Didn’t we just have the Olympics?! The global pandemic upended the biennial hopscotch tradition of Summer and Winter Games. This is why just six months after the Olympic flame left Tokyo, it is being lit anew in Beijing. Some question the event’s relevancy amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis, escalating geopolitical tensions, and climate change anxiety. Others point to the same circumstances as the very reason for why the world needs the unifying Olympic effect now more than ever.
The 2022 Winter Games in Beijing are already making historic headlines. While snow has been a subject of Olympic controversy since snow machines were first used in Lake Placid in 1980, this edition is the first to rely exclusively on artificial snow. Winter temperatures typical for Beijing range from 14 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, often hovering above freezing. This is one of the myriad factors that designers of national uniforms must contend with while creating and manufacturing the garments for athletes to wear in training and competition, during leisure and official travel, and for the opening and closing ceremonies.
In fact, Olympic opening ceremonies have become the world’s largest runways and de facto platforms to exercise fashion diplomacy. I have been covering the subtle art of fashion, politics and the Olympics since Rio 2016. At its heart, diplomacy is about genuine give and take. Fittingly, the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco is set to open its highly anticipated Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy exhibition in April, highlighting most important collections shown on Beijing and Paris runways. This would be the first retrospective of the legendary Chinese designer in the United States. Meanwhile, here is a “lucky seven” team of fashion hits and misses from the Olympic podium in Beijing.
No spoiler alert needed: Ralph Lauren continues his iconic partnership with the US national team. This collaboration is particularly significant, because the designer debuted as an Olympic outfitter fourteen years ago at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Among the more exciting additions to the athlete’s unisex wardrobe are on-trend anoraks and puffer jackets with checkered fleece print. The latter has already become a best-seller and an instant collectible item priced at $2000 for retail.
To further its commitment to sustainability, the brand used polyester recycled from plastic bottles and wool certified by the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS). Fashion mogul Kim Kardashian is back as the purveyor of Olympian underwear and loungewear with her intimate apparel label SKIMS. Legendary graffiti artist Eric Haze contributed to the streetstyle-savvy design of ski team uniforms. Team USA has a good shot at fashion gold this winter!
A historic denim fiasco in Tokyo prompted headlines like “Canada Has Already Lost the Olympics with This Jacket”. Understandably, Canadian Olympic Committee opted for a safer choice this time. The Vancouver-based athleisure giant Lululemon has created the monochrome uniforms in alternate all-red and all-off-white collections. Successful sportswear design must be part fashion, part science, and all performance!
The garments are made with next generation water-resistant, anti-microbial synthetic textiles and take functional versatility to new heights with strategic zippers which allow to adjust length and even transform into backpacks. Notably, this year’s team includes its largest ever group of women athletes. Overall, Canada takes steps in the right direction(s).
Still under the anti-doping sanctions, Russian athletes cannot participate under their own flag or use state symbols, including the country’s name. However, Zasport – the nation’s official Olympic unform manufacturer since 2017 – released a collection steeped in Moscow’s tricolor heritage and utilizing iconic geographic outlines.
Designer Anastasia Zadorina kept the looks “very laconic and in line with global fashion trends.” She also added the color of Qing, an azure hue associated with health and harmony in the Chinese chromatic culture. Russia has historically been one the largest team players in Winter Olympics and with 450 uniform sets on order, it remains a solid competitor.
Masahiko Furuta, Uniqlo’s chief designer, said that Sweden’s Olympic collection was based on “our design philosophy of simple made better and less is more”. This minimalist ethos has enabled iconic Swedish brands like IKEA, H&M and Volvo set mainstream lifestyle trends worldwide.
All garments are focused on perspiration and body temperature control using special double russet mesh material with a three-dimensional coarse knit and other innovations. Twenty-one athletes from the national team, including thirteen curling stars, also became brand ambassadors to promote UNIQLO+, an athletic LifeWear line for active living inspired by the Olympic uniform kits.
While Adidas makes sense as the German national uniform supplier, its latest collection fails to make a memorable impression. Re-interpreting the flag colors – black, red, and gold – the design claims to infuse “rebellious optimism” into the pursuit of sports history and personal wellness. It amounts to hardly anything more than asymmetrical color blocking, a styling tactic Adidas used on its uniforms for the United Kingdom as well.
Positioning the allusion to the black tiger as a connection to the Chinese New Year (of the Tiger) seemed farfetched as rare black tiger sightings have predominantly occurred in India. Sometimes cultural diplomacy fails by trying too hard. Germany is unlikely to score extra fashion points. However, it is a top podium contender having won a record fourteen gold medals at Pyeongchang 2018.
Academy Award winning costume designer Tim Yip returns to the Olympic host nation to oversee the famous Champion Dragon Clothes of the Chinese national team. This year’s uniforms for 12 teams in 15 events are manufactured by ANTA. They come in three distinct and epically named collections: Lucky Snow and Cloud, Great Landscape and Flying Snow in Tang Dynasty.
The design concept is inspired by the Chinese character Zhong which can be translated as “middle” and often represents loyalty. The red lines on the sides together with a standing collar convey a sense of upward mobility. This is a masterclass in employing fashion for complex social and cultural messaging. Self-heating thermal underwear and next generation non-slip soles on boots complete the list of innovations and curiosities.
All eyes are on Team Qazaqstan. Firstly, because Almaty lost the 2022 Olympic hosting bid to Beijing by just four votes. Second, the International Olympic Committee has approved a rare name change after the country switched from the Cyrillic alphabet to Latin affecting the spelling of its name. Third, its vibrant uniforms left a lasting impression during the Summer Games ceremonies. Kazakh sportswear manufacturer ZIBROO collaborated with Russian designer Dmitry Shishkin. His atelier produces corporatewear for Gazprom and Russian Railways, so he “understands the assignment” of this magnitude.
It was a style-forward presentation one could expect in Almaty thanks to its fashion capital status via Visa Fashion Week. Blue and white colors of the collection represent ice and snow while black symbolizes luck. Given geopolitical turmoil in the region, this was fashion diplomacy at its best. When Olympic spirit is cultivated right, everyone wins!