It’s all about the brand, baby

When the U.S. team marches into the Olympic Stadium in London July 27 for the opening of the XXX Olympiad, it will do so in outfits created by Ralph Lauren. Lauren, who has designed for the team twice before, has anticipated the moment with a Yankee Doodle of a campaign, featuring something old, something new, something borrowed and something (red, white and) blue.

Inspired by the 1948 London Games, in which the U.S. dominated the medal count, the company nods to the past with fleece warm-ups, cricket-collar shirts, jaunty caps and poodle skirts, embellished with appliqués, updated crests and vintage motifs.

But RL has also fashioned the sleek, modern Big Pony polo line, with accessories ranging from tote bags to towels.

“The Olympic Games are the greatest sporting event in the world,” says David Lauren, executive vice president of advertising, marketing and corporate communications, “and we are incredibly honored to partner with this esteemed group of athletes. They embody the true spirit of American sportsmanship….”

It’s just the latest sign of the delicious dance between fashion and sports that has been spiced by polo star Nacho Figueras’ turn as spokesmodel for RL Black Label and Polo, ace Rafael Nadal’s sensual Armani ads and cultural icon du moment Tim Tebow’s recent appearance at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala in an RL tux.

Gala goddess and Vogue editor Anna Wintour – she of the superb taste in beautiful, young men – has thrown her considerable (metaphorical) weight behind the sports-fashion pas de deux. This is, after all, the woman who would send elegant tennis meister (and Vogue darling) Roger Federer a selection of suits for his approval; who placed Novak Djokovic in a Speedo by a Miami pool – and a rather phallic diving platform – in the May 2011 issue.

Last month’s Vogue saluted Team USA with a cover of swimmer-in-the-spotlight, and aspiring men’s designer, Ryan Lochte in sleek black Speedo jammers, framed in gilt by soccer star Hope Solo and tennis ace-designer Serena Williams in Michael Kors’ shirred metallic maillots. It was the first time in the magazine’s history that a shirtless man appeared on the cover.

Not everyone was in love with this “Baywatch”-y concept or the at-times witty, at-times whimsical photo spread by Annie Leibovitz that also starred Kate Moss-ish model Karlie Kloss. (That means you, HuffPo and Jezebel.) It reminds us of the jeers that rained down on Vogue for the 2008 LeBron James-Gisele Bündchen cover that critics said played into racial stereotypes. And let’s not forget the 1980 Lake Placid appearance of Team USA in stylish overcoats and fedoras that nonetheless had some outraged viewers thinking “The Untouchables.”

Still, sports and fashion have made a striking couple ever since John Redfern began designing tailored clothes for sporting ladies in the 1870s. Gabrielle Chanel took it into the viewing stands with her breezy jersey looks in the 1920s. It’s probably no accident that the Jazz Age also saw the apotheosis of tennis étoile Suzanne Lenglen, whose flapper style underscored the élan with which she played the game.

Today, the sports-fashion relationship is stronger than ever, thanks to branding in the Internet age. For athletes – many of whom have the plasticity of models – and fashion designers/magazines, the dialogue is an opportunity for each to extend his or her brand at a time when stars rather than supermodels rule the covers and the major spreads. Consider the Dolce & Gabbana collaboration with soccer supernova Leo Messi. D & G has spoken of his passion and will; Messi, of the company’s sophistication. Each reinforces the other’s edgy talent.

Wintour is also using the sports-fashion relationship to support the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Health Initiative, which she described in her June editor’s letter. Yet a few pages later, a reader took the magazine to task for having featured the gorgeous, zaftig singer Adele only from the waist up.

Given America’s ambivalence toward the body and food, it remains to be seen whether the sports-fashion dynamic will spur us to get fit – or merely try to look the part.

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