Nam and the wonderful shirt



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.



Hanyu mania at Autumn Classic

This is a story I wrote for Icenetwork on Yuzuru Hanyu’s opening competition of the season at Autumn Classic in Barrie, Ont., Canada:


The presence of Yuzuru Hanyu at the humble Autumn Classic in Barrie, Ont., a small city north of Toronto, was a game-changer for some this past week.

No longer listed as part of the Challenger Series, the Autumn Classic takes place in a national training centre with five or six rows of viewing seats. Even last year when it was part of the Challenger Series, it carried a no-frills budget.

But once the Sochi Olympics men’s champion from Japan signed up to open his season and unleash a new free skate for the first time here, and Skate Canada got wind of an army of Japanese fans booking flights to Canada, it sent a media staff, set up tables beside the ice surface and found a mixed zone in a (rare) quiet corner.

When the Japanese federation heard that a flurry of Japanese fans had booked flights to get to Barrie, it sent its own little force to protect Hanyu: two strong looking men who followed him everywhere and allowed only seven minutes for post-event scrums. For the fans, it was a rare opportunity to get as close and personal as possible with Hanyu in a small venue.

Barrie never saw anything like it. The fans arrived in droves on practice day on Tuesday, and lined up all the way down a ramp to buy tickets, half an hour before the place opened at 6:30 a.m. Seats weren’t assigned, so they claimed their spots, laying sweaters and scarves and bags on the seats in the Allandale Recreation Centre arena.

The first night, puzzled janitors removed the sweaters and various seat-holders and placed them all in the lost-and-found department.

Aghast, the fans resorted afterwards to camping out at the front entrance overnight, with sleeping bags. Skate Canada staff tried many times to comfort them, saying they could sleep in a hotel bed and return early the next morning to get their seats. The fans didn’t budge, despite temperatures that hovered a few degrees above freezing.

Skate Canada live-streamed the event, so that when fans in Japan – who hadn’t made the trip – saw it, they texted their friends, asking them to buy programs for them. The Japanese snapped up multiples of the program, despite only three pages devoted to the Autumn Classic. The rest detailed an Oktoberfest regional competition taking place this week.

When Hanyu made his first appearance for a practice on Tuesday, the video cameras and smart phones came out and followed his every move. A group of Japanese media – some familiar faces – made the trip as well. Jet-lagged, they could be found in a backroom arena corner at times, nodding off on benches en masse.

And what a show they got.

Hanyu  won the event with a total of 277.19 points, 36.09 points ahead of Canadian champion Nam Nguyen, who had a powerful short program, but a troubled long. Sean Rabbitt, a 25-year-old competing at his first international competition, took the bronze medal and was in tears at the thought of his mother, Helene, in a wheelchair, making the trip to see him. In his first practice, he was in the same group as Hanyu.

Hanyu won the short program with 93.14 points, after stumbling out of his quad toe loop. He’s using his exquisite routine by Jeff Buttle from his troubled last season, because, said coach Brian Orser, “it had never had a home run with him.

“I’d hate to retire it,” Orser said. “It’s such a beautiful piece.” Hanyu has the world record of 101.45 for a  short program, set at the Sochi Olympics, but Orser thinks Hanyu could score 105 with this routine.

But everybody had been waiting to see Hanyu’s new long program. And they weren’t disappointed.

Orser said Hanyu showed up this spring in Toronto and immediately brought a whole body of music from the popular 2001 Japanese movie “Onmyoji”, about powers of the light and dark fighting an epic battle. This is only the second time that Hanyu has suggested music. Last season, he went to “Phantom of the Opera.”

In the movie, legendary Japanese actor Mansai Nomura plays the role of the Onmyoji, a kind of Yin-Yang Master. But what mattered most to Hanyu about Nomura was his long involvement in Kyogen farcical theatre, an art form dating from the Middle Ages. The entire Nomura family has popularized Kyogen around the world.

Nomura’s father, Mansaku, is considered a “Living National Treasure” of Japan for his work in Kyogen. So was his grandfather, Manzo Nomura VI. He, too, is a “Living National Treasure.”

And earlier this year, Hanyu met Mansai, now a 49-year-old actor and mentor. The meeting was engineered by Akiko Ebisawa of Nippon Television – who was at Autumn Classic this week.

Ebisawa filmed the meeting between Nomura and Hanyu, comparing their art and the movement they use. Hanyu appeared overcome at meeting Nomura. “He is a huge fan,” Ebisawa said. “[Hanyu] was very nervous.”

The first move in Hanyu’s free is a move used by Nomura in a kyogen stance. In the new routine, Hanyu places two black-gloved fingers in front of his lips, then swings his other arm over his head. When Nomura performs the movement, he’s wearing traditional Japanese medieval costume, with long, boxy sleeves. Nomura and Hanyu decide that he has to adapt this costume and movement to suit a figure skating routine. For the first time at Autumn Classic, the world saw Hanyu’s version: a soft ivory gold, belted tunic,with slight bell sleeves, more streamlined for figure skating.

