Beyond the thrilling victories and agonizing defeats, the Olympics are a 16-day fashion show, even for fans blithely unaware that the US Alpine skiing uniforms are meant to evoke the nation’s flag reflected in the water off Fort McHenry the morning after the British bombardment, 200 years ago, that inspired The Star-Spangled Banner.
To some, it might just look like a super-tight ski uniform.
However, dressing the athletes is more complicated than that, an Olympic sport in itself. Companies vie for the right to design and manufacture clothes, both functional and aspirational, then spend months promoting their creations through choreographed unveilings, hoping to outdo their sartorial rivals.
Such competition might help explain why the inside of US freeskiing jackets includes a yellow star cut from gear worn to the top of Mount Everest, but snowboarders will wear high-tech corduroy pants and jackets inspired by a quilt found at an antique show.
Fans might be impressed to learn that the aerodynamic suits of the speedskaters were designed with the help of Lockheed Martin. They might be more impressed to know that the similarly clingy uniforms of the luge team were designed by Valiant Entertainment, a comic-book publisher.
The biggest fashion runway was at Friday’s opening ceremony, where the US team marched in heavy cardigans festooned in bold patchwork and iconography, which one fashion pundit compared to wearing Times Square. Afterward, athletes can return to their rooms and relax in specially designed “village apparel,” as if those two words go together.
The question that viewers might ask, when confronted with the kaleidoscope of styles, is as complex as any of the designs: Why?
Why would companies devote untold hours, effort and money to imagining, creating and making (mostly in the US, after the commotion about Ralph Lauren’s made-in-China collection for the 2012 London Games) mostly small batches of high-tech uniforms with tiny logos that will not be sold to the public?
The short answer is a familiar one in business jargon: branding.
“It’s definitely a more broad brand play than it is a moneymaking play,” said Jeff Timmins, senior global brand director for Columbia Sportswear.
Columbia provided freestyle skiing uniforms for Canada, Russia and the US, whose moguls team will wear pants with a “snow camouflage” pattern — white, basically — to disguise motion, a key element of judging.
Companies and various governing bodies declined to reveal details of their uniform arrangements, but generally, the companies pay for the right to sponsor the Olympic teams and make and supply the uniforms, seeing it as a rare chance to reach a global audience and align themselves — if only temporarily — with some of the world’s top athletes.
“It builds buzz, it’s marketing, it creates fan engagement,” said Peter Zeytoonjian, managing director of consumer products and events for the US Olympic Committee. “It’s not completely different than what any professional sports team does.”
Nike and Ralph Lauren are among those selling some products to the public. That “Times Square” sweater? It was US$598, but Ralph Lauren’s Web site says it is no longer available. The reindeer-themed hat is, for US$95.
Columbia, like several others, uses the Olympics to push technology and fashion in the years to come.