Sun, Feb 09, 2014 - Page 14 News List

Designers carve a fashion runway
at the Sochi Winter Olympics

From the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’-inspired uniforms of the US skiers to the aerodynamic suits of the speedskaters, the competition to dress athletes for the Games is an Olympic sport in itself

By John Branch  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

“We wanted to build the best product we’ve ever built,” Timmins said. “We’re using this really as a product design and development opportunity. Some of these skiers are the coolest kids on the mountain; to get their feedback is priceless.”

The only US athletes absolved from becoming runway models for someone else’s idea of patriotic fashion are the figure skaters. They choose their own costumes.

That changes if and when they win a medal, at which point they will don Nike’s medal-stand look, with its “soulful details,” as the company described them, like “Land of the Free” and “Home of the Brave” in the jacket pockets and on the insoles of the shoes.

The design of the uniforms and the deals struck with the manufacturers are left to the national governing bodies for each sport. The US Olympic Committee usually approves the uniforms with little debate, as long as the uniforms conform to the requirements set by the International Olympic Committee.

Those rules, explained in a 33-page book called Guidelines Regarding Authorised Identifications, generally allow only one manufacturer’s logo on each piece of clothing or equipment. On clothes, it must be in specific places (chest or arm) and cannot be more than 20cm2 in size. On equipment, it can be no larger than 6cm2.

Uniform designs must be different from one Winter Olympics to another — no hand-me-downs — but there are no hard rules about palettes. Countries are “encouraged” to use their national colors, although some might think that Germany’s candy-colored striations this year would stretch the guidelines.

Clothing designers, typically, are not conformists, and neither are some of the companies where they work.

“To be honest, the idea of a uniform is a bit counterintuitive to what we’re all about,” said Greg Dacyshyn, chief creative officer of Burton, which dresses the US snowboarding team.

Even with Olympics uniforms, they want to surprise. The goal is buzz among fans, love among clients and jealousy among rivals. With luck, the uniforms will get the positive viral attention of the pants worn by Norway’s curling team — an eye-crossing zigzag pattern of red, white and blue. They were made by Loudmouth, a US company.

TECHNICAL SUPERIORITY

Beyond appearances, companies eagerly tout the technical superiority of their uniforms, from the articulation of elbows to the latest in waterproof zippers. Many features focused on weight, ventilation and aerodynamics, and companies reached deep into the jargon thesaurus to explain them.

The inner details become a game of one-upmanship. Nike said that each US hockey jersey was made from about 17 recycled plastic bottles and that the socks used about five. (Ralph Lauren did not say how many Oregon-based sheep were used for each of its wool cardigans for the opening ceremony.)

Most boldly, perhaps, North Face sewed star-shaped fabric that had been to Mount Everest, with the phrase “Bigger than Me,” into the inside of its jackets for freeskiers in sports like halfpipe, where they will climb a 6.7m wall, not a 8,848m mountain.

Fans might just notice the outside of the clothes. In events where speed is critical, most US teams have gone to black, as if red, white or blue might increase drag. US speedskaters will don black, skintight uniforms designed in a partnership between Under Armour and Lockheed Martin. The uniforms have tiny rubber nubs, because wind-tunnel tests showed that a slight disruption of air is a good thing, not unlike the effect of dimples on a golf ball.

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