The trials and tribulations of Olympic fashion

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Billions of people from around the world tuned in to watch the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. For athletes from Argentina to Zimbabwe, the Games provide unprecedented visibility—and an opportunity to create moments of great national pride…or embarrassment.

In this environment, presentation is paramount. Enter the Gold Medalists of couture. Every two years, top fashion houses are tasked with creating their country’s national uniform. And just like the athletes who wear them, these uniforms are scrutinized through the lens of national pride and achievement.

In the best of cases, designing an Olympic uniform can create a unique opportunity for a brand whose core design principles are already aligned with the essential tenets of a national character.

Take Roots, a Canadian apparel company. Roots’ rustic aesthetic, replete with emblems of canoes and iconic Canadian wildlife, fits perfectly within a Canadian self-image of being in touch with the natural environment. Though it took two years for the brand to secure a contract to clothe the Canadian Olympic team, the effort paid off. Roots’ distinctive jackets (first created for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan) drew widespread attention and praise. This global visibility—prompting the likes of President Bill Clinton, Prince Charles and actor Robin Williams to don Roots gear—helped catapult the brand to international success.

Yet, this charge can also present significant hurdles. When the beloved British designer Stella McCartney unveiled her designs for the British Olympic team, UK citizens were outraged. The Independent hailed McCartney’s designs as arguably the “worst kit in history” and Facebook fans berated McCartney in a public forum. With the ease of information-sharing enabled by social media and the Internet, news of the brand’s perceived failure has been broadcast far and wide.

Similarly, the news that Ralph Lauren’s uniforms for the U.S. Olympic team were made in China was greeted with outcries across the States. For the first time in months, Democrats and Republicans agreed: this was a “mistake” that needed to be corrected. Further remonstration came from critics of the berets worn by the U.S. women in the Opening Ceremony, which were deemed “un-American” (e.g., too French).

The different reception that these brands have received begs the question: What risks do designers run when they engage in this kind of (inter)national challenge? Why have Brits reacted with such ire to Stella McCartney’s designs?

To find an answer, one should look to the heart of the criticism, which stems from McCartney’s creative interpretation of the Union Flag. When unveiling her designs, McCartney said that she wanted to take the iconic image of the Union Jack and “dismantle” it to “make it more fashionable.” And this was her major oversight: the “interpretation” of her country’s beloved national flag in a way that prioritized aesthetics over national symbolism. It seems that winning a bid to design Olympic gear does not give fashion houses artistic license to push creativity to its limits and present fresh, unexpected designs. Rather, when designing for an Olympic team one must channel the pride of her nation and allow the small, creative flourishes to live within a national rubric of success. Insufficient attention to issues of national pride is also where Ralph Lauren failed.

Despite systematic debacles, top designers continue to bid for Olympic uniform contracts, valuing the international visibility that the Olympic platform delivers. As long as these designers find an alignment between their own brand essence and the esprit du corps of the nation for which they are designing—as their most important priority—the relationship between high fashion and the Olympic Games can be brilliant indeed.

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