Lifestyle

Olympics: The designer Games

At this year's Olympics, athletes will share the podium with the stars of high fashion.

The opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games are more than just gratuitous displays of nationalism. They’re also the most watched fashion shows in the world. The theatrics of these multi-hour spectacles have much in common with high-fashion runway shows, and the ceremonies for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games will have the couture to match.

Canadian-born designer twins Dean and Dan Caten, the founders of Milan-based Dsquared?, were named official costume designers by the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee last year, and are outfitting the performers for the opening and closing ceremonies for the Games this month. While athletic apparel companies such as Roots Canada, Nike and Adidas have typically benefited the most from the marketing opportunities afforded through the Games, the presence of Dsquared? underscores the fact that Olympic fashion is no longer the exclusive domain of sweatpants and shoe manufacturers. Although the team has worked with celebrities such as Madonna and Rihanna (not to mention creating uniforms for the Juventus football club), the Olympics is their largest marketing opportunity yet. “This is the biggest audience we will ever have, so we really have to turn it out,” Dan told Fashion magazine recently. “It’s a real chance to shine.”

Luxury designers have previously only dabbled in Olympic athlete fashions. Figure skating, in which extravagant costumes are the norm, has attracted its share. Christian Lacroix worked on outfits for French skater Surya Bonaly in 1992, and American designer Vera Wang, a former skater herself, has created dresses for U.S. skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Michelle Kwan.

Giorgio Armani looked beyondfigure skaters for the 2006 Games in Turin, dressing the Italian Olympic team for the opening and closing ceremonies, and upscale retailer Polo Ralph Lauren jumped at the chance to dress the American team in 2008 after the U.S. Olympic Committee parted ways with former partner Roots. The opportunity for Polo Ralph Lauren to showcase its clothing for a global audience was too good to pass up. The company also designed the outfits for the American athletes this year in Vancouver, and will do the same in London in 2012.

Polo Ralph Lauren says it hopes to use the Olympics to boost its international presence. More than 70% of its US$5 billion in sales during its last fiscal year came from the United States, despite the fact the company sells clothes across Europe and Asia. The company won’t divulge specifics, but it is reportedly increasing its ad budget for the Vancouver Olympics by 50%, compared to what it spent for the events in Beijing in 2008, even though its involvement in the past Games has so far failed to move the needle on international sales in any significant way.

For its part, Dsquared? is not oblivious to the retail opportunities provided by its association with the Olympics. This month, luxury retailer Holt Renfrew will launch a line of fleece hoodies from Dsquared?, each one emblazoned with a red maple leaf. Holt says the hoodies “pay homage to Dean and Dan’s Canadian roots” and are not officially tied to the Olympics. Consumers can be forgiven for thinking otherwise. In addition to the buzz around Dsquared? for its work on the ceremonies, the official launch of its hoodies is on the second day of the Games in Holt’s Vancouver store. The price for a Dsquared? sweatshirt? About $350. Even when high fashion appeals to the masses, it doesn’t come cheap.