Posted by Erin Barney
Gail Johnson didn’t match the other figure skating mothers.
She was not wooed by elegant melodies or bewitched by whirling toddlers. She didn’t love glitter. Sequins weren’t her thing.
To save a few dollars, Johnson was more connected to the sport and its culture than most of the others. She decided to make her five-year-old daughter’s clothes herself instead of paying an expensive designer.
“You should have hung a skull over the door [of the skating world] because it would be so expensive and time consuming, ”said Johnson.
No, Johnson was definitely not one of them.
Fast forward 30 years – Johnson is buried even deeper in rhinestones and chiffon. Literally.
As the owner of Illuminescent Design, she produces hundreds of hand-sewn masterpieces for skaters every year from a crowded corner of her home in Glen Ellyn. Her sewing machine is wedged between endless bolts of Jolly Rancher colored fabric, mountains of beads and binders filled with costume sketches. Your creativity hardly has enough air to breathe.
“It’s organized, I swear,” she said.
Despite the tight space, her business has grown exponentially since it was designed for Gracie Gold, Team USA’s best Olympic figure skater.
Gold’s family bought Johnson’s dresses during her early career, but when the Chicago native won silver at Junior Worlds in 2012, high profile designers began struggling to get them into their designs. Johnson said everyone from Brad Griffies to Vera Wang tried to give gold a dress worth $ 4,000. But there was an invisible price to wearing a famous name.
“I can’t even tell you how many people it took to get there [Gold] would wear, and the skater [opinion] is usually at the bottom, ”said Johnson.
Even Gold’s measurements did not take precedence over the designer’s vision. Johnson recalls the tearful 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 orders but was broken over her client’s predicament. She gave Gold two custom-fit dresses for the remainder of the Olympic season.
“It was a simple phone call. I really just love her as a person and her whole family. Nice people, ”said Johnson.
Good karma found its way back to her in a great way.
One of two looks, the light pink dress with the edgy black trim, rocked the world of skating. Project Runway contestant Nick Verreos called it “the best look of the 2014 season”. Gold’s photo was used in promotions for the United States Olympic Committee and appeared on the covers of Sports Illustrated and People Magazine, Johnson’s name right there.
“To go to Walgreens and see her on front pages in my dress, it means, ‘Oh my god! ‘Totally indescribable,’ said Johnson.
Everything was fine on the surface, and Gold was well on its way for a storybook season. Nobody knew that she was still unhappy and had plans for another big change.
Just five months before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Gold left her coach Oleg Epstein for Frank Carroll – a terrifying step in the world of skating. Johnson said a mid-season coaching change was ill-advised and so close to Sochi? Catastrophic.
Carroll threw it all out. Gold’s music, routine and the season’s favorite dress would no longer see the ice cream.
“It was hard for everyone, but they really had to,” said Johnson. “She was such an emotional wreck.”
Although Gold did not wear her clothes to the Olympics, news of Johnson’s designs still spread. Her customer inquiries quickly exceeded the amount of material and time she had – an issue she was excited about.
Johnson found her way back to the big stage through Lithuanian ice dance teams, Swedish and Croatian champions, and Filipino national medalists. She’s even ready to replay the Gracie Gold saga with another Chicago-based Olympic hope, Paige Rydberg.
Rydberg, 17, is a four-time national and international champion for Team USA. After finishing fifth at the 2013 US Intermediate Championships, she went to Johnson to purchase a dress worthy of her newfound attention.
“I had seen them on a few other people,” said Rydberg. “They were always the ones who caught my eye on the ice. She is a creative woman and has some really amazing things in mind. “
But Johnson’s clothes go beyond beauty for Rydberg – she never sacrificed mobility for festivals.
Rydberg’s trainer Mary Beth Marley said it’s painfully clear when a dress is working against her. It fidgets with a sleeve or hem and its cracks are not that neat. But their Johnson Originals never cause these problems.
“If you have a dress that isn’t comfortable, think about it a little,” said Rydberg. “You can’t move around that freely or concentrate on your program.”
“But Gail’s feel so good. 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 US Figure Skating Association’s costume regulations. Ladies have to have a full skirt and show no more than 50 percent of their skin, which in Johnson’s opinion is way too generous.
“Imagine taking off half of your clothes,” she said. “That’s kind of ridiculous, isn’t it? … There are things I have to do and I feel like these people are crazy.”
But she wants to please. Johnson is a businesswoman first and then an artist so she gets whatever the skater wants.
Well, almost everything.
One skater asked for a dress embroidered with bones, while another wanted a swim cap and goggles to add to her look. Neither of them exudes couture, but Johnson said she was willing to take risks as long as she stays on trend. Designers at all levels are expected to study fashion and incorporate current concepts into their designs.
“People come to me trusting that I know what is ‘right’,” said Johnson. “They also trust that I know what the current ‘law’ is. It changes every year. “
This trust creates a unique relationship between skater and designer. Johnson is emotionally invested in the success of every client, no matter how often she designs for them. This causes her some heartache – like when the media beat Gold for changing coaches – but said it ultimately makes her a stronger designer.
“There are a few days when I think, ‘No, I can’t make another dress,” said Johnson, “but I know that I am blessed to do what I do.”
Photo above: Gail Johnson, owner of Illuminescent Design, shows off one of her custom creations (Erin Barney / MEDILL)