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The pull of the sequined vortex

Even figure skaters who have great real-life style (think Evan Lysacek) are drawn to sparkle when competitions come around. The urge to shine is hard to resist

March 22, 2009|Andrew Harmon

There are certain inevitabilities to any figure skating competition. Plastic-wrapped flowers and stuffed animals will be thrown onto the ice. The audience will gasp at a botched triple Lutz, then break into mild applause for encouragement's sake. A gangly teenager will perform to music from an opera in which the soprano is either stabbed or leaps to her death.

And, of course, there will be sequins, feathers, nude Lycra, draped velvet. And rhinestones. Thousands of them.

Never mind the prowess and guts it takes to land an axel. Many sports fans simply can't see past skating's aesthetic, which combines the flash of competitive ballroom dancing with the final scene of "Xanadu."

In recent years, the more-is-more mantra has been particularly acute in the men's competition. While top female skaters such as Yu-Na Kim and Rachael Flatt have struck a pretty and traditional tone with their costumes, theatrical garb that "tells a story" is en vogue among the guys, with designs that have no antecedent in modern fashion. Tailored masculinity, once the hallmark of the sport, is rare, if not downright passe.

Skaters used to be threatened with point deductions for outlandish costumes. Not so under the sport's current scoring system, implemented after a judging scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics. "I think a lot of male skaters see [embellished costumes] as part of the whole package, that it will enhance their marks," says Evan Lysacek, a two-time U.S. champion. "Maybe it's helping. If you don't skate very fast, and you have a shiny outfit, it looks like you're going faster. With a simple costume, you can't hide behind much."

But simple is what Lysacek prefers -- which makes him something of an outsider. On a recent afternoon at an El Segundo rink, he wore a Y-3 cashmere sweater as he skated through a group of young girls, who practiced layback spins and made no attempt to get out of his way. A veteran of the sport, Lysacek often wears Y-3 during practice. He has the tall, lanky proportions of a runway model, a Cartier watch collection and an affinity for the minimalist restraint of Raf Simons. At the World Figure Skating Championships, which begin today at Staples Center, you'll see him attempt a quadruple toe loop wearing a shawl collar tuxedo with a rose tucked in the breast pocket.

"In my own clothing, I like simple, but something that has texture. Something that's architectural and design-oriented," the 23-year-old says. "That's what I've looked for in my costumes as well."

Three years ago, at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, Lysacek skated to "Carmen," one of the sport's well-worn soundtracks. Instead of wearing a matador's "suit of lights," he opted for a black Gianfranco Ferre shirt with intricate pleating that approximated origami. He wore Alexander McQueen last season and fashioned a Christian Dior scarf into a belt the year before that.

"You have to dress up and have respect for the judges," he says. "You can't just skate in sweats and a cap. But who said anything about spandex and sequins?"

Actually, it was Johnny Weir, one of skating's most reliably outre competitors.

The case for excess

Lysacek's chief American rival for the last half-decade, Weir failed to qualify for this year's world championships. But his imprint on the sport's style is inescapable -- even if he's not the first skater to wear a velvet onesie.

Weir's influences, he says, are Russian skating greats such as Evgeni Plushenko, who never shied from a sparkly cravat. "To be accepted worldwide, American skaters need to understand that excess is necessary," Weir says. "And yes, I take credit for that."

His designer tastes are legendary -- Weir has modeled for Heatherette runway shows and dares you to try prying the Balenciaga work bag from his hands. But on the ice, the costumes he co-designs have a certain sartorial madness, much to his delight. At the Turin Games, he wore a shimmery swan costume, replete with a single red glove that he referred to lovingly in press conferences as "Camille." Since then, he's sported enough mesh, lace and rhinestones to exhaust the inventory of a crafts store.

"I'm a firm believer that if you're a figure skater, you should wear a figure skating costume," he says. "You can't just wear all black and skate to Beethoven. There needs to be a story, and you're the storyteller."

Given their rivalry, you'd expect a clucked tongue from Lysacek when talking about Weir, but he's surprisingly laudatory. "Johnny is his own person, and you have to admire that," Lysacek says. "He's like, 'This is my style. This is the way I skate. This is my Louis Vuitton, and this is my fur. Deal with it.' "

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