Saturday, July 13, 2024

Team USA’s Olympics gymnastics leotards revealed: A look at the eight designs for Paris

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READING, Pa. — From the outside, it’s not much to look at. A squat, boxy gray building on the outskirts of an industrial town.

Behind the unassuming facade, though, is a house of sparkle. It’s where humming sewing machines, hundreds of bolts of fabric and millions of crystals combined to create the look for this year’s United States Olympic gymnastics teams.

Step inside the headquarters of GK Elite, about 90 minutes northwest of Philadelphia, and you’re greeted by mannequins wearing iconic leotards, like the navy blue one with bedazzled white sleeves Suni Lee sported when she took all-around gold in Tokyo, and floor-to-ceiling photos of Olympic medalists. Peek into a conference room and you’ll find memorabilia ranging from 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin’s signed Wheaties boxes to Simone Biles’ autographed “Time” cover.

It’s partially a museum, but primarily a manufacturing facility. From the first design doodles to the final hand-placed stones, it’s the birthplace of the dazzling leotards that Biles, Lee, Jordan Chiles, Jade Carey and Hezly Rivera will wear later this month.

GK Elite on Wednesday unveiled the eight Olympic leotards for the women’s team — loaded with Swarovski crystals in a patriotic color palette. The wardrobe, which drew inspiration from American iconography, French art and even old Hollywood, is ultimately about more than aesthetics. Gymnasts have long used leotards to add an extra layer of personality and to gain a confidence boost while on the competition floor. And each of the leotards they’ll pack for Paris has its own story.

For Carey, seeing her Olympic attire the day after U.S. trials elevated the experience of making her first Olympic team. She earned a ticket to Tokyo as an individual athlete and captured gold on floor exercise but wasn’t a part of the four-person squad that took silver. In Paris, she’ll have the chance to help the U.S. nab another team medal.

“It felt like it made the Olympic team real for me. It all happens so fast after trials, and seeing the leotards made it feel official,” she said. “I was just so beyond excited to get to wear them and proud to represent Team USA again.”

The process of getting the leotards from a Pennsylvania factory to Paris began two years ago. GK design director Jeanne Diaz and her team — who also designed the U.S. looks for Tokyo in 2021 — began compiling images from high-fashion runways and art museums into mood boards for inspiration in 2022. They looked to Paris for ideas but also aimed to create a wardrobe that was “unmistakably Team USA,” Diaz said.

The leotard the gymnasts will wear for the team final stands out as the centerpiece. GK’s goal was to recreate the feeling of an athlete being blanketed by an American flag — an enduring Olympic tradition after a victory. The leotard features one navy sleeve covered in stars outlined with crystals and a white bodice accented by red stripes. Many of the 9,929 crystals on the leotard are diamond-shaped.

“You really think about it in track and field. You think about it in swimming and gymnastics. Just wrapping the flag around you (after) receiving that flag from someone in the stands,” Diaz said. “That really special, emotional moment is what we wanted to capture in a leotard.”

The design also pays homage to the “Magnificent Seven” of the 1996 Games, the first U.S. women’s gymnastics team to capture Olympic gold. To avoid simply recycling a former design, Diaz said GK emphasized modernity.

“We took a bit of a graphic take on it, sort of a digital take on the flag. We cut up the lines in an organized way and really played with thick and thin lines to really give the athlete a special moment where they can see all the really cool detail.”

For qualifications and individual event finals, the gymnasts can choose from the other seven leotards.


Team USA gymnastics leotards

From left: the American flag-themed look to be worn in the team final, the all-blue superhero-inspired style and the grayscale star-centric design. (Courtesy of GK Elite)

For another version, GK designed a blue leotard covered in more than 10,000 crystals. Most of the stones are on the bodice and arranged in a shape that Diaz said takes inspiration from corsetry while evoking the look of a superhero’s armor. The bedazzled stars and angular lines down the sleeves are an abstract take on the stars and stripes of the American flag.

Another version stands out as the only Olympic leotard that isn’t red, white or blue. From a distance, it looks like a gunmetal gray leotard covered in large stars from the waist to the collar and down the sleeves. But a closer look reveals the stars are the negative space between multicolored dots and crystals in garnet, periwinkle, turquoise and gold. The dots are a nod to French artist Georges Seurat, who developed the painting technique known as pointillism. Touches of velvet to accentuate the collar, waistline and criss-cross straps on the back were added at the athletes’ suggestions.

While gymnasts can design their own looks for domestic meets like the U.S. Championships, they typically have little say in the super-secret Olympic designs. The request for velvet came from a survey GK sent to national team members, who said they liked the fabric but only in small doses because it could feel hot.

Team USA gymnastics leotards

Three of the leotards draw inspiration both from the fleur de lis symbol that has long been associated with the French crown and the style of old Hollywood. (Courtesy of GK Elite)

Another trio of leotards features curved style lines and crystal motifs resembling the fleur de lis.

“This takes a lot of inspiration from French couture and from art nouveau. But also, to have the American tie-in, from 1920s old Hollywood glamor,” Diaz said.

A solid white leotard with an intricate, caged-like bodice crystal design highlights this part of the Olympic wardrobe because of its delicate sleeves resembling French lace and the 970 white pearls interspersed with the crystals. A lace-up design on the back brings a pop of color as the crossing straps are navy, maroon and white.

Team USA gymnastics leotards

At left: A blue leotard with streaking colors resembles a fireworks blast. At right: An all-red version was created at USA Gymnastics’ request. (Courtesy of GK Elite)

USA Gymnastics specifically requested an all-red leotard, so Diaz’s team developed an asymmetrical design with mesh sleeves and a stretch satin fabric that GK dyed specifically for the Olympics, along with a keyhole cutout in the back and a high neck. Rounding out the eight leotards is a dark blue number with mesh sleeves and an explosion of crystals resembling a firework radiating from the right shoulder. A similar patriotic pyrotechnic is printed on the fabric.

Once USA Gymnastics green-lit the mockups, production started in Reading with pattern making, fabric selection and cutting. The uniforms were custom fit to the gymnasts’ measurements, and GK produced 22 sets of the Olympic collection to cover all the national team members (plus a few extras, just in case).

On the factory floor, cut pieces of fabric were then sublimated with various prints and stuck under an embroidery machine that rapidly stitched in two logos — a GK logo on the left hip and the USA logo on the right.

Across the room, a machine that can place up to 170 stones per minute fed on a steady diet of crystals. One small robotic arm picked up individual gems from a pile and passed them to a smaller arm that stamped them in detailed patterns on transfer paper. That paper was pressed onto the pieces of the leotard and inserted into a heat transfer machine, which bonded the crystals to the fabric.

Additional stones were added using a laser system and a foot pedal operated by a GK employee who moved the fabric and stomped when the red dot was in the correct position for the next stone. Any stones that were too large or delicate to be placed by a robot — like the larger pearls on the all-white leotard — were set by hand with tweezers. After quality checks, the leotards were ready for the sport’s biggest stage.

Each has the potential to become a symbol of Olympic glory, forever tied to a moment that will be broadcast around the world and etched into history.

Said Carey: “I cannot wait for the world to see them.”

U.S. women's Olympic gymnastic team

From left: Jade Carey, Suni Lee, Simone Biles, Jordan Chiles and Hezly Rivera show off the new leotards to be worn in the team final at the Olympics. (Courtesy of GK Elite)

(Top illustration of Simone Biles and Suni Lee in the new leotards: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; all images courtesy of GK Elite; video: Tess DeMeyer)

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