GK Elite has been making Team USA’s gymnastics leotards for the Olympics for more than two decades. At this summer’s Games, the team debuted their sparkliest, most innovative leotards yet. Veteran gymnast Shawn Johnson even called the red bedazzled number the girls wore to win gold in the team competition the most beautiful leotard she’s ever seen — and we’ve only just seen some of what’s in Team USA’s leotard arsenal. Kelly McKeown, executive vice president of design and corporate relations at GK Elite, took time out from her busy Olympics schedule, where the company is outfitting gymnast teams from all over the world, to chat with BuzzFeed Shift about all things Olympic leotards.
The ladies’ leotards are made from a fabric called Mystique. Can you explain the significance of the material?
It’s become the standard fabric in the industry. People love it because one, it has a compression fit and two, it really defines the muscles and shows off muscle tone. When you’re competing you wanting to be dressed properly — in fancy attire, basically — and Mystique has a sheen to it and it looks a little dressier and classier than something that has a dull finish.
So compression fit — does that mean like Spanx?
It’s not really like Spanx. You know how Under Armour has compression shirts? They’re tight-fitting. The leotards are sort of the same as that. It’s nice as a woman to have something that pulls you in and is supportive.
Does it feel different to wear than a leotard one might buy at, say, American Apparel?
No, other than it’s compression fit. It’s not a huge difference where you’re uncomfortable.
How long does it take for GK Elite to make the US team’s performance leotards?
The first meeting I think was about 18 months ago. We started talking about the whole process and concept and things like that. It’s been a lot of prototyping over the past several months and back and forth, showing designs to the federation and the coaches and having the athletes try them on and making changes, whether it’s lines or color.
How many leotards does each U.S. lady gymnast get?
The U.S. got eight competitive leotards each, so they have a wide variety. Some of the countries (GK outfits many countries for the Games) will get a lot lot lot less and they have to wash them for competiion in a sink. So the U.S. is definitely well-equipped with apparel.
Which countries end up with fewer?
I don’t know how many leotards every country has. Some countiries will get maybe three different loetards, but they’ll gt two of each. The U.S. likes the variety of the looks.
There’s a lot of psychology behind what you wear when you compete. If you look amazing and you feel amazing you’re going to be more confident. The leotards are usually quite a big surprise at the Olympics — no one wants to reveal what they’re wearing prior to the Games. It’s like your wedding day when you don’t want anyone to see your dress and then on the day it’s the big reveal and everyone talks about the leotards.
Fashion designers collect inspiration for their designs on mood boards and things like that. Does it work the same way with the gymnastics leotards?
It’s an artchitectural inspiration behind some of the jeweled designs. The team has some patriotic looks that they haven’t worn yet — I’m not sure which day they’re going to wear what leotard but there’s some patriotic influence behind some of them.
The other element that’s big is the Swarovski crystals. There are more crystals on the apparel on this Olympic Games than ever before. It’s becoming another new standard. The other day, when the US won the gold, they had a red leotard encrusted with crystals. It was so elegant — they got a lot of complements on how elegant they looked. In fact I went to the champagne toast and Shawn Johnson was there with the parents and she came up to me and said, “This is the most beautiful leotard that I’ve ever seen.” So I think that’s a big statement coming from someone who’s worn hundreds of these.
How much do they cost?
I don’t have any cost sheets in front of me, but I know some of them cost in the neighborhood of $500. They have eight so I don’t have all the prices here, but some of them are $400 or $500. They’re paid for by sponsorships that all feed into the funding for the team. Funds are allocated for different things, like uniforms.
What do you wear underneath a leotard?
Some people wear briefs, some people don’t. Some people wear a body liner.
What’s a body liner?
A body liner is kind of like an undergarment, like a leotard. I would say briefs are a lot more popular than a leotard unless you’re wearing white, in which case some people like a body liner for a little bit of coverage.
And how do you make sure these leotards stay on while the ladies flip and spin through the air?
The fit is really important and our company is known for having the best fit. We put a lot of engineering into our patterns and every fabric we use reacts differently so we need to have appropriate engineering for every pattern. A lot of it is testing — we test quite a bit on an athlete. Everything is only used after it’s been extensivly tested. Wear testing is obviously hugely important, and wash testing is big — you’re going to wash and wear it. So you want to make sure you have a quality garment. Also I would say getting the elastic right is important.
You mean, elastic that goes around the leg opening?
Leg and neck. If it’s a training leotard you have it in the arms. If it’s a long-sleeve competitive leotard, the sleeves are not elastic.
Is there a reason they always compete in long sleeves?
You look more dressed than a tank. It’s a finished look. And you see the arm lines better if they’re covered in fabric. I don’t know specificaly for the Olympics if there’s a rule about it but everyone does it because it wouldn’t look good not to.
Can normal people buy the Team USA leotards?
Yeah actually we’ll be doing a replica collection of the leotards they wore to compete in that will be available later this month.
So sum up the ideal gymnastics leotard for the Olympics.
I think it’s so personal. First of all what’s not personal is quality and fit. You have to have that or you’re not going to do your job out there. That’s psychological — you want that confidence from the outfits. With the statement, I think it’s personal. What one team loves is so different from what another team would choose.
For USA I would say they tend to go very symmetrical and regal. They look regal and elegant and that’s what makes the quintessential leotard for them. Some countries have a much busier look, and some say that’s distracting from their routine, anything that cuts the body up a lot. There are different philosophies behind that, but i think Team USA has hit a home run with the way they approach leotard design, wanting to be regla and elegant.
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