Valentino was a man who made his name dressing women. Versace probably never wore one of his label’s racy bustiers.
Which puts Michelle Nguyen in heady company as an award-winning skiwear designer. Who’s never actually been on skis.
Also, she’s not a stuffed duck.
“No, I don’t know their (fashion) do’s and don’ts,” Michelle, 14, laughingly repeated the question, her megawatt grin outshining a glittery Christmas tree in the lobby of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite. “I just wanted to make it a holiday thing, but make it a little more unique. More wintry.”
Mission accomplished. The Johns Creek High School freshman spends plenty of time indoors at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, being treated for thalassemia, a rare genetic blood disorder. But when she got involved in a contest to design the 2013 Aflac Holiday Duck, which raises money for children with cancer, she placed her winning entry outdoors, squarely in Lindsey Vonn territory:
On skis, in a bright green hoodie, racing goggles pulled down to the top of its beak.
And now through the end of the year, on shelves at Macy’s.
Proceeds from sales of the plush toy go to the treatment and research of children’s cancer and blood disorders at 50 hospitals around the country. This year’s campaign has the added benefit of drawing attention to the importance of donating bone marrow, particularly among minority groups.
This is the 13th year that Aflac has produced the holiday version of its signature squawking duck. Since 1995, the Columbus-based insurance giant has raised $85 million (a total that includes corporate giving and agent donations).
But it’s only the second time that Aflac has turned to young patients to help quack the duck’s dress code.
“Prior to last year, we simply had our marketing team design the duck,” said Aflac corporate communications manager Jon Sullivan. “We like this a lot better, as it really leads to an emotional connection.”
Michelle may not have slalomed down a mountain — yet — but she knows every twist and turn of the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s. “She can close her eyes and go from here to here to here,” Lynn Nguyen joked about her only child, who was diagnosed at six months. About once a month, she spends four to five hours getting blood transfusions to help stave off severe anemia.
The only cure for thalassemia is a bone marrow transplant, but so far, no match for Michelle’s been found. She starts from a smaller pool of possibilities — Be the Match, the national bone marrow registry, has 10.5 million potential donors registered, but only 7 percent are Asian, compared to 67 percent who are white. (Similarly, 7 percent are African-American and 10 percent are Hispanic.) A native of Vietnam who came to the United States in 1988 at age 17, Lynn Nguyen has some special insight into the low numbers.
“My people, I think, are scared,” said Nguyen, who sponsored her parents to move here nine years ago. “My parents’ generation, especially. They think it’s hard, that it hurts. But she’s the one getting hurt,” she concluded softly, motioning to Michelle.
Mother and daughter aim to do something about that. During a recent satellite media tour for TV and radio stations around the country, Michelle talked about “her” duck and treatment, and the importance of registering as a donor. At the nail salon Lynn runs in Johns Creek, she’s put three of the ducks on display and encourages customers to go buy their own for a good cause.
If she did get a transplant, Michelle said, it would free up all that transfusion time. An aspiring nurse, she already plays piano and flute and is learning volleyball from friends. So what’s left?
Michelle flashed a grin at her mother and joked.
“Maybe during winter break, we can go skiing at Stone Mountain.”