The Nippon film also shows Hanyu and Nomura comparing their mediums.
They both agree that one must learn the basics before one can practice their art. There are similarities. Kyogen has set forms, like karate.

And to translate all of that onto the ice? Nomura found a way. On the film he shows how Kyogen artists jump three times (for example) and land with increasingly emphatic thuds on stage.  Because that is not possible in skating, Nomura shows him that he can draw attention to a movement by swinging an arm aloft first. You cannot just copy Kyogen, Nomura says. “You must think what the movement means – which gesture would be most effective.”

Many of Hanyu’s arm movements flash at the sound of a drum. How to do the ending, with that final bang of a drum? Hanyu stands at centre ice, and snaps both arms out and up. It’s extremely effective.

He got a standing ovation.

The reaction? Buttle, who trained at Barrie for years, watched from the sidelines. His jaw  dropped.

Three-time world champion Elvis Stojko, known for his own martial arts routine, stopped in at Allandale on the way home from a movie shoot. He’s glad he stayed to watch, he said.

Hanyu’s routine was wonderfully understated, Stojko said. “It’s not overly dramatic,” he said. “There is a certain humble quality to it that I like. The style of the program and the music builds. It’s not in your face. I hate it when it’s overly done. It’s just nice and clean skating. It speaks for itself. “

“And he’s filled out so his body is a little stronger,” Stojko said. “There is a maturity to his skating. He’s not as flingy as he was before. Now he’s more controlled with his movements.”

Hanyu wasn’t perfect, but for this time of the year, astonishing. He landed a tightly rotated quad Salchow, but then put a hand down on a quad toe loop that followed. He fell on his second quad toe loop in the second half of his routine. He turned out of a triple Axel, one of his favourite jumps. He regretted those mistakes, he said later in Japanese.

His spin combinations were crisp and ever changing and imaginative. His Ina Bauer was beyond compare, leaning far back into the motion. Shae-Lynn Bourne choreographed this routine and there’s even a remembrance of her: Hanyu “hydroblades” – a move that Bourne and partner Victor Kraatz used to do by gliding low to the ice on their blades. When Hanyu finished, he bent over, hands on his thighs.

Orser said he hasn’t reached full steam yet. His cardio isn’t 100 per cent. He’s still working on the right footwork into quads.

Perhaps the secret to Hanyu this season is that he’s spent a lot of time in Toronto with Orser. Last year was harried and unpredictable, Orser said. He injured himself at Cup of China and skated with a bandage on his head. He had surgery to correct an abdominal growth and lost time because of that, too. Many events were in Asia, so there was little reason to complicate things by flying back and forth between continents.

This season, he started at the Autumn Classic, about an hour away from his training centre in Toronto. And his next start will be at Skate Canada in Lethbridge, which keeps him in Canada. After that he’ll have three weeks in Toronto to train for his next Grand Prix.

“It’s really nice to have him around,” Orser said.

Hanyu admits that it’s allowed him something he did not have last year. And it seems, Hanyu’s power is only beginning to rise.







Liam Firus, the artist at work

In his skating life, Liam Firus has encountered a series of Mount Everests.

Finally, this season, he may be ready to scale them, plant the flag at the top, and make his own moment in the scheme of things.

The 23-year-old skater from North Vancouver is headed to Finlandia Trophy this week to show us all what he’s got. And judging by his mindset and his performances this summer and at the national training camp, it may behoove one to lay down the knitting needles and café mochas to take notice.

Firus, twice a national bronze medalist, has always been an exquisite skater, rather Chan-like in his strokes, very musical and emotive. He earned the highest component marks in the men’s event at the 2015 Canadian championships. But this season, with his new “Blues for Klook” short program, Firus has taken a step beyond. It’s stunning.

He’s long wanted to skate to Eddy Louiss’ “Blues for Klook,” particularly since he watched his idol, Daisuke Takahashi use it for his free skate to win the silver medal at the 2012 world championships in Nice, France. It was an inspired performance. The languid jazz piece isn’t new to figure skating arenas. Maia Usova and Alexander Zhulin used it to win the 1993 world championships in Prague, and just about everything else they contested that year. It was a thing of beauty.

And so is Firus’ version. Mark Pillay, expert at packaging Firus, did the choreography. “It’s very different for me,” Firus said. “I don’t know if I can do it as well as [Takahashi], but we put a new twist to it.”

The blues requires more emotion, more face, more style, Firus said. “It’s not like a pretty program. It’s loose. It’s gritty. I’m used to doing that nice classical-line stuff. That’s what the long [to Moulin Rouge] is about. “

He loved the Blues, but didn’t quite know what to do with it. He needed help. And because he trains in Colorado Springs, he doesn’t get to see Pillay every week. He and coach Christy Krall decided to opt for a new secret weapon: Christopher Dean. It was Krall’s idea. “What would you think about working with Christopher Dean?” she asked. “Yeah, sure,” Firus said. “And we started. And it’s awesome.”

