Sport and fashion have always been like distant cousins, admiring each other with a sidelong glance when they thought the other wasn't looking. The ultimate synthesis of this symbiotic relationship came last month, however, when Stella McCartney unveiled the Great Britain Olympic team strip that will be worn by the country's top athletes at this summer's London games.
Phillips Idowu in men's triple jump kit.
Lined up with star members of the British Olympic and Para-Olympic teams at the ominously imposing Tower of London, McCartney revealed the kit in which many gold medals will hopefully be won. Whilst the venue made a somewhat abstract catwalk, it amalgamated the two distinct but popular bedfellows of modern culture in a cohesive union. Along with formally consummating the well-established relationship between sportswear and high fashion, the presentation highlighted the climax of a successful eight-year relationship between sports clothing company Adidas and Stella McCartney, the doyenne of British couture.
Two years in the making, the renowned designer used the iconic Union Jack as the inspiration for creating a kit that would be suitable for both sexes. Stella told UK fashion magazine Grazia, "I made the flag less strident, more delicate, but then of course I had to be careful not to over feminise the men."
Whilst the top left hand corner of the Union Flag ultimately dominates the majority of the kit, it has been modified to only include various shades of blue. The iconic shade of red that normally governs the flag has been marginalised to serve as trim. Each of the designs has been tailored for the different sports involved, with the basketball and tennis strips loose and flowing whilst those for the sprinters and cyclists providing much needed protection and support. Overall, the theme focuses on enhancing the contours of the athletic bodies on show, in a manner reminiscent of Captain America.
According to Grazia, McCartney found it a struggle to contain her natural instincts when it came to the design process. She explained, "I started with some crazy ideas: neon fish? Metallic gold? Fluorescent, for God's sake! But that would have been all about Stella McCartney. That would have been disrespectful to the athletes and to the nation." Although constrained by the conformity of her brief, McCartney had licence to explore her fashion designer instincts with the creation of the more individualised female gymnasts' leotards into which sequins were interwoven. With these final flourishes, McCartney fulfilled her brief with an almost military-like precision and fused sport and fashion together in a way never before seen in the history of design.
"Sportswear" first came about in America during the early 1930s, when men and women began wearing sports attire during increasingly relaxed business and social events. However, the relationship between sport and fashion finally exploded into a full-blown love affair during the latter reaches of the twentieth-century when designers from either side realised what could be gained from each other, both economically and aesthetically.
Ligaya Salazar, author of the book, Fashion v Sport, and curator of the 2008 V&A exhibition of the same name, opined that it was in the 1980s when the relationship truly began to blossom in earnest. It was at that time, she outlines, that "sportswear was adopted by people for their everyday wardrobes." What ensued was the trending of street style (encouraged by the growing popularity of hip-hop culture within America's inner cities), which was strongly influenced by sporting apparel.
By the very nature of their occupation, sportswear designers constantly look for ways to develop the efficiency, comfort and technological capacity of sports clothing in order to maximise performance. Often using breathable Polyester Jersey or flexible Lycra to aid movement and increase the aerodynamics of an athlete, sports kits have always been cutting edge in their adaption of man-made material into clothing that best fits the shape of the human body. The fabric development that has come from such experimentation has inevitably opened doors for fashion designers such as Christopher Raeburn to use sporty shapes, textures and forms within the field of fashion.
|Jack Rodwell in men's football kit.
Photograph by Talk PR.
Since Japanese designer Mihara Yasuhiro teamed up with Puma in 2000, there has been an exponential rise in collaborations between the avant-garde world of high fashion and the earthbound urban arena of sport. The House of Alexander McQueen has also produced a collection of trainers for Puma, while French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac teamed up with retro British sports brand Gola to create two ranges of unisex sports-inspired footwear that incorporate leather, jersey and canvas with unique metallic details thrown into the mix.
For McCartney, the professional endorsement of being asked to produce the nation's Olympic uniform is far-reaching. However, it is not without its risks. As well as her designs coming under intense scrutiny from influential sporting and fashion names across the globe, McCartney is also at risk of damaging her brand should the British team fail to put in a good performance at the 2012 Games. After all, the world of fashion detests a loser - as Burberry could testify after spending almost two decades rebuilding its brand following the damaging association of its tartan motif with anti-social British football fans.
However, McCartney is remaining upbeat. When speaking with Interview Magazine, she noted: "no designer has worked with the entire team before. Between the Olympic and the Paralympic teams, that's 900 athletes, which is thousands upon thousands of products. The magnitude of that is way out of my comfort zone. What's most mind-blowing about it is I'm serving the nation a bit, serving the team, trying to bring them together."
McCartney isn't the only designer to be cashing in on the action, though. With Prada set to sponsor the Italian National Sailing team and Ralph Lauren designing the USA Olympic uniform, it seems likely that the 2012 London Games will be as stylish as the recent succession of fashion weeks. Let's just hope that any wardrobe malfunctions keep a significant distance from the sport - at least until the after parties!
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