OKSANA BAIUL: ON SOLID GROUND
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
NEW YORK — Oksana Baiul, one of the world’s most resilient figure skaters, is in the midst of another incarnation.
This time around, the blond-haired, green-eyed beauty has fashioned herself as a skatingwear designer, complete with an office in the Empire State Building and a fiance wise to Seventh Avenue. Quite a leap for the feisty Ukrainian teenager who stole the gold from America’s dueling duo Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding at the Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994.
The Oksana Baiul collection is being produced by North Sportif and managed by her husband-to-be, Gene Sunik. At 24, Baiul is determined to maintain control of her latest business venture, something she didn’t manage to do during her first go-round in the apparel business. As a 16-year-old, she mistakenly followed a former coach’s suggestion to sign a licensing deal with GK, a gymnastics apparel maker, for a signature line of skatingwear. Two years later, she pulled the plug on the arrangement.
“The thing is I gave away my name, and other people made tons of money from it,” Baiul said. “I’ve worked hard to get where I’m at. I have to be careful with who I pick or give my name to because it’s fragile.”
She certainly has had some hard knocks along the way. Baiul’s parents divorced when she was a toddler, her mother died when she was 13 and her grandmother died shortly after that. As a teenager, she toured and partied with “Champions on Ice.” At 19, drinking caused her to crash her Mercedes convertible, not far from the nine-room house she owned and lived in alone. By the age of 20, she faced 3 1/2 months of rehab and two years later gave up the skating tour for good. Baiul is now approaching her four-year anniversary of sobriety.
“I felt so lonely on the tour,” she recalled. “I was drinking a lot, skating badly, had gained a lot of weight and was crying all the time. On tour, I had to be nice and polite to a lot of people, and I really didn’t like myself. I hated everything about me. After rehab, I had changed and I chose to step away. It was too much of a party. I wanted to reinvent myself.”
Instead of showing up for the occasional photo shoot and meet-and-greet, as was the case with her GK deal, Baiul is all business these days — sketching the line, selecting models for her catalog, quizzing store owners, wear-testing products and going to fashion shows. In January, she was front and center when the company landed a dozen accounts at its debut at the “Let’s Play Hockey” trade show in Las Vegas.
“Nothing came easy to me,” Baiul said. “Nothing comes easy in life in general. But I had to go through a lot of different people to learn a lot of different things about business.”
As for the collection, a mock turtleneck jacket with Swarovski crystals along the zipper and a shiny sequined sleeveless dress are two bestsellers. Wholesale prices range from about $43 to $75. The bulk of the line is geared for skaters, but select items should appeal to more women, such as a the catsuit with “something kind of fancy-shmancy, shimmery up top and a slimmer bottom.”
The company’s 32 sales reps are now targeting the 2,000 specialty stores that sell $15 million worth of skating attire at retail each year. Sunik expects first-season sales to exceed $1 million. During a meeting Tuesday at their showroom, he and Baiul acted like pair skaters playing off each others moves and words. When Baiul casually refers to “testers,” Sunik immediately interjects “samples.” “Testers, samples — hey, I’m Russian,” she laughed.
Whatever they’re called, they’re winning fans. When samples were sent to Connecticut’s Simsbury Ice Rink, Baiul’s former training site, shoppers asked to buy them, Baiul said. Quick to the chase, Baiul told the store owner to give them away.
“I told her to do anything with them, but don’t sell them. For a company to be very successful, I know you must give away a lot of things for kids to try them out,” she said. “When I go to the ice rinks, there are a lot of little kids who run up to me with our catalogs and say they want to buy 563. They know the name.”
Sunik was less familiar with the ice skater. He didn’t recognize her name when they met 18 months ago, explaining to her that he was too busy watching the O.J. Simpson trial to catch the skaters at the ’94 Games. She thought he was being coy; he wasn’t.
Baiul still skates daily, but fashion is her focus. She stayed in New York for Fashion Week to take in Luca Luca, Custo Barcelona and a few others, before heading to the Olympics in Salt Lake City as a guest of Sports Illustrated. She was so preoccupied with her new career that she had no idea what reporters were talking about when they approached her at a Fashion Week party at the W Hotel in Times Square for her take on the pairs-skating controversy.
Watching women’s figure skating at the Games, she was taken by its marketability.
“Skating has a lot of fashion attached to it,” she said. “How can you market luge or snow skiing?”
Like another Russian role model, Baiul has set her sights high. After Sunik saw a gargantuan shot of Anna Kournikova on an Omega billboard in Times Square in December, he asked Baiul what major tournament the tennis player had won. When she told him, “none,” his next question was, “Who is she with?”
Baiul signed with the same sports agency, Octagon, a month later.