Firus hadn’t been born when Dean and Jayne Torvill rocked the ice dance world during the 1980s with their riveting style and expression and choreography. He knew Dean represented excellence, but “I didn’t really know.”

But last summer, he had a first-hand look at the magic. “He’s amazing,” Firus said. “When he does his movement, it’s motivating watching him. When it does it, okay, I want that feeling. He can transfer the feeling. I need to transfer the feeling on the ice. “

They work about 45 minutes, perhaps as much as an hour and a half a week. “He’s so different,” Firus said. “He’s so motivating. When you’re working with him, you feel like you are the only student he has. He gives so much in his lessons.” Dean helped him learn how to place his hand, his fingers, everything.

Firus is keeping his long program to “Moulin Rouge” although he had a long program choreographed earlier in the season. After working on it for about a month and a half, both he and Krall realized it just wasn’t clicking.  Firus believes his exquisite “Moulin Rouge” has more room to grow. Last year, he rarely presented it the way he wanted to.

Since last year, Firus’ speed has improved and so has his power. “Everything has come together this year,” he said. Last year, the post-Olympic season, was tough, he said. He couldn’t get motivated. The Olympics had gutted him.

He had made his dream come true by getting onto the Olympic team for Sochi, but he had been an underdog and had started the season late with a serious injury. Everything happened in a whirlwind. While his teammates soared in Sochi, Firus froze. He finished 28th, and didn’t make the cut for the long program.

“The Olympics was a weird experience for me,” he said. “I really had an unusual Olympics. It’s one of my main goals to go back and redeem myself. It was horrible. It was drastic, and that was so unfortunate. That’s not how I had been training that year. I was like, wow, how do I come back from this?”

Negative thoughts trudged through his mind. “Did I screw up my skating future with this one performance?” Firus asked himself. He lived by himself for the first time during Olympic season, and found his thoughts centred only on skating. He’s a perfectionist and hard on himself.

This season, Firus says he’s parked it all. His Olympic demise is in the past. He’s decided that if he doesn’t make the next Olympic team, it’s because he is not skating well at the time. He believes he has the goods to do it.

There’s more confidence about him, even though he suffered a bad fall attempting his nemesis jump, the triple Axel and created a hairline fracture of a tibia to his right leg in early July. He didn’t let himself get bummed out about it. He said he took off 2 ½ weeks. Krall said he missed six weeks over the summer. But Firus just knew he’d have to buckle down when he got back onto the ice. And he has.

The triple Axel is no longer a weight on his mind. That’s because he’s tackled the quadruple toe loop this season and he’s finding it much easier than the Axel, as many do. There’s a video out there of Firus at a Broadmoor Summer competition in June landing a quad toe beautifully, but he swings out of the frame for the rest. The shadows show it. He actually landed a quad toe – triple toe combination. Yes, believe it or not, he really did.

He won the competition, and defeated US champ Jason Brown. “I thought, if I can compete with Jason Brown, I can compete with anybody,” he said.

Firus is usually a late bloomer and his first competition is normally rough. But Firus landed a quad in the short program and then at the Jump competition, did the quad-triple. “I’ve only tried two and I’ve stood up on both of them,” he said. “I can really use my momentum and collect nicely [for the quad]. And even the Axel has improved. Because the quad is so hard, it gives you perspective on how easy the other things are.”

He’s also learning this year not to take things so seriously. He’s not punishing himself so much when first working jumps into a newly choreographed routine. “There’s no way it should be perfect,” he said. “You’re falling everywhere. I was a perfectionist and I want it too fast. “But this time, Firus has worked through it.

And now that he’s been with Krall for two years, the two have learned much about each other and how to work together. It takes two years, he said.

Now he has more balance in his life. He used to feel guilty about watching a movie past midnight. Now he lets himself enjoy life more. And he has a roommate, Alex Johnson, a U.S. senior men’s competitor, who like Firus, takes university courses. They can bounce ideas and problems off each other. And Firus now has a dog, too: Simon, who helps put things into perspective. Simon, a little terrier mix, doesn’t care if Firus lands his quad or not.

This season, Firus would like to finish within the top three at the Canadian championships again, but most importantly, he wants to skate with consistency from start to finish. And deliver each competition better than the last. At Finlandia, he’ll be up against Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic, Konstantin Menshov and Sergei Voronov of Russia and Adam Rippon of the United States.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing Liam this year,” Krall said. [Finlandia] will be a great test for him to strut his stuff.”

“I’m very encouraged that he will break through to the other side,” she said. “That would be a beautiful thing. If he puts the whole package together, he is definitely at the top. It’s going to be fun to watch.”