elaborate or with a little more pow to get attention. A lot of people forget that it’s not them skating, they’re skating as a character. And when they don’t learn to let go of that, it doesn’t produce great results.
On constructing costumes: A little skirt that you see that looks so floaty, that could take me ten yards of thin silk, for layers in a bias-cut skirt. It’s kind of deceiving. There’s a lot of waste in making something flow right. And sometimes people go, but it’s a little dress, why is it so expensive? And I go, if I start from A to Z, you’re going to get lost and you wouldn’t understand it [laughs].
On wanting to work with Alexei Yagudin and Mao Asada: Unfortunately I haven’t, but he is the whole point I’m trying to make. If you remember when he used the mask, when he did Winter, you can see he is expressing every cell of his body. The costume helped, but it’s mostly him. He is acting the part. When he did Gladiator, I wanted to kill myself because I didn’t do it [laughs]. If you saw the movie, you felt the character. And that’s what I mean when I say it would be ideal if I could get my hands on somebody like that. It’s like your work is more than magnificent, but actually it’s the whole team doing it — the choreographer, the coach, the actor, the whole play. And Mao can do Masquerade and look like she’s actually in the big ballroom. Those are the things that don’t come easily, but the creative part of it you wish you had in your hands.
On difficult clients: I will tell you a secret about myself — I tend to forget bad things [laughs]. I tell the people that I love, you can ask me what I was wearing that day and I will remember it. When somebody doesn’t click or something is wrong, they tell me, don’t you remember this one or that person, and I am a blank. Maybe because I strive to be positive, but I can’t even think of somebody that was a trainwreck. And people that have left me, they have come back, and I tell them, listen, this is a beautiful business, the door is open always, and we’re not relatives, we’re not going to never talk to each other again. If you need me, I am here.
On awful costume ideas from clients: I try to be positive, and I consider myself a nice person. I would try not to be offensive, but I would tell people, I don’t think that would work. And if somebody insists, I would have to tell them, I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can do that, because it’s not even going to translate into something Tania Bass would make. I want nothing but to be proud of my work. I would never insult people, but I can also refuse people. And if someone outright brings me a costume to copy, somebody else’s design, I tell them — sometimes there is room to say no, and this is one of them.
On her favorite outfit: My big pride and joy is Sarah on the cover of Time. And there’s a cute story about that, I saw it on the Internet, somebody sent me an email, and I said, yeah, how funny, ha ha ha, I thought they were pulling a prank and had Photoshopped it. So I didn’t pay attention. But then I looked, I surf the Internet for everything about skating, and I went, oh, it’s true [laughs]. And then I started running around my apartment like a maniac. It gives me great pleasure to see it. When I drew it and showed them the fabric, they didn’t get it, they were like, uh, I don’t know. And I said, give me a chance. And from the same fabric, I used French silk dyes, I had bought several yards of the fabric and I made one in blue and one in white and one in beige and one in black. I said, go to the rink and try it. And they came back and they were trying to fool around with me, and they said, oh, we like the black. But they were just kidding me, they liked that one the least. They liked the one [in the picture], they said, it looks like she’s dressed in glass. That’s sometimes how I prove my point, in patience and in working with them, and showing that the designer knows the product finished and they don’t.
On her toughest challenge: I was making a costume for a nameless person [laughs], a guy. It was supposed to come across like he was a drawing in a cave, like the Lascaux painting. And they came for a fitting, and of course he was supposed to look like a canvas. And they started giving me a hard time, oh, it’s not what I had in mind. And I said, when you come for a second fitting, it will be more advanced and you will see it. And I did my painting and made it look this way and that way, and they were still like, you know, you can replace this because it wasn’t impressive. And I was dying, because I want people to walk out of here flying. So I said, when you come and pick it up, it’s going to be all beaded and you will feel better. So they came, and it was really better with all the beads, and I said, you know what? Go to the rink. Because when you’re in the middle of this, my floors are all brown wood and there’s brown all around, and your eye cannot separate, and it never looks as good as on the ice rink. So they called me back, and I was like, oh my God, here we go, I have to start from scratch again. And they go, oh my God, it looks so great on the ice, what a difference! And I was, oh God, I need a drink [laughs]. I sweated that one so much, it was like, I couldn’t pull out a Polaroid from my mind and tell them, this is what it’s going to look like when you’re on the ice. Everybody was nervous that it wasn’t looking, not like not pretty, but not like what they had in mind or what I had made a sketch of. Finally, I was like, thank you, Lord.
On fabrics or embellishments that she tries not to work with: I try to stay away from the very basic gymnast outfits, the normal hologram Lycra. Not that I find it tacky, but it’s so played out and so easily available — I don’t think I could work with that. And the fabrics that I would love to work with are the ones that don’t stretch, but what can I do? [laughs] I made them work in the 1970s, I put zippers all over. The stretch fabrics solve a lot of problems, but if you really want to see beautiful fabrics, it’s silks and woven fabrics that don’t give. And I stay away from the bridal patchwork that you can find online, because then it doesn’t look like you’ve put in a lot of effort. When I’m in my zone and really want to make it beautiful, I don’t care what size the stones are. They could be size 6, the size you put on your nails, but I keep going and I make it work. I don’t just put lace and bridal patches all over the place.
On other types of work she does: I do bridal dresses and prom dresses, all custom-made. I don’t know [what kinds of work she doesn’t do]. You have to understand, I’m the oldest in my family, and I was expected to be the parent. So I always found a solution for everything, I’m like the parent. Even my sister tells me, you’re not my mother [laughs]. But I think that’s where it comes from. Whatever has to be done, gets done. One bridal that I did was very interesting, her mother-in-law was in the pearl business, and I did a dress completely covered in real pearls, triple A quality. They actually gave them to me to be counted with a security guard. I wanted to steal the dress myself [laughs].