Nathan Chen recently stepped onto the ice to train for the Olympics wearing a Nike sweatshirt. The designer of his figure skating costumes, Vera Wang, took notice.
“I said to him, ‘Are you going to even be able to wear what we’re making for you? Because it’s a lot more restrictive than a Nike sweatshirt,” Wang joked. “He sort of laughed and said, ‘Yes, I’ll be OK.’”
Chen was more than OK during his record-breaking routine in the men’s short program at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Tuesday. All while wearing an elegantly minimal, black-and-white, suit-like costume designed by Wang that provided similar comfort to Chen’s Nike sweatshirt.
Combining elegance and functionality is the triple axel of challenges for figure skating costume designers. Even for Wang, a former competitive figure skater turned fashion icon.
Wang said Chen is heavily involved throughout the design process, with the gold-medal hopeful preferring a costume that isn’t theatrical or overly ornamental.
He wanted a costume that looked like a suit but felt like a Nike sweatshirt.
“And that’s really hard to do for a designer,” Wang said with a laugh. “I mean, tailoring is tailoring. T-shirts are t-shirts. But to straddle that divide was the most challenging part.”
Particularly when dressing the 22-year-old Chen, who has ushered in a new era of figure skating by displaying unprecedented athleticism that Wang described as “basically, to me, inhuman.”
Wang said she spent two weeks envisioning sketches and contemplating the proper material that would provide Chen enough stretch and movement, while also being telegenic.
“I was really, really nervous because he’s kind of a new breed of skater, and the fact that he could do quadruple jumps was unheard of really in any consistent way before him,” Wang said. “Knowing what it takes to even do 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 has pushed the boundaries on the ice, Wang has done so on his designs, even introducing competitive skating to a neon yellow costume in 2019.
For Chen’s galaxy-print worn during his performance to 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 meant to refer to the fire and power to propel man out of the atmosphere…I wanted this costume to look like he was on fire.”
Whether pyrotechnics or minimalism or a Nike sweatshirt, Chen’s costumes soon could be accessorized with his first career gold medal, which he will look to capture in the men’s free skate final Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. EST on NBC and Peacock.
For the 72-year-old Wang, who dreamt of becoming an Olympian and competed in the 1968 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, there’s no greater honor than designing for an Olympian who has put their confidence, trust and, to some degree, gold-medal hopes in her hands.
“When I see a skater out there, and I know what’s gone into it, and that I’m still being asked, it’s a great privilege,” Wang said. “I always say I’m not doing this 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’m hanging 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 is so out of the realm of what we normally do that it forces me into that lack of comfort zone, way out of my comfort zone. Yet, it always brings something to me, something other than the participation. It makes me feel that I can expand my own creativity in another way, and that’s also very rewarding.”