Saturday, July 20, 2024

Team USA’s Olympic Leotards Were Inspired by French Couture

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To design the bold gymnastics leotards Team USA will wear at the Paris Olympics this summer, GK looked to centuries of French design.

Each of the nine custom pieces, released today, is inspired by elements of both French and American culture, and has an intricate meaning woven into its stretchy, crystal-encrusted fabric.

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“We purposefully went into this knowing we had the unique opportunity to tie the host city into the inspiration. Paris is the fashion capital of the world, so we really wanted to play into that while still holding true to the fact that these athletes are unmistakably representing Team USA,” GK design director Jeanne Diaz tells Harper’s Bazaar.

gk elite leotard

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Diaz adds that she and her team referenced contemporary Parisian fashion, historical couture, the art nouveau movement, and architecture. They also played into Paris’s standing as the City of Light by adding on the shimmer via thousands of brilliant Swarovski crystals—more than they’ve ever used before.

“Every Olympic cycle, we try to see how many more crystals we can pack on, and not even necessarily the quantity, but just the placement of them in a way that gains the most sparkle,” Diaz says.

The brand began using crystals in 1996 (for Ukraine’s Lilia Podkopayeva), “before the machinery really existed to translate the designers’ crystal designs into an actual heat transfer, so all of those were placed by hand,” Diaz says. Once technology allowed, in 2000, GK began incorporating the gems into Team USA’s leotards. “And from there, for the past 24 years we have exploded our crystal usage.”

gk elite leotard

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For this year’s national team designs, they used diamond and teardrop crystals, as well as powerful new colors, including Majestic Blue and “one color that, depending on how you look at it, it either reflects blue or red—so, super patriotic and super unique,” Diaz explains.

gk elite leotard

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The most outwardly American of the leotards is called the Go Go for Glory, and it pays tribute to the Magnificent Seven from 1996—the first women’s Team USA to win gold at the Olympics. “We wanted to draw inspiration from vintage sport, and with them having been the pioneers, we wanted to pay homage to them, but in an updated way that feels more relevant to fashion and sport now,” Diaz says.

The designer explains that the red and blue crystal design is meant to look like a digital graph of stars and stripes over the white fabric, and at the same time, like an American flag draped over or wrapped around the wearer’s shoulders. “Like when a spectator hands them an American flag from the stands and they wrap it around themselves,” she says. “That’s the feeling that we really wanted—like they have the full support of the United States wrapped around them.”

a close up of a gk elite leotard

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In sharp contrast, the Luminous Legacy and Freedom’s Grace competition leotards feature intricate, corsetlike bodices with sweetheart necklines and sophisticated crystal patterns that scream “French cabaret.” (Of course, no crystals are placed into the leg lines or in the underarms, as the leotards are, first and foremost, performancewear.)

gk elite leotard

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gk elite leotard

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The USA Elegance competition leotard takes that French panache a step further. It also features a corset detail in the back, while the front is embellished with a magnificent nouveau-inspired lacelike pattern in white crystals that scatter in an ombré design. The high, crystal-embellished neck gives the illusion of a diamond choker, while the sharp low back adds a sexy, modern element to the ultra-sophisticated silhouette.

“Corsetry was a big source of inspiration for us through the whole collection,” Diaz says. “You’ll see that faux lace-up back element. A lot of them are also drawn in at the waist, and we emphasized that through either crystal work or through the style lines.”

gk elite leotard

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The American Anthem leotard has a nouveau design similar to the USA Elegance’s, though the Anthem is made to look like the lavish chandeliers one might find in a 1900s French theater or castle.

gk elite leotard

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“There are so many layers that I think the viewers don’t always get to see, but that’s okay, because we also want some elements that are just special to the athletes, so when they’re wearing them, they get that extra boost of confidence and just feel that beauty,” Diaz says.

gk elite leotard

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Perhaps the most intricate in its technical design, yet the most elegantly understated visually, is the Patriotic Poise leotard. In a deep monochrome red, the piece was created from a custom-dyed stretch satin (which GK has never used in gymnastics leotards before) for the upper half of the bodice, and a matte red material for the lower half—“to really play off of that texture and light contrast” and represent the City of Light, per Diaz.

gk elite leotard

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On the upper bodice is an asymmetric sublimated star pattern, while a cross-hatch grid of white crystals adorns the abdomen and left rib. “It’s fantastic that red is having its moment, since that’s one of our country colors and a power color that Team USA has always gravitated toward,” Diaz says of this vibrant piece. “We felt with this leotard that, because we were taking out the element of blocks of color, we could really play up the rest of the design elements.”

gk elite leotard

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The designer explains that high fashion plays a strong role in leotard design, especially at the Olympic level, and that trend-watching is incredibly important for GK’s team, as the designs are settled on months or even years in advance. The design process for this year’s competition leotards began in 2022, and now, just a couple of weeks away from the 2024 Games, they’re ready to shine bright on their Olympic stars.

“It’s such an honor to be able to dress these athletes for their special moment,” Diaz says.

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Rosa Sanchez is the senior news editor at Harper’s Bazaar, working on news as it relates to entertainment, fashion, and culture. Previously, she was a news editor at ABC News and, prior to that, a managing editor of celebrity news at American Media. She has also written features for Rolling Stone, Teen Vogue, Forbes, and The Hollywood Reporter, among other outlets. 

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