The opening ceremony of the Olympics is one of the great pageants of our time. Tomorrow night, athletes from every country will take the world stage in outfits that represent their homeland as nearly 1 billion people tune in. And this year, much like every summer and winter Olympics since 2008, Team USA will march out in clothes designed by Ralph Lauren.
Which makes sense: No U.S. apparel company is more associated with classic American style than Ralph Lauren. “It has always celebrated American iconography,” says David Lauren, EVP of global advertising, marketing, and corporate communications for Ralph Lauren, and the son of Ralph Lauren, who founded the company in 1967. “It has always been about patriotism.” The brand has embraced Americana both literally (sweaters emblazoned with the flag) and symbolically (cowboy boots). “The fact that we have the opportunity to work with the Olympics sets us apart in a way that reminds people about what Ralph Lauren is about,” Lauren says.
Few American clothing companies would likely turn up their nose at the chance to dress Team USA at an event watched by one-seventh of the world’s population. But asserting itself as a premium brand is particularly crucial for Ralph Lauren right now: Over the past two years, sales have plateaued and profits have declined by 50%. In 2012, the company was worth $16 billion. Now it is worth half that. Last September, Ralph Lauren hired a new CEO, Stefan Larsson, who has attributed the decline to several factors, including a lack of inventory control, which led to merchandise piling up in bargain bins and outlet malls, diluting the brand’s cachet.
Whether dressing American Olympians helps Ralph Lauren staunch the bleed remains to be seen, but it will at the very least put the company on viewers’ minds. It’s no accident that an oversized version of the iconic Ralph Lauren polo player logo is prominently displayed on almost every Olympic garment.
The uniforms for this year’s opening ceremony–navy blue blazers, nautical-themed striped shirts, fitted white trousers, boat shoes–convey Ralph Lauren’s signature American preppy style, distilled to the patriotic essentials. “Our job is to make the moment memorable,” Lauren says. “So you’re looking at a sea of red, white, and blue, and you feel proud.” When Michael Phelps leads the procession as flag bearer tomorrow night, the back of his blazer will light up with “USA,” courtesy of electroluminescent panels.
The clothes also reflect the personality of the host city–specifically, a postcard ideal of Rio circa 1960, which members of the United States Olympic Committee suggested when the brand reached out to them for advice on what the perfect Olympic outfit would be. They talked about parasols in the sand, sailboats in bright blue water, cold beer by the pool. “They described the mood of the place,” Lauren says. “It had a breezy feeling. They would be traveling to a warm climate with plenty of outdoor activities, like beaches and boating.”
It’s a much different mood than the uniforms Ralph Lauren created for the Olympic team to wear at the opening ceremony in Beijing in 2008. That year, the U.S. Olympic Committee came to the brand with the specific request of dressing Team USA to the nines. Those Olympics were widely seen as China’s opportunity to dazzle the world as a new a global superpower, and the U.S. wanted to make sure its athletes did not get eclipsed. So the tracksuits made by the Canadian brand Roots that American athletes had worn from 2002 to 2006 were out, and more polished garb was in. As the U.S. team walked out on stage in 2008, they were decked out in smart sports jackets, collared shirts with neckties for the men and scarves for the women, and of course, those berets, which many commentators complained were too kitschy. They ended up becoming a cult favorite, reappearing at the London Games in 2012. “All the athletes were trying to get multiples, because they were such collector’s items, and they were so much fun,” Lauren says.
Beyond the opening ceremony uniforms, Ralph Lauren also provides American team members with every piece of clothing they wear throughout the Olympics, from relaxed sportswear for downtime at the athletes’ village to the tailored garments for the closing ceremony. (Brands like Nike and Adidas tend to sponsor the actual performance gear.) Versions of all these looks are available for purchase. As a Team USA sponsor, Ralph Lauren uses some of the proceeds to help pay for athletes’ expenses. (Unlike many other countries, the U.S. government does not fund American Olympians.)
For consumers rooting for the players from home, they can have their name embroidered onto many of the pieces in the collection. On social media advertisements, the company will target individual users by including their names on images of T-shirts.
So far, one of this year’s best-selling items is a $297.50 windbreaker covered in big, colorful graphics of Rio’s coast and cityscape that were inspired by vintage postcards. For $598, you can also buy an official Team USA teddy bear that is 15 inches tall and wears the closing ceremony outfit: white shorts, an oxford shirt, a striped belt, and boat shoes. Items like this, Lauren says, are meant to be celebratory. “They become a part of history.”
There’s another reason David Lauren is excited about the Olympics–and it has nothing to do with clothes. “When we’re in an election cycle, people are looking to feel good about our country, feel inspired, and have heroes,” he says. “There’s nothing like the Olympics for that. It’s a moment we all feel very lucky to be part of.”