Behind the Seams with the Olympics’ Corporate Uniforms

12 July 2016 | 0 Comments | Entertainment, Hospitality, News, Retail, Uniform Design

We’ve barely had time to recover our voices from Euro 2016, but now the the next big event is upon us – the Rio Olympics!

As the 207 participating nations make their final preparations, the launch of Olympic team and staff uniforms are a big part of the hype in the run up to the Games. Here we take a look at what happens to bring these uniforms to fruition.

Fashion forward

Olympic dressing has gone all “fashion”. Among the big names who’ve designed Rio 2016 Olympic team uniforms are Stella McCartney, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, DSquared2, and even Hermès (ok, as a saddler for showjumping but still!). Fashionistas have been quick to comment on this year’s crop of designs. There’s been a love-hate relationship with Australia’s pinstripe, mint green preppy look; eyebrows were raised at Team GB’s briefest of swimming trunks; Germany and Canada were praised for their trendy athleisure twist while China’s patriotic flag-inspired uniform has been likened to “stir-fried tomato and eggs”.

More than just looks

But while looks are important, an Olympic uniform goes well beyond fashion. Rain and wind resistant fabrics are now the norm. Technological advances, health and ethical imperatives mean that we are seeing fabrics that are Zika-repellent as worn by the South Korean team.

Team Sweden’s uniform, designed by H&M, is largely made from sustainably produced recyclable fabrics while Team GB’s uniform is made from a synthetic fabric 10% lighter than the ones worn in 2012, after consultation with the athletes. Designers even need to carefully consider where to manufacture their outfits. Ralph Lauren, who designed the US team uniform, opted for US production to avoid criticism of not supporting US manufacturing.

Olympic staff uniforms

At Rio 2016, there will be 87,000 staff and volunteers who need to be kitted out. To give you an idea of the scale of production, we’re talking an incredible two million items! That’s 48,000 boxes of uniforms that could fill nine tennis courts. It required 200 km of fabric just to make the uniform trousers!

Herculean planning effort

As with any operation this size, it requires careful planning and logistics. The uniforms have taken more than two years to produce from start to finish. According to Beth Lula, Rio 2016’s brand director, “The first sketches were drawn up in January 2014 and production began in December of last year. In order to get to Rio, the items will travel for 45 days by ship from China”.

Visual identity and branding

While less glamorous than the team uniforms, branding is just as important a factor for staff uniforms. For Lula as brand director, it was important that the design reflected the character of Brazil and its people. “They were inspired by our nature, by the energy of the Brazilian people and by the visual identity of Rio 2016.”

Fit for purpose

Like any uniform, Olympic staff uniforms need not only look good and represent the brand values of the organisation, they also need to be fit for purpose, taking into account function, practicality and comfort, climate and versatility.

The Rio 2016 design team decided to colour code the uniforms by function: red for medical services, blue for the technical officials, yellow for the operational team, and green for customer services, making it easy for visitors to distinguish between staff and find the right person to speak to.

A lot of thought also went into the practical design of the uniforms too so you’ll see shorts that convert into trousers and a 3-in-1 bag that can be a backpack, bum bag and shoulder bag, making the uniforms multi-functional and versatile.

Climate was another important consideration. It will be winter in Rio during the Olympics but not a British winter, so the uniforms need to perform well in both hot and cold weather conditions. The fabric for the Rio uniforms wicks away sweat and is windproof.

Project planning

Chinese sportswear company 361º was selected to produce the uniforms for both the Rio Olympics and Paralympics. Before they were chosen in October 2014, Rio 2016 spent a full year evaluating the production and sustainability standards of the company.

Felipe Oliveira Baptista, creative director of Lacoste, and responsible for some of the French team outfits (77 pieces to be exact), called the Olympic season “the longest season in fashion” in a New York Times article. He gave an insight into the challenges of creating a unisex style that fit a variety of shapes and sizes and encapsulated a country’s ethos in a single look – and then getting it approved by the Olympic Committee, which involved by all accounts, “a lot of restrictions”. He started work on his designs in November 2014.

Lena Blume, adidas’s Product and Project manager for the London 2012 uniforms underlined one of the greatest pressures for her team. “There is no way to postpone the Olympic Games! You have to meet your deadline, no matter what happens.”

While the stage may be much larger than for the average corporation, the design, planning and processes are not so dissimilar and involve many of the same considerations. Companies looking to create a new image or new uniform can derive some positive learnings and best practice from how this was done for the Rio Olympics.

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