Nathan Chen recently took to the ice to train for the Olympics wearing a Nike sweatshirt. The designer of her figure skating costumes, Vera Wang, took notice.
“I said to him, ‘Are you even going to be able to wear what we make for you? Because it’s much more restrictive than a Nike sweatshirt,” Wang joked. “He kind of laughed and said, ‘Yeah, that’ll be fine. “”
Chen was more than okay during his record breaking routine in the men’s short program at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Tuesday. While wearing a stylishly minimal, black and white, tuxedo-like suit designed by Wang that offered comfort similar to Chen’s Nike sweatshirt.
Combining elegance and functionality is the triple axis of the challenges for figure skating costume designers. Even for Wang, a former competitive figure skater turned fashion icon.
Wang said Chen was heavily involved throughout the design process, with the gold medal hopeful preferring a costume that isn’t theatrical or overly ornamental.
One request was that he wanted a costume that looked like a t-shirt.
“And that’s really hard for a designer to do,” Wang said with a laugh. “I mean, sewing is sewing. T-shirts are T-shirts. But riding that divide was the hardest part.
Particularly when dressing 22-year-old Chen, who ushered in a new era of figure skating by exhibiting unprecedented athleticism that Wang described as “basically, to me, inhuman”.
Wang said she spent two weeks imagining sketches and considering suitable material that would provide Chen with enough stretch and movement, while also being telegenic.
“I was really, really nervous because he’s kind of a new breed skater, and the fact that he can do quadruple jumps was really unheard of before him,” Wang said. “Knowing what it takes to do even a triple, I was extremely concerned that we had the right fabrics.”
Wang began dressing Chen ahead of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, making him the fourth Olympian she designed for, joining Nancy Kerrigan, Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek. While Chen pushed boundaries on the ice, Wang did so on his designs, even introducing competitive skating in a neon yellow suit in 2019.
For Chen’s galaxy print worn during his performance in Elton John’s “Rocket Man” at the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January, Wang studied space exploration and rocket launches.
“I had to open up in my own mind in another direction for ‘Rocket Man,’ and it wasn’t meant to be so literal,” Wang said. “It was supposed to refer to fire and the power to propel man out of the atmosphere…I wanted this costume to look like it was on fire.”
Whether it’s pyrotechnics, minimalism or a Nike sweatshirt, Chen’s suits could soon be accessorized with his first career gold medal, which he will look to capture in the men’s free skating final Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. EST on NBC and Peacock.
For 72-year-old Wang, who nearly qualified for the 1968 Olympics, there is no greater honor than designing for an Olympian who put her trust, confidence and to some extent , his gold medal hopes in his hands.
“When I see a skater there, and I know what happened, and they always ask me, it’s a great privilege,” Wang said. “I always say that I will not do it again. I said it after Nancy. I said it after Michelle. I said it after Evan. I said it after Nathan. I said, ‘That’s it! I hang up my sewing machine, my needles. But the truth is that it also affects my work. I think when I take on a project like this, it’s so out of the realm of what we normally do that it forces me to get into this uncomfortable zone, out of my comfort zone. However, it always brings me something, something other than participation. It makes me feel like I can develop my own creativity in another way, and it’s also very rewarding.