Ah, the Olympics: the victories! The tears! The celebrities!
The Olympics, like everything else, are not simply a human-interest story about physical achievement. They are also an exquisite branding opportunity for a fashion industry always in pursuit of a higher purpose. Since 2008, Ralph Lauren, the beacon of American style, has made the American team’s uniforms for the opening and closing ceremonies; Roots has done the same for Canada, and so on. But now, it seems, the Olympics uniforms are getting kinda cool. Last summer, around the time the Tokyo games were originally scheduled to take place, Kith announced that it was partnering with Team USA for a capsule “inspired by iconic Team USA silhouettes reimagined through the Kith lens,” as the brand put it. Those pieces include a quarter zip and matching track pants in white and navy with a red, white, and blue chevron stripe, and “Kith” where you might expect “USA” to be. (The country arguably gets top billing on the coordinating dad hat.)
Even cooler was the news that came in late June, when Bushwick-based brand Telfar revealed that it would make the uniforms for Liberia, the country from which the designer Telfar Clemens hails. It’s a rather large deal: the brand is also sponsoring the country’s Olympic team, while the clothes themselves will serve as a launching pad for a line of Telfar performance wear. Earlier this week, Kim Kardashian’s Skims became the official provider of Olympic undergarments, suggesting that no element of the Olympic wardrobe should go un-collaborated. (Ralph Lauren, apparently, has not traditionally provided Olympic athletes with underwear.) Kardashian added in an Instagram statement that she grew up obsessively following the Olympics with her stepfather Caitlyn Jenner, and that the partnership represents “every moment I’ve spent admiring the strength and energy of the Olympians from the sidelines [coming] full circle.” The post was illustrated by arty photographs by longtime Kanye West collaborator Vanessa Beecroft—very cool!
The Olympics are many things, but one thing they are not is cool. So why are the uniforms suddenly so…trendy? For one thing, morale is low, and the Olympics are a guaranteed mood-booster—a global event custom-built to inspire even the most cynical among us. The opportunity is too big for smaller fashion brands not to break into—and, simultaneously, the struggling Olympics need the cool factor of these younger designers. (Some of these deals are simply the result of a younger, hipper class of athletes: the girlfriend of one of the Liberian Olympians suggested the Telfar partnership.) And this year, with the Trump administration in the rear view mirror and the Covid recovery stumbling swiftly forward, the Games also present an opportunity to rebrand patriotism as something rather appealing. (It follows that the Costume Institute’s comeback extravaganza will celebrate American style and design.) Could some cool merch make us feel patriotic again?
Of course, Ralph Lauren is still in the mix. In April, the brand shared images of their closing ceremony uniforms, which have oversized USA graphics, a striped ribbon belt, and white jeans. Perhaps my eyes have been unduly influenced by Telfar’s track jackets and the Beecroft-snapped underpinnings, but they looked a little too frosty. It’s no secret that the Olympics—defined by deeply conservative ideas about gender, performance, and recreational drug use—could use an injection of real-world youth and style. Weirder, wilder uniforms seem like a fine enough place to start.