For the first time in history, skateboarders are headed to the Olympics. The Tokyo Games will feature skaters from around the world doing gnarly tricks on a newly built skate park.
Nike was tapped to design the kits for the United States, Japan, France, and Brazil. All of the outfits feature a burst of color, with shirts and tank tops covered in graphic patterns that represent the landscape of each country. With these kits, Nike’s design team is attempting to capture the sport’s renegade, antiestablishment spirit. But it’s unclear whether they’ll help quell the fears of some skateboarders who worry that the Olympics may contribute to a more corporate and institutionalized skateboarding culture.
The International Olympics Committee has recognized how important skateboarding is to young people around the world and in an effort to draw in younger audiences, it is inviting skaters to take part in this year’s Olympics. That creates a paradox for skaters and their fans: How do you take a fundamentally rebellious sport, born on city streets, and embed it in the glossy, corporately sponsored world of the Olympics?
That became one of Nike’s central design challenges: Nike had to create uniforms for athletes who hate uniformity. The solution was to develop a look for each federation, while also giving skaters enough room to create their own customized kits.
Nike’s relationship with the skating community goes back several decades. (In the ’80s and ’90s, some skaters even wore Air Jordans and Blazers.) And in 2002, the company launched Nike SB, its official skateboarding division, and launched the SB Dunk, a basketball silhouette that was reengineered to meet the specific needs of skaters, including a rubber sole with good traction. Rather than selling the sneakers in flagship Nike stores, Nike SB distributes products at independent skate shops, and also collaborates with brands like Supreme and Diamond Supply Co. that appeal to the skating community.
The Olympic uniforms were a dream project for Donavan Harris, the Nike designer who spearheaded the kits, because he started skateboarding at the age of 6 and kept skating through college. Growing up, he says skating was diametrically opposed to organized sports in school. “It’s all about individuality and expression,” he says.
So the Nike team created a variety of products that skaters could mix and match to create unique outfits. For each federation, Nike designers created five shirt styles, tights, shorts, track suits, socks, and five different kinds of hats. Some come in solid colors and others in loud prints. “The cool thing is each skater can go through the catalog and create their own look,” he says. “They could go completely solid or cover themselves in wild prints. Some might wear a solid outfit, but do a patterned hat and socks.”
To create the pattern for each country, Nike tapped Piet Parra, a Dutch skater turned artist. Together Harris and Parra went on a research trip to Japan to create outfits that would pay homage to the country. They stopped by skate shops and skate parks to check out the street style of Japanese skateboarders. They were also inspired by traditional Japanese art, like the iconic landscape paintings of mountains, clouds, and cherry trees. They loved the bright colors that adorn kimonos.
Parra took all of this in and created his own, modernized version of landscapes in bright Pantone colors. From a distance, the images look like abstract art, but when you take a closer look, you can see the Eiffel tower on the France kit and the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro in the Brazil kit.
Nike invited skaters from the four countries to visit the headquarters during the design process. Together they decided it made sense for each federation to have a unique bird icon to symbolize the spirit of each country: a crane for Japan, an eagle for the U.S., a rooster for France, and a toucan for Brazil. “Birds are important to riders because their goal is to fly through the air,” Harris says.
In those conversations, the Nike team also got to talk to the skaters about what they needed from their garments to perform at their best. Heat was a major concern: The skating event will take place outside in the hottest part of the day in the warmest, most humid month in the Japanese calendar. The shirts are made with woven yarns that wick moisture and the backs of the shirts have minute bumps on them that prevent the fabric from clinging to the skin. “From a distance, we wanted the outfits to look like what a skater would typically wear, but up close, at a micro level, we wanted to embed the clothes with the best technology Nike has to offer,” Harris says.