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Independent brands make these fashion Olympics the biggest ever

Independent brands make these fashion Olympics the biggest ever


For three years, French designer Stéphane Ashpool has been working on a design project for an unusual client. The Paris-born designer, known for his cult boutique and label Pigalle, has worked on streetwear releases with Nike and Chanel on couture.

Archery kit from the French team.
Ashpool's designs are a fashion-forward take on performance sportswear. (Pauline Scotto Di Cesare)

His latest collaboration, however, is with the French team. Ashpool is the first independent designer hired by a country's Olympic committee as creative head of apparel.

Ashpool is responsible for creating highly technical clothing for elite athletes in more than 60 Olympic and Paralympic sports, from cycling and judo to archery and wheelchair basketball. Each item must be designed to propel the wearer to the highest level of performance while remaining elegant.

It's a herculean task usually assigned to big sportswear brands like Nike and Adidas. Ashpools designs will be produced by French sportswear manufacturer Le Coq Sportif, which has decades of experience outfitting French Olympic athletes, although the most recent games it worked on was in 1972.

Looks include an all-white archery outfit with flared pants and a pouch to store arrows; a bright red, blue and white tracksuit for the breakdancing team; and an all-in-one lycra piece designed for cycling, complete with a matching racing bike. Ashpool's designs are a forward-thinking take on sportswear, so much so that he faced challenges early in the design process.

This type of aesthetic in performance sportswear is new territory, Ashpool said. If I had the chance, I would have pushed it even further.

It's not just France taking a chance on an unconventional designer for this year's Olympics. Irish womenswear brand and fabric producer LW Pearl has created an eveningwear collection for Team Ireland that includes personalized embroidered jackets with shamrocks and the names of the county each athlete is from. Canadian swimwear brand Left On Friday, founded by two former Lululemon executives in 2018, will create competition gear for the country's volleyball teams, while Dutch streetwear brand The New Originals has designed a collection for the Dutch breakdance team. Los Angeles-based sportswear brand Actively Black was tapped by the Nigerian Olympic Committee to design its team uniforms and all other apparel for the tournament.

Irish athlete
LW Pearl, founded by Laura Weber, was asked by Team Ireland to design clothing for athletes to wear at events such as the opening ceremony. (LW Pearl)

Of course, more established brands are also present, with Armani working with Team Italia and LVMH being the official sponsor of the 2024 Olympics. Nike, Adidas and other sportswear giants are still responsible for the bulk of the gear worn for competitions and will host several events in Paris during the games.

Collaborations between brands and Olympic teams are not new. Ralph Lauren, for example, has outfitted Team USA since 2008, Skims was named the official underwear and loungewear partner of Team USA in 2021, and Telfar outfitted Team Liberia for the 2021 Olympics. Tokyo the same year.

A look at the Dutch team's breakout kit, designed by cult streetwear brand The New Originals.
A look at the Dutch team's breakout kit, designed by cult streetwear brand The New Originals. (Even Badu)

But this year, special attention will be paid to fashion. The fact that the games will be held in Paris, a city renowned for its high fashion credentials, has prompted countries to think more about how their athletes dress, observers say.

There will be so much increased focus on what athletes wear; you can't show up to the opening ceremony in a sweatsuit anymore, said Laura Weber, founder of LW Pearl.

This is great news for small brands who were considering participating in the Olympics. The large number of medal events, from athletics and gymnastics to newer disciplines such as breakdancing, skateboarding and BMX, have opened the door to all sorts of collaborations with specialist fashion players. This has also encouraged sports federations to delegate design responsibilities for specific sports to brands with niche expertise. For example, even if Lululemon remains the Canadian team's global equipment partner, the federation decided to call on Left On Friday to design the clothing for its volleyball team.

Until recently, the Olympics had always been somewhat closed off when it came to fashion brand sponsorships, with just a few examples, said Kenny Annan-Jonathan, founder of sports marketing agency The Mailroom and creative director of the Crystal Palace Football Club. Smaller brands are getting much smarter at leveraging partnerships outside of these costly deals. [and] have lower barriers to entry.

A chance to shine

For brands that have the opportunity to dress Olympic athletes this year, it's an opportunity to get in front of a massive global audience. The opening ceremony alone is expected to attract 1 billion viewers, while 326,000 people will attend in person (up from 600,000 for security reasons). Organizers have promised an unprecedented spectacle for the July 26 event, involving a procession of more than 160 boats carrying 10,500 athletes along a six-kilometer stretch of the Seine.

Even smaller-scale partnerships, such as designing specific sporting events, will bring significant exposure to consumers, experts say. Past examples of success include the partnerships between the Telfar and Labrum London teams with Liberia and Sierra Leone, respectively, during the last Olympic Games in Tokyo. Telfar made a splash regarding Liberia's minnow status at the games (the country was represented by only three athletes), generating $2.2 million in media impact value, ranking among the top 10 brands of the tournament and above big names like Uniqlo and Speedo, according to Launchmetrics.

Team Canada's beach volleyball gear was designed by Left On Friday, a high-end swimwear brand founded by Laura Low Ah Kee and Shannon Savage, two former Lululemon executives. (left Friday)

Showing up to the Olympics worn by elite athletes gives a lot of credibility to a performance brand like ours, said Shannon Savage, co-founder of Left On Friday. He puts us on the world stage and says: Yes. This is what we do and this is why our product is so good.

However, alongside Nike and LVMH, these brands must find clever ways to stand out. Left On Friday decided to forgo in-person events in Paris, for example, knowing it doesn't have the same kind of budget for large-scale events.

The brand will instead focus on digital storytelling on social media during and after the tournament, with content from Team Canada athletes training and competing in its apparel.

LVMH against the others

To strengthen its home-field advantage at this summer's Summer Games, various brands under the LVMH umbrella will participate in the 16-day events. For example, Berluti will design costumes and sneakers for the opening ceremony of the French team. The high jewelry brand Chaumet, owned by LVMH, designed the medals which (along with the Olympic torch) will be kept in Louis Vuitton trophy cases.

French rugby captain Antoine Dupont.
LVMH brands will have several athlete ambassadors who will represent them during the Olympic and Paralympic Games, including French rugby star Antoine Dupoint, signed by Louis Vuitton in March. (Louis Vuitton)

For the first time, LVMH itself sponsored athletes, including fencing champion Enzo Lefort and gymnast Mlanie de Jesus dos Santos. Among the Louis Vuitton ambassadors participating in the games are Victor Wembanyama, Frances NBA Rookie of the Year; Antoine Dupont, captain of the French rugby team; and Spanish tennis champion Carlos Alcaraz. Frances Pauline Droulde, wheelchair tennis player, is an ambassador for Dior.

In the end, the matches are long and varied enough for each brand to savor its moment in the spotlight, observers say despite LVMH's dominance. The simple spectacle of the Paris Games will also lend itself to picturesque marketing moments: emblematic monuments such as the Château de Versailles, the Grand Palais and Roland Garros will host competitions.

It's easy to understand how LVMH's presence in the past may have dissuaded other brands from wanting to get involved, Annan-Jonathan said. But really, it just means people are getting more creative with their products or activations in order to stand out.




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