The founders of Roots, the Toronto-based sportswear company, are hoping that Olympic fans will love $34.95 poor-boy caps as much as they loved $19.95 berets. During the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, shoppers got giddy over a navy beret that Roots designed for the U.S. Olympic team. Long lines and sellouts led to bartering and begging. By the time excitement dissipated, the company had sold "well over a million," says Roots co-founder Michael Budman.
"Those hats struck a chord because 2002 was the first time Americans celebrated after 9/11. And that hat looks good on everybody."
For the 2004 Games in Athens, which begin Aug. 13, the U.S. Olympic team will be wearing poor-boy caps, a style favored by musicians, tough-guy actors and other folks who pride themselves on a preternatural level of cool. "It's the cousin to the beret. You can wear it sideways," Budman says. "It's very urban."
For the second time Roots has designed uniforms for the U.S. Olympic team. Athletes will wear Roots attire during opening and closing ceremonies as well as during downtime in the Olympic Village. Roots won the contract from the U.S. Olympic Committee thanks, in part, to the urgings of the athletes themselves. They'd seen the Roots style on Canadian athletes six years ago and were envious.
The U.S. team had been plagued by opening ceremony uniforms that resembled a costume a Miss Universe contestant would wear during the parade of nations. Or worse, ensembles that made the athletes look as though they would be hunting and trapping their own dinner. Budman looked at hours of videotape from opening ceremonies throughout history; he took note of the ways in which fashion had failed the athletes.
"I said, 'If anybody talks about a cowboy hat, I'm gone.' We had to stay away from cliches," Budman says. "We thought maybe we should have Hawaiian shirts."
There are no floral patterns or hula girl images, just sleek, youthful, peppy athletic gear. It has urban flair but traditional lines. The clothes evoke nostalgia for a time before technology and hip-hop attitude dominated athletic apparel. There are references to classic basketball warm-up shirts and jerseys, T-shirts with contrasting piping, zip-front pullovers and track pants with USA in block letters across the derriere. The clothes lack the garish flourishes that reek of swaggering attitude -- the Olympics is not the right venue for visual trash talk. The uniforms are patriotic but do not make the athletes look as though they are wrapped in the American flag.
Roots also designed this year's Canadian uniforms, with their bold representation of a maple leaf. Their stylishly retro kit includes a white, acrylic toque -- a cross between a beanie and a skull cap. It is reminiscent of the headgear one might spot on a skateboarder in the X Games. (It was the Canadian team's Roots-designed uniforms for the 1998 Nagano Games, which included a breathlessly sought-after newsboy cap, that solidified the Canadians as the most fashionable Olympians.)
The success of the U.S. and Canadian uniforms has transformed Roots into a go-to brand for Olympic sportswear. The company is also providing uniforms for athletes from Great Britain and Barbados. British athletes also get a poorboy cap. Those from Barbados will wear baseball caps.
Roots is a privately held, Canadian sportswear company with a beaver as its logo. It has more than 200 stores in Canada, but only five in the United States. The company was founded in 1973 by two Americans, Don Green and Budman. Childhood friends who grew up in Michigan, they spent summers together at a camp in Canada. "I remember as a 10-year-old boy going to Camp Tamakwa. When I went there the first time, I remember all these great athletes," says Budman, from his home in Toronto. "I remember the plaid jackets, the toques, the moccasins, the sweatshirts from the University of Michigan. All that had a long impact on me, on what Canadian life was like."
Of course, one could argue that those are Canadian stereotypes just as surely as the cowboy hat is an American one. But it's often easier to love someone else's cliches than it is one's own. "We appreciated it more. Canadians don't really appreciate a lot of what they have," Budman says. "The grass is always greener on the other side."
Roots has thrived on Canadian imagery, positioning itself as a brand for outdoorsmen and athletes but with a collegiate, preppy flair, almost a cross between Eddie Bauer and Abercrombie & Fitch. The company's first brush with fame came in the '70s with the "negative heel shoe" -- an earth shoe with a heel that sat lower than the forefoot. By the early '80s, the brand had buzz -- particularly among teenagers and young adults. It was producing varsity leather jackets, thick fleece sweatshirts with the distinctive Roots logo and rubber-soled, deerskin boots with roll-down cuffs in rich shades of lapis, ruby red and emerald green. The company's leather saddlebags and sturdy handbags predated Prada's no-nonsense style and were reminiscent of classic Coach purses.
The brand's popularity cooled in the '90s, but Roots continued to produce products ranging from T-shirts to luggage. The Olympic uniforms put Roots back in the spotlight. The parade gear has become its own division with its own team of designers. And it's already working on 2012 and New York's Olympic bid.