The Olympic Games is an event where the best athletes in the world compete for gold, and it’s also platform upon which fashion designers demonstrate their talents.
The Olympic Games are held every four years, and it’s the largest and most important sporting event in the world. Inspired by the games of Ancient Greece, the Olympic Games, founded in 1896, have become a demonstration of sportsmanship and expertise in different categories. Athletes from various countries gather in one place to compete and try to win a place on the podium. Track and field, cycling, water sports, gymnastics, horseback riding, volleyball and soccer, among many other sports, become the talk of the whole world for 17 days.
In addition to the skill of the athletes, one of the things people talk most about during the Olympics are the uniforms that the participants from different countries are wearing. The athletes represent not only themselves at the games, but their nations. In the beginning, at the 1896 Athens Olympic Games, athletes wore a double-breasted jacket, and men wore tailored pants and women skirts. It was a classic and elegant look, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary either. The romance between fashion and the Olympic Games began in 1956, when the American athletes who attended the Summer Games in Melbourne wore outfits designed by Bonnie Cashin, proving that the Olympics were an excellent platform upon which to present the work of fashion designers from around the world.
Since then, we’ve seen many great creative minds create beautiful uniforms and designs that, in addition to representing their countries, give the athletes an air of chic elegance. In 1976, the renowned American designer Roy Halston collaborated with the Montgomery Ward department store to create the uniforms that the United States participants would wear during the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. For Halston, designing the uniforms for the athletes boosted his brand and increased his name recognition.
Over the years, many designers have taken on the task of designing uniforms for different countries. Creating an Olympic uniform is a project for which a design must combine the identity of a brand with that of a country. The looks must be elegant but casual, avant-garde but reverent. While it’s a great opportunity, it’s a challenge. Among the brands that have designed for the Olympics are Levi’s, which did the USA uniforms for the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and Ralph Lauren, who debuted in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics with a preppy look for the athletes. This outfit consisted of a navy-blue jacket paired with khaki pants and a white beret. The uniform was so successful that ever since, Ralph Lauren has been the official designer for the USA team.
Armani is another designer who’s a regular for Olympic uniform design. He did his first collection in 2006, and during the London 2012 Olympic Games, the Italian participants wore blue warm-ups, shorts, shirts and shoes. What really stood out was a tracksuit made of recycled polyester embroidered with the first verse of the Italian national anthem. Other designers who created uniforms that year were Ralph Lauren (United States), Stella McCartney (United Kingdom), and Salvatore Ferragamo (San Marino).
Four years later, at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, we saw looks from Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, Stella McCartney, Armani, and H&M. At these Olympics games, two of the most popular looks were that of the Cuban and Canadian teams. The former wore looks by Christian Louboutin. The French created designs that reflected the modern side of the island: jackets in red and nude colors with the Cuban flag embroidered on it and black or beige pants. The highlight was the footwear: leather high-tops and kitten-heel sandals, both inspired by the Cuban flag and featuring the classic red Louboutin sole.
Canada wore DSquared2 signature uniforms. Dean and Dan Caten dressed the athletes in a white shirt with a red maple leaf, black tailored pants, white sneakers with red accents, and a black cap with the word “Canada” written on it in white letters. Both of these looks paid tribute and praised the respective countries, while at the same time reflecting the DNA of the brands that made the clothing.
For the Tokyo Olympic Games, in addition to returning designers like Ralph Lauren, Lacoste, Armani, and Nike, we’ve seen some newer brands. First, we have Telfar Clemens. This Liberian-American designer was in charge of creating the uniforms for the Liberian participants. These pieces, in addition to being a tribute to the beautiful culture of the country, are a sneak peek into the brand’s activewear line. Then, we saw looks from Rowing Blazers, the American brand in charge of the uniforms for El Salvador. This look stood out for its preppy style rendered in dark blue pieces with pops of white—classic, timeless elegance. Another surprise was Skims, Kim Kardashian’s brand, which made the undergarments for US participants. Finally, the Mexican athletes’ looks were designed by High Life and featured a two-piece suit in navy blue with Oaxacan hand-embroidered details. It was undoubtably a celebration of Mexican culture: the perfect blend of elegance, tradition, and modernity.
History shows us that fashion and the Olympic Games go hand in hand. It’s a meeting of the best athletes in the world, each representing their home countries. What better way to do so than by wearing garments designed by the best brands of the world? Olympic clothing is not only limited to sportswear brands like Nike or Adidas. Today, this selection includes luxury brands that want to expand their creative horizons, and designing for Olympic athletes is a great place to start.