Racing for the bottom line

Image of Vanessa Friedman

One of the weirder aspects of the upcoming Olympic Games, fashionably speaking, has not been the deconstructed Union flag designs Stella McCartney (see Lunch with the FT) and Adidas unveiled for Team GB, nor the recent hoo-ha created by politicians over the fact Ralph Lauren’s Team USA outfits are not made in the USA, but the almost total absence of Next from the conversation.

The British high-street brand is the official outfitter of Team GB for the opening and closing ceremonies, only no one seems to know it. Unlike McCartney and Adidas, as well as many of their competitors who have unveiled their outfits, the Next folks have chosen not to reveal their looks until the athletes march into the stadium on Friday.

Presumably the thinking is that this prolongs the anticipation but, given the noise everyone else has made about their contribution to the Olympic runway, and given the fact that Next is not exactly known for either its high-performance athletic wear or high-fashion sensibility, I’m not sure the strategy has worked, other than to obscure their part in the event. It’s all a little confusing.

But perhaps this is because fashion’s involvement in the Olympics is itself increasingly confused. I mean, think about it: when it comes to the US, Lauren is making the outfits for both general ceremonies and hanging about in the athletes’ village, though Nike is doing a lot of the competitive gear (it’s a bit sport-by-sport; Ariat, for example, is outfitting the US equestrian team). When it comes to the UK, McCartney is doing the competitive gear and the village wear but not the ceremonial clothes. For Italy, Armani is doing most of the above, except Prada is doing the sailing team – and so on. Which doesn’t even explore the image/aspiration gap between names like the above and Hudson’s Bay, which is dressing the Canadian team, or sporting goods company Bogner, which is dressing Germany.

My guess is most consumers, hearing a name they recognise (Armani, Ralph Lauren) immediately, and wrongly, assume everything they see has been created by said name. The problem lies in the gap between the ideals of the Olympics, the celebrity of fashion, and the reality of a modern global sports and media event. The former would lead the romantic among us (OK, me) to assume that a country would like its best sportsmen dressed by its best stylemen, because (a) both represent the same nation; (b) the better you look, generally, the better you feel, which means the better you perform; and (c) fashion designers have developed a pop culture fame of their own, which brings a halo effect of glamour to the event.

And it makes sense for designers to want to dress the athletes, because it’s a logical next step in the brand extension game.

The commercial aspect of the modern Olympics, however, dictates that every country tries to wring as much as possible, financially, out of said event. And fashion has been one of the few industries still doing well in the past few years. Which means designers don’t just make the Olympic kit but, in many cases, it costs them significant amounts to do so.

And that means not only is there a fee involved but sometimes the design house has to absorb the production cost of hundreds, if not thousands, of specialised outfits, an outlay that demands real financial muscle. While individual Olympic committees sometimes buy these outfits from the designer, this varies from country to country, and can often result in a loss for the brand.

Even allowing for the fact that the design names can then showcase these Olympic outfits in their stores, tempting the general public into buying a bit of that Olympic gold dust for themselves, there are only a few fashion names that can support the initial outlay and even they can’t necessarily carry all of it. No country wants to admit that when it comes to how its athletes are dressed, the choice is less who might be that country’s best designer than who can afford it, just as no designer wants to admit they bought their way into the job.

Now, I’m sure the fashion people will also have to have pitched some sort of suitable design idea – I’m not saying it’s all about filthy lucre – but I wonder what the ratio is. Especially because it changes from country to country, and sometimes sport to sport. After numerous conversations with the various parties involved, from Olympic committees to fashion brands, I still don’t understand how it works. And I’m pretty sure the average spectator or viewer doesn’t either.

Which makes me wonder if it wouldn’t behove everyone involved to be either completely transparent about the relationship – who paid what for what rights – or desist altogether, levelling the playing field, so to speak, by having every country wear pretty much the same, albeit in different colours.

Because right now, I’m not sure who in this situation, other than maybe the various Olympic committees, really wins.

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