Going for the Gold — In Style with Olympic Fashion

November 25, 2009

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There's no red carpet or evening gowns, but the fashion world will be watching when athletes convene next year for the Winter Olympic Games.

For 17 days in February, some of the world's most beautiful and sculpted bodies will appear on a world stage to compete for the gold in everything from skating and skiing to bobsledding and hockey. To some observers, the athletes' attire will be almost as important as the medals they end up wearing.

The Olympics is where fashion comes to play on a world stage, says J.J. Lee, a fashion columnist with the Canadian radio program On The Coast, and a menswear columnist for the Vancouver Sun. Now more than ever, he says, Olympic fashion is tailored with an eye toward merchandising.

"No one notices what someone is wearing at the UN, but they know what people wear at the Olympics," Lee says. "The athletes are the models, but ultimately, [the designs] have to have street appeal and marketability."

Vancouver B.C. is playing host to the winter games, and the city has spent years getting decked out for the event. That includes students and graduates at The Art Institute of Vancouver, who designed clothing to be modeled by seven Canadian Olympians at a fashion show in May.

The world's first official glimpse of Olympians and their garb comes during the Opening Ceremony, where athletes parade around in teams on a track that serves as fashion runway.

Polo Ralph Lauren, which created the look that American athletes modeled at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, will once again outfit Team USA. The well-known American designer is creating the Opening and Closing Ceremony Parade outfits for the team, as well as apparel and accessories that athletes can wear around Olympic Village when they are not competing.

Details are not yet available for how U.S. athletes will be dressed for the Opening Ceremony. But Polo Ralph Lauren has designed a cotton fleece pant, a navy and red wool shawl cardigan, and a newsboy hat for athletes in the closing event.

The designs for the 2010 games are meant to embody a spirit of American athleticism and sportsmanship in red, white, and blue, the designer says. The collection carries a classic feel - inspired by the 1930 Winter Games in Lake Placid - with a modern twist, says Polo Ralph Lauren, which is the official outfitter for the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team.

And never fear - if you like the look, you can buy it. The U.S. Olympic collection and an assortment of athlete village wear will be available for sale at Polo Ralph Lauren retail stores, Ralphlauren.com, USOlympicshop.com and at select department stores.

"It is a look that we feel all Americans will be proud to wear as they support Team USA in 2010 and 2012," states Lisa Baird, chief marketing officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee, in a recent news release from Polo Ralph Lauren.

Olympic spectators who attend the games, or tune in at home, want to know what their team is wearing and what the attire says about their country, says Lee, who also writes a blog called Fashion Monday.

It's important that a country's colors be a prominent part of a team's outfit.

"When we watch the parade of nations walk through, we get an idea of who they are by national type," Lee says. "We have expectations that certain countries will look certain ways."

Sometimes the countries fulfill those preconceived notions. Sometimes they don't.

During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for example, several African countries opted for traditional dress. Arab countries, meanwhile, sported a more cosmopolitan look that simply featured their national colors.

If a country chooses the wrong look, onlookers will notice. Lee says he still has "a bone to pick" with Team China's outfits during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The country opted for tricolor outfits that blended white - the color of athletic wear - with red and yellow from the Chinese flag. The problem, Lee argues, was that the colors were not used in good proportion

"They looked like McDonald's," Lee comments.

But aesthetics in the moment are only one element of Olympic fashion. The designs must also be marketable to a mass audience once the ceremony is complete.

For the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Canadian clothing chain Roots designed a newsboy cap for the Canadian and U.S. Olympic teams that sold well with the general public. In the process, "Roots made itself a national brand," Lee says. The shearling trapper hat - complete with ear flaps -- that Hudson's Bay Co. designed for Team Canada during the 2006 Winter Games in Torino also became a big hit.

Hudson's Bay will be back again during the 2010 Winter Games, since the company designed Team Canada's Olympic outfits. The host country's Olympians will sport a retro black, grey, red, and white look. One of the signature pieces is a Cowichan-styled sweater - a heavy, hand knit, zip-front wool sweater with a turn-down collar, Lee says. Already, some stores have started waiting lists for the sweaters, which Lee predicts will be the trapper hats of 2010.

Many teams, including Team Canada, will likely show up in Vancouver with parkas and heavy jackets, Lee says. But the pieces likely will be of little use.

"Vancouver is not a cold city," he points out. "You might march in your warm parka, but you might be wrapping it around your waist. I think it will be the great Olympic gear-down."

Author: Written by freelance talent for Ai InSite
Contributing writer for EDMC.

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