The strength, the majesty, the glory of the Olympic Games. Even the most hardened of cynics melt at the spectacle. And the fashion industry is no exception.
In preparation for Rio 2016, which begins on August 5, well-known fashion labels are sewing team spirit into everything from sponsored team uniforms to collections that are just, well, patriotic looking. If designers get their way, everyone will be clothed in the laurels of victory.
The Olympics is a massive operation, raking in several billion dollars through sponsorships and broadcast rights. There’s going to be over 6,000 hours of logo-filled programming for an expected 3.6 billion viewers across multiple platforms. And the International Olympic Committee has been known to hire brand police whose job is to insure that only paying sponsors get seen by the public.
One of more noticeable opportunities belongs to fashion labels designing the Olympic uniforms as well as opening and closing ceremony ensembles; Polo Ralph Lauren for the United States; Dsquared2 for Canada; Stella McCartney x Adidas for Great Britain; Lacoste for France; and H&M for Sweden.
“It’s a great platform to elevate your brand,” said Veronica Hendry, senior editor of
WGSN, a trend forecasting firm. “You’re on an international stage, one of the only times the international community is together and interacts for a celebratory cause.”
Representing one’s country is no easy feat. Brands must balance a fine line of exhibiting their aesthetic with catering to tradition and popular expectations. A nation takes their representation personally, feeling a sense of ownership of a team’s appearance. “There’s a lot of pride,” said Hendry, while also pointing out it’s also quite the complaint target. “Everyone gets on social media and voices their opinion today.”
Many fashion critics deem this year’s uniforms rather tame, with designers sticking to their roots and taking few sartorial chances. Polo Ralph Lauren, which was social media-shamed following their debut of the 2012 London Olympic ensembles—particularly due to their inclusion of “French” berets—kept it safe this time around.
“The look for Polo Ralph Lauren’s 2016 official Team USA Collection is crisp, sporty, and classic,” said a representative of the ceremonial uniforms, an all-American palette of red, white, and blue. The consumer collection includes shirts, sweaters, signature Polo tops, and “limited-edition teddy bears outfitted in the Closing Ceremony uniforms, and stylish sunglasses that reflect shades of Americana.”
Hendry recalls designer Stella McCartney’s work for the London 2012 Olympic uniforms, which garnered harsh criticism for its modern, fashion-forward look. “A lot has to do with what brands do with their sponsorships,” she explained. It’s no easy task to put graphics on clothing that’s expected to perform in high-intensity fitness competitions or sustain all-day wear.
She gave high marks to Speedo’s collaboration with Comme des Garçons for Team USA in 2008, which received positive press for making something “technical quite beautiful.” The swimsuits featured interesting and unconventional graphics—futuristic-looking sportswear that propelled Michael Phelps to exclaim it was as if he were wearing a spacesuit.
For Rio’s Team USA competition uniforms, Nike went beyond patriotism and instead took note from the flavor of of the host country. “We wanted to set a bold tone for the competition, and the color design team first considered the flow of the body in motion and got inspired by travel to Brazil,” said Jo Taylor, director of Nike North America communications. The designs weave in colors and features representative of tropical rainforests.
Their consumer line offers slightly altered versions of what the athletes wear, including bright jackets and neon sneakers in their signature Flyknit style. Nike has a history of making professional sports innovations available to the public, and the Games offer another opportunity. “This is a massive global sport moment that inspires great passion from fans, and accordingly we’ve seen strong consumer demand for our U.S. Olympic products over time,” said Taylor.
Only official sponsors are permitted to feature the Olympic logo and wording, an honor that doesn’t come cheap. Those without sponsorship credentials need to get creative. That generally means opting for national pride—be it a country’s flags or colors—or partnering with a well-known Olympic athlete.
Old Navy, for example, just released an Olympics-inspired collection that relies heavily on Americana. It includes star-spangled images or T-shirts emblazoned with graphics pulled from the Olympic archive: old athlete uniforms, past Olympic images, pins, and posters. They don’t blatantly feature the current Games logo, but instead use throwback images from the ’84 L.A. Olympics or U.S. Olympic Training Center.
