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The Ins and Outs of an Olympics Uniform Design

Columbia Sportswear designer Fred Dennis talks about what goes into creating an Olympic uniform with the right mix of style and functionality.

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Designing an Olympic uniform requires attention to a multitude of factors and intricacies. Fred Dennis and his team of Columbia Sportswear designers worked tirelessly with skiers, their coaches and the IOC to produce uniforms for the United States, Russia and Canada that adhere to regulations while maintain style.

What was it like to get athlete feedback, turn that into prototypes and then a final product?

We visited every team numerous times and spent days with them. The athletes would bring in their favorite pieces of outerwear and explain to us why they needed the features provided by the item. Often times the outerwear had been customized by the athlete to provide a specific fit or function. We really tried to cook those details it into the uniforms right from the beginning.

Each discipline has its own desires and requirements, how did Columbia negotiate those differences?

Aerials is so much different than moguls or even park and pipe, so we spent time with the athletes from each discipline. We went to the events and really tried to understand what they need. In Aerials they want to look very straight and clean when they’re up in the air. To make that work we put inner cuffs in the jackets with thumbholes and stirrups in the pants so they can keep the fabric tight and create a clean line. Those aspects of the uniform are completely different from a park and pipe athlete’s where style is a part of winning. Park and pipe skiers want to sag their pants and be unique, so we tried to develop ways they can do that. The reverse powder skirt that is on the pant instead of jacket, and the suspender system gives them a lot of customization options, so they can tailor it to fit how they want. Allowing athletes to pick whatever size they wanted was a simple way to specialize uniforms.

What are some of the IOC or other agency requirements that Columbia had to abide by?

Well it’s really all about the IOC. They are very strict on the size and locations of logos. The committee gave us quite an extensive set of guidelines on what is proper and what is not. There are officials we would meet with to show them the designs in sketch form. They would approve those then we would move on to the next stage when we would show them the prototypes.

We tried to pay special attention to the established uniform regulations because it would be a nightmare for us to make a mistake and have an athlete not be able to compete. That is absolutely critical to not have happen, and we’re feeling quite confident. The IOC’s completely signed off on our designs.

What was the toughest part of the design process for the Olympic uniforms?

I would probably say the most difficult thing to do is deliver uniforms to a diverse group of athletes from different countries, and have them all be excited to wear them. We needed to be fair and have a uniform that looked team- and nation-specific without designing three totally different uniforms. We were very open with the team about that fact. So it was a challenge to bring both a park and pipe athlete and an aerial athlete a uniform they are all stoked to wear. Designing a uniform that they all feel good in is really our top priority. We want to bring that confidence to the athletes.

So are the uniforms you are creating for Russia, Canada and the US fairly similar across the board despite style or color changes, and things like that?

The uniforms are specific to the discipline, and in the spirit of delivering high quality and fairness, each pattern is the same but of course they have unique colors and graphic treatments that we discussed with the teams.

Are you incorporating any new technologies in these uniforms that aren’t in consumer gear right now that will eventually trickle down?

We’ve designed and created a new waterproof zipper that is not at market yet, but will be in spring 2015. We wanted to bring it here first to let the athletes experience it, so it’s well tested. Then, of course, there’s Omni-Heat reflective, which is really the technology story for us that allows us to bring warmth without bulk.