Olympic Games' tortured relationship with fashion won't change in Vancouver

Raising eyebrows: The taste level of Russian ice dancers Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin is being questioned.
Raising eyebrows: The taste level of Russian ice dancers Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin is being questioned. (Ivan Sekretarev/associated Press)
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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010

The fashion world has always had a tortured relationship with the Olympics. And the Winter Games in Vancouver, which begin Feb. 12, promise no significant improvements.

It's easy to understand why designers would be attracted to the Games. They're populated by athletes -- many of whom have jaw-dropping, drool-inducing physiques -- and they attract an international audience. The Games also provide one of the largest red-carpet spectacles -- the Opening Ceremonies and the Closing Ceremonies -- that any designer could want. An estimated 2 billion people worldwide watched the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, for instance. Brands seeking a global audience might be well advised to chase Olympic athletes with the same gusto they reserve for starlets.

In matters of style, the figure skaters are the star attractions of the Games. They edge out their summer cousins, the gymnasts -- with their sparkle-dusted skin and superhero leotards -- to achieve an unparalleled degree of flamboyance: Vegas feathers meet runway esoterica meet Sports Authority spandex.

Pure ostentation would be easy to digest and dismiss from the figure skaters if the point was just the showmanship. But there's usually so much more. The activity takes itself very seriously -- perhaps because the practitioners are constantly trying to convince nonbelievers that theirs is a sport rather than a subjective display of athleticism -- and so there are always self-conscious references to such highfalutin subjects as opera, world cultures and such.

The most recent example of figure-skating fashion gone terribly wrong comes courtesy of Russian ice dancers Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin. The two recently won the gold in ice dancing at the European Figure Skating Championships. They are Olympic medal contenders. And their calling card is a number inspired by traditional Australian aboriginal culture.

The quality of the skating is not in question, but rather the wisdom and taste-level of the concept.

The ice dancers have chosen to emulate the dark skin of Australian aborigines by wearing unitards in varying shades of brown. The costumes have white swirls to mimic body paint. Faux leaves dangle from their limbs and torso. They're also wrapped in bits of red fabric that are supposed to represent loincloths but that resemble poorly made skorts -- a garment that no man should ever wear, not even male figure skaters who, over time, have managed to get away with everything from gauntlets to ruffled epaulettes. Serious folks who represent the aboriginal culture have announced to the media that they are offended. As well they should be, if for no other reason than the costumes are hideous. But the bigger issue is whether the idea itself is offensive. Should Russian skaters be using Australian aboriginal culture at all? Is any sort of appropriation inherently mocking?

It's one of those questions that comes up with frequency in the fashion industry where designers believe they have the creative license to borrow freely from everyone and anything. The list of cultures that have been ransacked in the name of style is long and includes African American, Jewish, Indian, Caribbean, Native American, Middle Eastern, African and so on. No one is off-limits. Occasionally, designers have been inspired to glorious effect. Almost a decade ago, Jean Paul Gaultier debuted a ready-to-wear collection in Paris that was a pastiche of African and black American style. His models looked glorious and noble. And the clothes, in velvet and jewel tones, were breathtaking.

Gaultier's wisdom was in using the specific cultures as merely his starting point; his creative process took flight from there. He wove an elaborate and enticing fantasy out of reality. He created something wholly new that was, itself, worth celebrating. In contrast, the ice dancers' costumes attempt to re-create something that they simply cannot. Cultural markers are etched out over generations. They can't be stitched up in a few hours. These costumes don't embellish on reality; they don't transform it. The unitards, with their ridiculous greenery, are like cheap, lazy Halloween costumes without the plastic mask.

While the Russian ice dancers' costumes are accused of being a cultural offense and are certainly an aesthetic one, other skaters have certainly committed their share of sensory assaults. Vera Wang and Christian Lacroix are two of the most famous designers to have bravely outfitted skaters. Wang, a former champion figure skater herself, brought her signature illusion netting to the costumes she created for Nancy Kerrigan. And Lacroix brought his signature everything-but-the-kitchen-sink ethos to his costumes for Surya Bonaly. Wang managed to bring a degree of sophistication to figure-skating costumes, but considering the standards, the mere fact that her work did not involve feathers, beads, fringe and various forms of trussing in a single spandex package made it exceptional. Lacroix, on the other hand, continued the longstanding tradition of skaters as bedazzled peacocks.

The most successful merging of fashion and athleticism has always occurred during the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Giorgio Armani created ensembles for the 2006 Winter Games in Turin and even ran with the Olympic torch. Ralph Lauren dressed American athletes in Beijing and will continue that tradition in Vancouver. (He has also signed on to dress them for the London competition in 2012.) Lauren tends to dress the Olympic contenders like gentleman athletes, folks who'd wear actual cotton tennis sweaters during a match rather than something lightweight, wicking and synthetic. He envisions skiers at a lodge in Aspen, not hurtling off a cliff in freestyle fearlessness. Lauren weaves a fantasy of Americana and sporty elegance around the athletes and perhaps that's why he has excelled at the Olympic conundrum. He leaves the performance sportswear to those who do not have to concern themselves with weaving a narrative from wool and cashmere.

It's tempting to wish that Canadian designers Dan and Dean Caten had been commissioned to dress a figure skater or two. The brothers, who produce their DSquared collection out of Milan, are known for clothes that are both witty and sexy. It would be fun to see what they could come up with for these high-level Ice Capades. It's easy to imagine them taking one of their recent wilderness-inspired collections and using that as the basis for some flannel, faux fur-embellished skating costume. Surely, they would include a matching trapper hat.

Instead, they will be outfitting the entertainers for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. They've dressed performers such as Britney Spears and Madonna in the past. The designers love a micro-mini and a pair of seriously low-slung jeans. They can appreciate a plunging neckline. There's probably no need to worry about cultural insensitivity. One can only hope, for the performers' sake, that the stadium is well-heated.

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