Fashion is everywhere. To many it’s a term reserved for catwalks and the high street, but in fact the essence of apparel product development applies to a host of different arenas – right the way from delicate haute couture to rugged workwear.
One arena in the forefront of everyone’s minds this month is, of course, sport. There has been no escaping the Olympics lately, whether you live and work in London, on the doorstep of British brands, or further afield. The country – and the world at large, it seems, has sent its heart to London 2012.
visual identity is only one component of what makes an effective uniformIt should come as no surprise, then, that this week’s editorial (which comes two days before the closing ceremony) has more than a hint of Olympic flavor. But, as you might expect, my interest goes a little further than just supporting the home team: I’m interested in exploring the role that our industry has played in creating some of the spectacle that we’ve all enjoyed over the past fortnight.
Fashionable sportswear is nothing new. The prevalence of retailers like JD Sports and Footlocker shows us that where heroes on the field lead, consumers on the high street follow. Brands like Adidas, Nike, Puma and Reebok may have got their starts on the football field and running track, but each is – to varying degrees – a successful lifestyle brand today. There can be no question that these and other activewear brands create new product lines with this dual role firmly in mind. The Olympics is a different matter. The garments and footwear worn by London 2012’s athletes are not designed with mass production in mind, but rather have a narrower focus: creating a visual identity and a quality standard that allows international athletes to look, feel, and perform their absolute best.
Fashionable sportswear is nothing new. The prevalence of retailers like JD Sports and Footlocker shows us that where heroes on the field lead, consumers on the high street follow.For this reason alone, the Olympics are in many ways a perfect microcosmic case study of modern product development. The competitors and countries of the world have assembled to try to differentiate themselves from one another in terms of public perception and their performance on the international stage. And beyond their bodies, their spirits, and the support of their countrymen, these athletes have one last weapon in their competitive arsenal – one thing that competes alongside them at every turn and drapes them in glory on the podium: clothing.
An Olympic uniform is more than polyester or lycra or thread; it’s branding in its purest form – a single garment or a set designed to create something instantly recognisable and to carry a strong enough identity to make the wearer and the spectator feel an instant attachment. But it must also be practical, hardwearing, aerodynamic and technology-led to an even greater degree than typical performance and sportswear.
Unifying these goals is no mean feat, and it’s no wonder, then, that many countries tasked their most prominent designers (often those most synonymous with their home countries) with designing and creating garments for the full suite of Olympic occasions – from full suits for the opening and closing ceremonies, right down to technical, minimal swimwear. Stella McCartney partnered with Adidas to create a complete line for the Great British team, and Ralph Lauren created iconic uniforms for their American counterparts.
For these designers and more, the Olympics represented a unique challenge: rather than being form and design-led like typical fashion, these uniforms instead prioritised functionality and practicality, and needed to be created from a very specific subset of performance materials to allow the country’s athletes to achieve their potential.
In an interview with the BBC, McCartney (whose father famously performed at the opening ceremony, making this something of a British dynasty) revealed that “practicality comes first” where the creation of Team GBR’s outfits was concerned. She went on to explain that she “tried to make [them] iconic… It was technology-led, but I think for me it was trying to get the team to look and feel as one”.
The results are abstract and attractive in design, and there is certainly no mistaking them for the uniforms of anybody but the host nation. But as McCartney explained, that visual identity is only one component of what makes an effective uniform and, as is the case the product development across the consumer goods sectors, technology was the enabling force behind the other.
Ralph Lauren were widely reported to have used 3D sampling technology in the development of their Olympic collection, and McCartney is reportedly enthralled by the range of performance and “smart” fabrics that exist. And this is over and above the technology (including both core and E-PLM, and a host of sophisticated biometric and aerodynamic analysis tools) that today plays a vital role in the development of any single piece of apparel.
What’s important to note about not just McCartney and Lauren’s collections is not just the technology and the ethos that produced them, but the fact that once the games are over – once the athletes parade their last in what promises to be a raucous closing ceremony this Sunday – the effort that went into the design, performance and impact of this year’s uniforms will not be wasted. Like all good fashion collections, the best aspects of them will be integrated into future lines and collections. And what you see on the track and in the pool today may well be what you see on the high street next season.
Fashion is fashion, after all – wherever you find it.
All photography is courtesy of the BBC.