When you’re a professional beach volleyball player, you spend extended periods of time in the blazing heat with video cameras pointed at you—all while wearing not much more than your underwear.
Take it from 28-year-old Heather Bansley, who is heading to Rio as a member of Canada’s women’s volleyball contingent. “Our uniform is typically bikini bottoms and a sports bra,” she says. “That’s what’s most practical and comfortable. It’s so hot, you feel the sun beating down on you, you’re sweating and covered in sand. Less clothing is more suitable to our sport.”
While this uniform is bare bones, it’s actually rather complicated to get right. The garments need to wick sweat and dry quickly, since players take cold water baths in between games to normalize their temperature after hours in the sun. The bra and bottoms can’t be so tight that they are uncomfortable, but they need to have enough compression so the player feels supported as she’s running around or diving into the sand. Crucially, the garments can’t feel like they might get dislodged while in motion. “You’re on stage and everybody is looking at you,” she says. “If they do slip, you only have so much clothing.”
But beyond being functional, the most important criteria for Bansley is that the uniform looks professional. “As women in sports—and especially in beach volleyball—we are not always taken seriously,” she says, explaining that there is a slice of spectators who tune in just to get a glimpse of scantily clad women. “This is my profession and my craft; I take it seriously. I want to step out there feeling strong and powerful, and I want that to be portrayed in what I am wearing.”
Over the last nine years, as Bansley has competed at the national level in Canada, she’s often had to purchase generic two-piece bathing suits off the rack. It’s less than ideal, since few brands design specifically for the needs of a high-performing beach volleyball player. Many bathing suits tend to be sexy. “Think: flirty patterns,” she says.
But this year, in preparation for the Olympics, Lululemon worked with the Canadian volleyball team to design the uniform of the players’ dreams. Several Canadian volleyball players, including Bansley, are part of Lululemon’s Elite Athlete program, so they felt comfortable approaching the company and requesting its help in creating new suits from scratch. Lululemon was happy to take on the project, both to support the team and to gather insights into the needs of top-tier athletes to improve its own product development. The company will also help to create training gear for the U.S. team, which trains closely with the Canadians.
The first step was to get the volleyball team to Whitespace, Lululemon’s R&D lab that sports medicine doctor Tom Waller helped launch two years ago in the company’s Vancouver headquarters. Today, he oversees a group of 40 scientists, engineers, and designers whose job is to understand the current challenges in the sporting world and develop technologies that respond to those needs. The team includes fabric experts who work from the polymer and fiber level up to create materials that are customized to particular activities.
All around Whitespace, there are stations dedicated to specific sports: a yoga and dance studio, swimming pools, running and cycling machines. Waller explains that as he helped build the space, he wanted athletes to feel comfortable. “We don’t want them to feel like lab rats,” he says.
In the year leading up to the Rio games, Bansley and her teammates met with designers at Whitespace, where they described and demonstrated exactly what their sport entails. “They wanted to hear our feedback: what we wanted in our suits and how we wanted them to make us feel,” she says. “As an athlete, it felt like a show of respect for what we do.”
The team’s first visit occurred during a typically unforgiving Canadian winter. But the lab is equipped with a climate chamber that can simulate virtually any environment on the planet. Waller’s team tried to re-create Brazil’s weather as accurately as possible by modifying light intensity, altitude, temperature, and humidity. “One of the challenges of being in Canada is that we still have to train in the winter,” Bansley says. “To be able to put us in Rio’s climate in the middle of winter was something I had never experienced before.”
The room is set up to sense and record every aspect of the athlete’s bodily reactions, including muscle, brain, and heart activity. It can also evaluate how the garments are performing, scrutinizing stretch, wicking, and compression. So when the team played a volleyball match, every movement was recorded using motion-capture technology. “When we turn everything on, there’s nothing we will miss,” Waller says.
Lululemon combined this data to create several prototype uniforms. After testing each of them, the players settled on swim tops and bottoms made from a new material created by Lululemon called Aquelu that protects against sunlight with UPF 50-plus, has four-way stretch, includes a fiber that resists chlorine and salt, and wicks moisture. The tops and bottoms were tailored for each athlete’s specific physiology using a body scanner. The suits offer ample coverage, with criss-cross bra straps designed to stay in place while the wearer is in motion. And, in bold red and black, there is nothing stereotypically “feminine” about these uniforms. (A generic version of the uniform, complete with the players’ names inscribed on the back, will be available at Lululemon stores in Canada.)
As an extra personal touch, the designers printed “love notes” in gold on the inside of each garment that read, “Be in this moment. It’s yours.” Clare Robertson, Lululemon’s director for tops, swim, intimates, and bras, hopes that the garments she and her colleagues created can help the athletes forget what they are wearing and simply focus on playing the game on the world’s biggest stage. “It’s a reminder of how important and special an Olympic event is for an athlete,” she says.