Global Retail   //   May 1, 2024

Meet the smaller brands designing Olympic uniforms

Fashion giants like Nike and Ralph Lauren have long dressed members of Olympic teams. Now, more small-scale brands are joining them on the global stage through uniform deals.

Cariuma, a sustainable skate shoe brand, is designing Olympic uniforms for the first time this year and outfitting skateboarders from three countries with its footwear and apparel. Meanwhile, premium active swimsuit brand Left on Friday is making its Olympic uniform debut with bikinis, cover-ups and accessories for Canada’s women’s beach volleyball team. And Swedish clothing company J. Lindeberg is making this year’s uniforms for the U.S. men’s and women’s golf teams, plus uniforms for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

The Olympics are inherently competitive. That’s the whole point of the event, after all. But when it comes to brand representation via uniforms, there’s a new leveling of the playing field. While major brands like The North Face are front and center at this year’s Games — with the U.S. outdoors brand creating climbing uniforms for the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Austria — some countries are opting to work with more regional names rather than large international conglomerates.

Left on Friday, for instance, is a Canadian brand designing for a Canadian team, and Paris-based streetwear designer Stephane Ashpool is designing for the French Olympic team. Meanwhile, other countries are turning to brands within a sport’s niche because they know that the brand has the technical know-how around what athletes need.

“The Olympics are about performance, and the people that land on the podium perform the best,” Brian Quarles, chief creative officer for sports marketing agency Revolution, told Modern Retail. “So if your uniform can help you have an edge in your performance and get a medal, then it says something about the product. It says, ‘This is the most elite level product there is,’ because the Olympics are that bar.”

Designing for the Olympics is a highly regulated process. The Olympics have pages of rules around manufacturer IDs, logo placements and color schemes for apparel. Even with the hurdles, for many brands, the opportunity is a dream come true. Like the Super Bowl or the World Cup, the Olympics are a prime opportunity for exposure and brand-building. More than 3 billion people watched the 2020 Toyko Olympics in 2021, a number that’s expected to be even higher for this year’s Games. As of early April, NBC sold a record $1.2 billion in advertising for the 2024 Olympics.

With the Olympics, “the reach is not provided at this scale… across any other marquee sporting event around the world,” Caroline Ryan, vice president of brand marketing at Excel Sports Management, told Modern Retail. “The smaller brands, to give them the chance to be incorporated into the Games, into the conversation around the Games, without having to invest upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars like the Olympic sponsors are paying, is just the most amazing opportunity that… you couldn’t really tap into before.”

This year’s Olympics are in Paris, the fashion capital of the world. With that, luxury houses like LVMH and Prada will have a big presence at the Games. But as a host city, Paris is an ideal location to bring in small brands, Ryan said. “When you think of Paris, you think of the big designer houses,” she said. “And of course, they’re going to be involved… But I think it’s genius to bring in both a high-end fashion brand and a smaller brand. And I think for being a smaller brand, the opportunity is just way too big to not break into the Olympics if you have the chance.”

All eyes are on athletes during Olympic events, and when those athletes don specific logos, those companies — no matter their size — get instant reach. Cariuma knows this firsthand. For Tokyo, it sponsored three athletes for skateboarding. Although the brand outfitted the skaters with shoes, not uniforms, Cariuma saw its biggest-ever spike in people searching the brand during those events. Knowing that, “it was very clear for us what would happen if we put our names on the chest of a few athletes, with the logo, the name and the shoes and the full attire,” Cariuma co-founder Fernando Porto told Modern Retail.

Cariuma also sees its presence in the Olympics as part of its larger expansion efforts. The brand, for instance, is based in Brazil but is partnering with local retailers in Australia, Japan and the Middle East in the coming months. With the Olympics, “[the goal is] to really increase the reach of the brand, globally, and in a way that is really authentic for the brand, completely in tune with our lifestyle, that actually strengthens our positioning and is actually very aligned with our space,” Porto said.

Left on Friday previously tested its products with Olympic swimmers, and it sponsored the Canada women’s beach volleyball team for two years. It didn’t make the team’s official uniforms — Lululemon did that — but when Lululemon transitioned to sponsor Team Canada as a whole in 2022, Left on Friday stepped in for beach volleyball specifically. Its founders, who founded the business in 2017, are both Lululemon alumnae.

Left on Friday’s Olympic uniforms are one-shouldered, allowing the athletes a better range of motion. That silhouette, however, shifted where the text on the uniforms could be, so Left on Friday had to get special permission from the International Olympic Committee. According to founders Laura Low Ah Kee and Shannon Savage, the IOC had never received a request for a one-shouldered suit. Left on Friday also got the okay to switch which shoulder had the strap, depending on if an athlete was right-handed or left-handed.

With an Olympic uniform, “there’s an awareness play, there’s a product testing play and then there is what we’re solving for,” Low Ah Kee told Modern Retail. “All are bikini tops, swim tops, sports bras, T-shirt bras since day one.”

Ultimately, big brands will continue to have a presence at the Olympics, but who’s being featured on the podium is changing. “You can’t out-Nike Nike,” Quarles said. “You can’t out-Adidas Adidas. They have much more awareness, much bigger budgets, but brands can show up authentically [at the Olympics].”