Nam Nguyen, 17 and ready for another breakthrough, has never been so well dressed.
He showed up at Thornhill Summer Skate in August with new costumes barely out of the box. The shirt for his new free program to the very serious Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor by Johann Sebastian Bach shimmered with a soft glow. In fact, his togs were complex and simple at the same time: a soft white shirt with a run of snowy embroidery on the hip and the shoulder, balanced and classy. It rippled wondrously in the breeze he created as he sped around the ice. And it danced in the light, lit by subtle, glittery stones.
It’s made of silk chiffon, with lycra in it, for stretch, imported from Japan. Very expensive and unique.
Nguyen has a new sponsor: Canadian couture dress designer Thien Le, who is now taking the skater by the hand. They have heritage in common. Nguyen is the son of boat people from Vietnam. Le was born in Vietnam, and left with his family when he was eight years old. They went first to the Philippines where Le studied French. His mother was fluent in French. His father spoke Russian.
Le had never heard of Nguyen until the Vietnamese community in Canada embraced them and connected them. Over the summer, Nguyen had been doing the Vietnamese talk show circuit in Toronto and Montreal, even in parts of the United States, when a producer of a show suggested he meet Le. The producer told Le that Nguyen’s parents needed some help.
Le? Perhaps he’s not a household name in Canada. Perhaps he should be. Even before he graduated from the International Academy of Design in Toronto, he landed a gig with the Canadian Opera Company. In 1999, he launched his own label. Now he has several lines, but he is known best for his one-of-a-kind couture evening gowns, always Audrey Hepburn-like glamorous and elegant, made from the finest silks from Europe and Asia (selected himself), finely tailored, some of them made of enough silk to cover a football field. Le likes to say he designs dresses that are worth more than he can afford to wear.
In any of his lines, you can’t buy anything for less than $300. His gowns sell for as much as $20,000. His biggest market is overseas, but he also designs for Canada’s top literati: singer/songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk, award-winning actors like Catherine O’Hara, and Colm Feore, a film and stage man with an exquisite voice.
Le is a busy man. He has also worked as a consultant for major industries, such as Bombardier and Miele. He’s designed costumes for Vietnamese movies. He has worked as fashion director for Vietnamese magazines. And he’s a philanthropist, conducting fashion shows to raise money for those caught in the web of human trafficking rings.
Le helps out. When he was asked if he could help Nguyen, Le didn’t know who he was. “Sure, I’ll do it,” he said without question. “I’ll help him out. I didn’t even think about who he was. I didn’t know if he sucked.”
He’s delighted that Nguyen doesn’t “suck” at all and that he’s actually quite good.
Le had never designed a figure skating costume before, but he welcomes challenges. And he’s a restless soul, always looking to try new things. “I get bored very easily,” he said. And besides, he’s designed costumes for musicians on tour. “I have to listen to the music and the stories, and you translate that into a character,” he said.
Even so, the Nguyens were hugely skeptical of Le when they first met, especially when Le took no measurements of the skater at all. “He just eyeballed me and went: ‘Okay, I’ll have your costume done in three days,’” Nguyen said.
Really? Nguyen was used to waiting a couple of months to get his competitive threads and then going through endless fittings. And Le delivered. Le flew the special fabric (had to be four-way stretch, had to be a certain weight) in from Japan. He watched videos of Nguyen skating. The costumes were ready for the Thornhill competition, a miracle in itself. Despite his international stature, Le has only a few people working on his team who are all like family to him. Le sews dresses and costumes himself and works on little sleep.
“We didn’t think the style would be nice, but it was perfectly suited to the music,” Nguyen said. In the short time that Le had to deliver, he asked for Nguyen’s music, researched it and didn’t consult Nguyen’s choreographers at all. (Jeff Buttle choreographed the free program. David Wilson designed Nguyen’s short program to “The Killing Fields” soundtrack.)
Nguyen’s costume for “The Killing Fields” a movie about a journalist escaping the rebels, is also carefully spun. Le has the skater dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt with a vest in a dark blue camouflage pattern, depicting soldiers. Some dark brown patterns on it represent dirt and mud and struggle. True to the Le cachet, the pattern is not a mere print. It’s woven into the fabric.
“He has this company that brings in these fabrics that my mother has never seen,” said Nguyen, speaking of his mother, who sewed all of his costumes in the early days, before he moved to Toronto to train under Brian Orser. His mother is mystified and in awe of Le’s technique. “If you look at it [the costumes] in detail, it’s so complicated,” Nguyen said. “Even my mother doesn’t know how he did it. There was one point in the vest where he had to change it four times, because he didn’t like the pattern. So they had to do it over and over and over. He’s a very hard worker.”
Some of Le’s designs use a single stitch to create a cascade of fabric over a body. He says he could not design the way he does, unless he knew how to sew. Le ran into another snag designing for a figure skater. “A lot of time, his pants won’t stay on or aren’t very comfortable for him,” Le said. “’Let me figure it out,’ I said. So I developed a waistband specifically just for him, so it will stay on his body. Maybe in a couple of years, you will see these pants on his website or whatever he is doing. I’m going to keep helping him.”
In other words, Le is talking about designing a line of clothes, with Nguyen’s name on it, to help finance his work. “We have a plan for him,” Le said. “Figure skating is a field for not making money. You get support from the government, but you are not going to be making money. So I’m trying to help him, develop him. I know it’s not easy for him to go through this, day after day. I don’t know how they do it. It’s a lot of work.”
Strangely enough, Le loves figure skating. It is his favourite sport. When he was a kid, he tried it out. “But I lasted for only one lesson,” he said. “Maybe two hours and I was done. I could not even stand on my own two feet. So I know how hard it is.”
Le understands Nguyen’s struggle and not just on ice. “I struggled for years,” Le said. “And years. I kept fighting. It took a lot for me to get where I am today. I worked three jobs to get through the design academy.”
He’s tickled that Nguyen kept his Vietnamese name.
“I did keep it,” Nguyen said. “There are so many Asian people who have English names, but I’m so lucky to have my parents keep it. You don’t want to hide behind your true identity. It’s better to stand out with a unique name.”
Nguyen has always been and will always be unique. And so is Le. Just one thing about that silk that makes up that exquisite long-program shirt. It wrinkles like a Chinese Shar-Pei dog during a performance. But Le has solved that problem, too. He has given Nguyen a portable steaming iron.