Indie Brands Are Making This Fashion’s Biggest Olympics Ever

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

Team France's archery kit.
Ashpool’s designs are an avant-garde take on performance sportswear. (Pauline Scotto Di Cesare)

His latest collaboration, however, is with Team France. Ashpool is the first independent designer hired by a country’s Olympic committee as a creative lead for apparel.

Ashpool is tasked with creating highly technical garments for elite athletes in over 60 sports across the Olympics and Paralympics, from cycling to judo to archery to wheelchair basketball. Each item must be designed to propel its wearer to the highest degree of performance – and look good, too.

It’s a herculean task typically handled by major sportswear brands like Nike and Adidas. Ashpool’s designs will be produced by French sportswear manufacturer Le Coq Sportif, which does have decades of experience outfitting French Olympic athletes – though the most recent games it worked on were in 1972.

Looks include an all-white archery outfit with flared pants and a pouch to store arrows; a vibrant red, blue and white tracksuit for the breakdancing team; and a lycra all-in-one piece designed for cycling, complete with a matching racing bike. Ashpool’s designs are an avant-garde take on athletic clothing, so much so that he faced pushback early in the design process.

“This kind of aesthetic in performance sportswear is new territory,” Ashpool said. “If I’d had the chance, I’d have pushed it even further.”

It’s not just France taking a chance on an unconventional designer for the Olympics this year. Irish womenswear label and fabric producer LW Pearl created a formalwear collection for Team Ireland that includes custom embroidered jackets complete with shamrocks and the names of the county each athlete hails from. Canadian swimwear label 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 designed a collection for The Netherlands’ breakdancing squad. Los Angeles-based sportswear label Actively Black was tapped by the Nigerian Olympic Committee to design its teams’ uniforms and all other apparel for the tournament.

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

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

Collaborations between brands and Olympic teams are nothing new. Ralph Lauren, for example, has outfitted the US teams since 2008, Skims was named as Team USA’s official underwear and loungewear partner in 2021, and Telfar dressed Team Liberia for the Tokyo Olympics that same year.

A preview of Team Netherlands breaking kit, designed by cult streetwear label The New Originals.
A preview of Team Netherlands’ breaking kit, designed by cult streetwear label The New Originals. (Eben Badu)

But this year, special attention will be paid to fashion. The fact that the games will take place in Paris, a city renowned for its high fashion credentials, has inspired countries to be more thoughtful about dressing their athletes, observers say.

“There is going to be so much heightened attention on what the athletes are wearing; you can’t just show up to the opening ceremony in a tracksuit anymore,” said LW Pearl founder Laura Weber.

That’s great news for small brands who were eyeing the chance to participate in the Olympics. The sheer number of medal events from track-and-field and gymnastics to newer draws such as breakdancing, skateboarding and BMX biking have opened the door for all kinds of collaborations with specialised fashion players. It has also encouraged athletic federations to delegate design responsibilities for specific sports to brands with niche expertise. For example, while Lululemon remains Team Canada’s overall kit partner, the federation decided to tap Left On Friday to design its volleyball team apparel.

“Until recently, the Olympics had always been somewhat closed off when it comes to sponsorships from fashion brands, save for a few examples,” said Kenny Annan-Jonathan, founder of sports marketing agency The Mailroom and creative director of Crystal Palace Football Club. “Smaller brands are getting a lot smarter at leveraging partnerships outside of these big-ticket deals [and] have lower barriers to entry.”

A Chance to Shine

For brands with the opportunity to dress Olympians this year, it’s the chance to be in front of a massive global audience. The opening ceremony alone is expected to attract TV viewership of 1 billion, while 326,000 people will be there in person (downsized from 600,000 due to security concerns). The organisers have promised a “spectacle like no other” for the July 26 event, involving a procession of more than 160 boats carrying 10,500 athletes along a four-mile stretch of the River Seine.

Even smaller-scale partnerships, such as designs for specific sporting events, will yield significant consumer exposure, experts say. Successful past examples include Telfar and Labrum London’s team partnerships with Liberia and Sierra Leone, respectively, at the last Olympic Games in Tokyo. Telfar caused a big splash relative to Liberia’s minnow status at the games (the country was represented by just three athletes), generating $2.2 million in media impact value, ranking in the top 10 brands at 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 label founded by Laura Low Ah Kee and Shannon Savage, two former Lululemon executives. (Left On Friday)

“To show up at the Olympics being worn by elite athletes gives a performance brand like ours so much credibility,” said Left On Friday co-founder Shannon Savage. “It puts us on a global stage and says: ‘Yes. This is what we do, and this is why our product is so good.’”

Next to the likes of Nike and LVMH, however, these brands must find clever ways to stand out. Left On Friday decided to forgo in-person events in Paris, for instance, knowing it doesn’t have the same kind of budget for high-profile events.

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

LVMH Versus the Rest

To flex its home court advantage at this summer’s Games, various brands under the LVMH umbrella will participate across the 16-day roster of events. For instance, Berluti will design suits and sneakers for Team France’s opening ceremony appearance. LVMH-owned high-jewellery label Chaumet has designed the medals, which (along with the Olympic torch) will be housed in Louis Vuitton trophy cases.

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

For the first time ever, LVMH itself has sponsored athletes, including fencing champion Enzo Lefort and gymnast Mélanie de Jesus dos Santos. Among the Louis Vuitton ambassadors competing at the games will be Victor Wembanyama, France’s NBA Rookie of the Year; Antoine Dupont, captain of the French rugby team; and Spanish tennis champion Carlos Alcaraz. France’s Pauline Déroulède, a wheelchair tennis player, is an ambassador for Dior.

Ultimately, the matches are long and varied enough for every brand to relish its moment in the spotlight, observers say — despite LVMH’s dominance. The sheer spectacle of the Paris games will also lend itself to picturesque marketing moments: iconic landmarks including the Château de Versailles, the Grand Palais and Roland Garros will host competitions.

“It’s easy to see how the presence of LVMH in the past may have deterred other brands from wanting to get involved,” said Annan-Jonathan. “But in reality, it just means people get more creative with their products or activations in order to stand out.”

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