“We wanted to pay homage to the athletes and Team USA, while also giving the customer our signature Old Navy active style, fit, and fabric,” said Andres Dorronsoro, vice president and general manager of Old Navy Kids and Brand Licensing. “For the cotton-based lifestyle collection, we aimed to create product with nods of nostalgia.”
Other established brands go straight to the most recognizable athletes, even though restrictions apply. They can’t use any Olympic intellectual property in their ads— which includes identifying the athletes as Olympians or even mentioning the Olympics. Some labels blur the lines: Under Armour is not an Olympic sponsor, but the average consumer might as well think so considering how well their campaigns with spokesman Michael Phelps performed. (His spring commercial left nary a dry eye.)
Aeropostale, meanwhile, partnered with Olympic gold medalist Aly Reisman and soccer star DeAndre Yedlin to model their “Seriously Stretchy” and “Reflex Denim” collections, launching this month. The campaign, also marketed as a back-to-school initiative, is targeted to a younger market, which hopes to identify with the young, inspiring athletes. The ads feature the stars doing what they do best: Reisman performing a floor routine and Yedlin kicking around a ball, all while in their Aeropostale denim pants.
Some more niche fashion houses are taking a different route, focusing on the allure and excitement of Rio itself. Isolda, a fashion label available for purchase on e-tailers such as Shopbop.com, has no direct connection to the Games, but sells Olympics-inspired silk shorts to partake in the current “sporty moment.”
Even Ryan Seacrest can’t resist getting competitive in Olympic coutures. The entertainer, who is hosting NBC’s late-night Olympics coverage, released a line of clothes and accessories called “Rio Distinction.” Like Nike’s uniforms, Seacrest’s are inspired by the “sights and sounds of the Brazilian destination.” The 13-piece collection features windbreakers, V-neck T-shirts, espadrilles and fedora hats and is available exclusively at Macy’s.
But perhaps the biggest component helping Olympics fashion this year is all too ubiquitous style trend: athleisure-wear. Sporty is in, and now even more with a kick from only the biggest worldwide athletic event. A steady stream of fashion brands have taken to the trend, including H&M, which will release a fashion performance Olympics-inspired sportswear collection called For Every Victory two weeks before The Games. Even the latest issue of Vogue magazine features supermodel Gigi Hadid in a colorful wetsuit, posing alongside Olympic gold medalist Ashton Eaton.
“More [fashion] brands are expanding into sport and athleisure-wear, and this is a great way to do it,” said Veronica Hendry.
Athleisure-wear has been on the rise for several seasons, but the evolution into luxury brands has been prominent, said Candice Fragis, buying and merchandising director at fashion e-tailer Farfetch. Fragis notes interesting, high-end collaborations such as Rihanna for Puma, Nike for Sacai, and Yeezy for Adidas. Items such as as the Chloe tracksuit have been a “huge hit,” while sweatshirts ranging from luxe labels like Givenchy, Christopher Kane, and Kenzo to sport brands like Adidas Originals and Nike have grown in popularity.
“It makes so much sense for our customer who buys luxury but wants to be equally comfortable and chic in her favorite brands,” explained Fragis.
Style expert Anna de Souza agrees. She’s witnessed big box retailers and top designers looking to capitalize on sportswear, “especially since outdated, matchy-matchy designs reigning in years past have not truly resonated with Team USA fans or fashionistas alike.”
Olympic collections have not been historically popular among fashionistas, but fashion labels expect this year’s marriage of luxury design and the athleisure-wear trend might result in a sales bonanza.
“This year’s designs are considerably more streamlined and minimalist, likely the result of outcry and criticism during years past for how dated the garments were and the lack of consumer real-life wearability,” de Souza.
But, she warns, the brief life span of it all might shy away the average consumer. “We’ll be hard-pressed to see these designer purchases spike in a very significant way, even with influencer pressure, due to the brief novelty and, of course, the price tag.”
As with all fashion, it comes down to how these collections make people feel: Does it instill confidence? Will it convey pride? And will it look cool at the bar during the men’s soccer final?
Ultimately, as Hendry stated, “the consumer needs to feel impressed.”