When Timothy Westbrook makes an entrance, he makes an entrance.
The Pettit Ice Center was freezing early in the morning as a handful of skaters slid across the ice. A television camera from Channel 6 was poised to shoot the two skaters on the ice who were clearly miles above everyone else.
It was Alexa Scimeca (who will wear a Westbrook design) and Chris Knierim, the reigning U.S. Figure Skating national champion pair couple. They will headline the prestigious Skate America competition at the UWM Panther Arena, running Friday, Oct. 23 through Sunday, Oct. 25. The program is filled with world champions and Olympic medal winners. The Milwaukee show is one of six worldwide events leading to the Grand Prix finals in Barcelona in December.
Just after 8 o'clock the morning of the practice at The Pettit, Westbrook came bounding in wearing a T-shirt and quickly bundled up with a borrowed black coat length parka as he hugged and hugged and hugged. And he watched the action on the ice with fascination.
He looked wistful, as well he should.
Westbrook grew up in upstate New York, and for a while thought he was going to be a figure skater.
"Now I skate like a 9-year old," he said with a rueful chuckle.
Not to worry for this designer, who was The Pfister Hotel Artist in Residence in 2012, the first out-of-state artist to get that plum opportunity and the first non-painter. He was also a "Project Runway" contestant in 2013.
He created costumes for figure skaters before, but he has suddenly moved into the big leagues, designing a costume for Scimeca, who along with her partner Knierim, are driving hard to repeat as U.S. champs and to point the way toward the 2018 Olympics.
Westbrook is both typical and unique among fashion designers.
He is typical in that he has a great eye and a strong sense of fit and grace. He is unique because he uses an old fashioned non-electric treadle sewing machine, he weaves his own fabrics and he's laser-focused on using organic and repurposed man-made materials in his creations.
"This is a really big deal," Westbrook said, sitting at a table in the bowels of the Pettit. "Last year, I staged a show in the ballroom of The Pfister. We had professional skaters and synthetic ice. It was amazing.
"People saw it, and from there I got hooked up with the Wisconsin Figure Skating Club. And then this amazing opportunity came along."
Designing and building a costume for a skater is a very specialized task with some particular requirements, such as using the skin-toned fabric between the colored parts of the costume.
"There are rules about how much skin is allowed," he said. In addition, you don’t want a costume where a hand could slip underneath it and get caught.
"If it’s okay with Alexa, I’m going to put rhinestones on the fabric," he said. "I love idea of it looking like a person dancing in dewdrops or the stars.
"We can’t move forward with the design until I know what the music is," he said. "We have two choices of music, and Alexa is going to do research to discover what the stories are.
"Figure skating tells a story, and there are three parts to telling that story. First is the performance. Then there’s the music and the costume. You need all of them to be in harmony."
Westbrook works in Riverwest, but he's leaving for New York soon because, "I’ve reached the point in my career where I need a mentor."
"Milwaukee doesn’t have a fashion industry so I need to go back in order to advance my career," he said. But he still plans to retain his ties to Milwaukee.
"I think what Milwaukee doesn’t have enough of is people outside of Milwaukee being cheerleaders," he said. "I have several friends who are kind of drowning in New York. I can get them and their art to Milwaukee. I plan to cheerlead the wonders of this city.
"I can also bring the voices from Milwaukee to New York. I’m excited to be a bridge between the two cities."
Information on showtimes and tickets for Skate America is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
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Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.