Magic behind 'Dancing with the Stars' costumes

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 25, 2011

By Sandy Cohen
Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — For Randall Christensen and his wardrobe team at ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” the next 10 weeks are going to be a crystal-encrusted, chiffon-wrapped blur.
“Dancing” is known as much for its dazzling costumes as its disco-ball trophy. Every week, celebrity contestants and their professional partners step out in costumes ranging from glamorous to outrageous; from swingy dresses reminiscent of Ginger Rogers and old Hollywood elegance to skimpy spangled hot pants.
Each outfit is one-of-a-kind, handmade and custom-designed with the dancer’s personality, figure and ability in mind. They’re couture pieces, cut and assembled by veteran costumers and seamstresses from fabrics selected specifically for each performance. Every feather wisp is glued on individually, each rhinestone and sequin carefully sewn on by hand. And the entire episode’s attire is conceived of, styled and stitched into reality in about four days.
“People really don’t realize that there’s no magic closet that we pull this from. It is a bolt of fabric every Wednesday,” says Christensen, a dancer who’s been making costumes professionally since 1978.
“We never use a ready-made costume … every single solitary thing is made from scratch.”
Twenty-two custom-made costumes and 11 new stars will make their debut on Monday’s season premiere (8 p.m. EDT). The cast includes actors Kirstie Alley, Ralph Macchio and Chelsea Kane; athletes Sugar Ray Leonard, Hines Ward and Chris Jericho; singer Romeo; radio host Mike Catherwood; talk-show host Wendy Williams; reality star Kendra Wilkinson; and model Petra Nemcova. Each contestant is paired with a professional dancer who choreographs and teaches the week’s routines and dreams up the costume concepts.
Christensen translates their visions into sketches on Tuesday and buys the fabrics on Wednesday. His team of two patternmakers and 10 seamstresses transform the raw materials into costumes by Friday.
Their workroom contains the highest concentration of sequins anywhere at CBS Television City, where “Dancing” is filmed. Along one wall are bolts of fabric: shimmery purple, deep emerald green and bright royal blue — materials ordered from a dance company in Europe where the fringe, stretch fabric, mesh and chiffon all match.
“That’s the toughest challenge,” Christensen says.
Fourteen sewing machines and mannequins from size 0 to 16 are in the room, as are costumes in various stages of creation. (A tiny pewter beaded number sits on a plastic-covered dress form outfitted with “booty pads.”)
And the gowns aren’t just gorgeous on the outside; bra cups and body-shaping panels are hidden inside to provide a solid foundation and prevent wardrobe malfunctions.
Christensen also has to consider the show’s requisite spray tans when it comes to each costume’s color and fit: “They’re going to be mahogany by Monday, they just keep spraying and spraying,” he says. “We can’t use double-stick tape. It does not stick with the perspiration, the gyration and the tanning creams. So if it’s gaping somewhere, we have to take that dress off, rip the stones off, put a dart in, re-sew it and re-stone it.”
The crew has just a few hours to correct any wardrobe issues between Monday afternoon’s dress rehearsal and that night’s live show.
Racks of gowns line another wall, including those ready for Monday’s premiere. Seamstresses sit at large tables at one end of the room, meticulously adding fringe, feathers and crystals to some of Monday’s outfits. Each is assigned a celebrity. If her dancer is eliminated, she assists another dressmaker. Since season two, these 10 women have worked together, creating couture gowns at a breakneck pace.
“We enjoy what we do, that’s the most important thing,” says seamstress Karina Avakyan, adding that they like the creativity, glamor and reward of seeing their work during prime time.
“You see your job all the time on TV,” she says, “and you feel proud of yourself that you did such a beautiful job. It’s very exciting.”
More racks of costumes and boxes of bangles and other bling fill Christensen’s office down the hall, where framed photos of this season’s cast line the wall and images of some of his favorite outfits cover a bulletin board by his desk. While he considers all the show’s costumes his “babies,” he has a few favorites from his five years on the job. One is pro dancer Edyta Sliwinska draped in sheer white chiffon.
“She wears a quarter of a yard of fabric fantastically,” he says. “She always had been my muse.”
Another favorite: Jennifer Grey’s gold-and-silver feathery beaded dress from last season.
“We actually attached ostrich wisps to those individual strands of beads, one by one,” Christensen says. “Absurd.”
Other highlights: Mel B.’s dominatrix paso doble outfit and Brandy’s dreamy peach rumba dress.
Christensen’s Phoenix-based costume design company sells the “Dancing” dresses from past seasons. Prices range from about $1,500 to more than $3,000 per costume. Past champs Kristi Yamaguchi and Shawn Johnson each bought all their costumes, Christensen says. Other stars have picked up a few of their favorite pieces. Investors and professional dancers have also purchased the one-of-a-kind costumes.
The Emmy-winning costumer is also creating a collection of ready-to-wear gowns for La Femme inspired by his “Dancing” designs. The collection is available at boutiques and department stores.
Even though the show’s pace is unrelenting, and Christensen decided after his first season that he’d never do it again, he keeps coming back for more. It’s the variety, he says, and the magic that comes from creating such glamorous gowns.
“This is the biggest fantasy show there could be,” he says. “I say we do everything from Cinderella to drag queens — from that campiness all the way to a dream dress where all that’s missing is a tiara.”