As the Olympic torch sets off from Land’s End this weekend in a relay that will criss-cross Britain, the countdown to the 2012 games finally begins. Fashion’s interest in sport has accelerated too but, unlike the ultra-modern look of the Olympic facilities, kit and the perforated-aluminium torch, menswear designers have been looking back, not forward.
Instead of embracing the high-tech, go-faster-striped style of the contemporary sports track, many labels have returned to the bygone age of gentlemanly sportsmanship as inspiration for their ready-to-wear lines. Think of the make-do vest and shorts worn by the runners in Chariots of Fire, cricket slacks, tennis blazers and old-school rugby tops – reimagined by labels as diverse as Calvin Klein, Moncler Gamme Bleu, Jil Sander, Michael Bastian, British tailor E Tautz and Dolce & Gabbana – who sent out an entire troupe of models wearing nothing but white shorts and vests.
“Early 20th-century sportswear calls to mind an age of elegant dressing and gentlemanly behaviour, something that seems worth preserving,” says E Tautz’s Patrick Grant. “Our summer collection started with the story of Felix Carvajal the marathon-running Cuban postman of the 1904 St Louis Olympics. In the process of researching Carvajal I came across dozens of images of sportsmen from the early 20th-century Olympics. The athletes wore a mixture of their own kit – flannels, overcoats, college sweaters – with their team uniform and had a casual elegance that still looks incredibly contemporary.”
Grant adds: “Sportswear has had the most profound influence on modern men’s clothing. The Duke of Windsor popularised soft-collared shirts, easy knits and more athletically cut tailoring from his love of golf. This trickled down and dragged menswear out of its starchy past.”
Other British labels such as Hackett have embraced the sporty look by simply making a virtue of what they do best but it’s not just British designers that have felt the pull of sportswear in this Olympic year. “I have always liked incorporating elements from sports in my collections,” says US designer Thom Browne. “Growing up, everyone in my family played sports from a very early age. I swam all the way through college and now I mainly run. For my own label it’s usually purely an aesthetic choice, whereas for Moncler Gamme Bleu, a sports look married with function is really important.”
Michael Bastian, a New York-based designer, is also inspired by sports. “We always have a few athletic references in our collections. It gives a cool, active edge and really rounds out the story. Plus I feel that including sports clothes is a nice way to get men’s attention with a designer collection, a good way to connect with men emotionally. And, if you stay away from looking too costume, the athletic element really adds some sex appeal into the mix.”
London store Selfridges, has gone “all out” for its British celebrations, according to Adam Kelly, menswear buying manager. He says, “Our nod to the Olympic games comes in the form of a capsule collection we’ve created with designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith. The idea of ‘refined’ sportswear is also a look we’ve bought heavily into; it is an incredibly wearable aesthetic but uses fresh, innovative ideas.”
Items such as Alexander McQueen’s stripe-cuffed tops (£154), pastel-coloured sweatshirts from Swedish label Acne (£130) and Fendi’s contrast-collar polo shirts (£239) are timeless, and an easy way to look on-trend without taking any sartorial risks.
“I think it’s simply a look most men feel comfortable with,” says José Neves, chief executive and founder of Farfetch, a boutique internet shopping site. “These sports-inspired pieces look back to an old-fashioned way of life, a spirit of camaraderie.” That’s an ideal for which we all carry a torch.