Sensibility of couture: In gymnastics, leotards bridge fashion and sport


Jordan Chiles' leotard, the source of the explosion of colour and sparkle, was one-of-a-kind, a custom creation inspired by an outfit Beyonce wore during a Renaissance Tour concert last year. Photo: Reuters

As US gymnast Jordan Chiles stood at the end of the vault runway, the lights of Dickies Arena reflected off the 4,400 Swarovski crystals on her leotard, creating sparkles reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower twinkling against the dark backdrop of a Parisian night sky.

She lifted her arms to salute the judges, shimmering with tiny rainbows, and sprinted toward the vault table, becoming a glittering blur of blue, pink, red and green as she flipped and twisted through the air.

Her leotard, the source of the explosion of colour and sparkle, was one-of-a-kind, a custom creation inspired by an outfit Beyonce wore during a Renaissance Tour concert last year.

Chiles found a photo of the megastar in a bold Pucci bodysuit and sent it to the designers at gymnastics apparel manufacturer GK Elite to use as a reference point for her competition look for night one of the 2024 US Gymnastics Championships (May 31).

The result was an attention-grabbing blend of checkered patterns in green and orange, pink and blue, and red and white with pink and red stripes across the chest.

The sublimated print was covered in crystals that formed a necklace-like triangle to recreate the look of the extravagant body chain Beyonce wore around her neck and waist.

“It’s gonna look like there’s a battery pack in the leotard. It’s going to be that blingy under the stadium lights,” said Jeanne Diaz, the design director for GK Elite, before the week’s championships.

Indeed it did.

Leotards can capture a personality, convey a style and provide a boost of confidence on the competition floor.

For the top gymnasts in the world, months of planning go into designing a custom fit that looks distinctive and withstands the rigours of competition.

Only the highest quality crystals are bedazzled into the leotards to ensure they don’t come loose mid-routine, and the garments are made to the athletes’ specific measurements so the fit stays perfect through each flip and twist.

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A quartet of medalists from the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 – Chiles, Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee and Jade Carey – sported custom GK creations at the nationals, with combined crystal counts totaling well into the 10,000s.

Each gymnast worked with GK for months to create a special look.

“A 'leo' is almost like putting on our armour for competition,” said Carey, who won gold in the floor exercise at the Tokyo Games. “I really want to feel powerful and confident because the better I feel, the better I feel like I’m gonna do.”

While US gymnasts will all wear the same uniform at the Paris Olympics, domestic meets like the weekend’s championships allow athletes to express themselves through custom designs.

Sleeveless versions of the leotards are sold as practice wear, marketed through GK’s sponsorships of Biles, Chiles, Carey and Lee. But the creations for them for the mats in Fort Worth, with meticulous, handmade details, are one-of-ones.

Think of a signature basketball shoe. But with the sensibility of haute couture.

“What Simone has with us is our equivalent of a Jordan brand,” said Matt Cowan, chief executive of Elite Sportswear, the parent company of GK.

“Simone has her signature collection that is inspired by her performances, her likes, her aesthetic, her innovation. She truly can bring a product that’s catered and representative of her to the community.”

The process to achieve that look-good, feel-good final product is different for each athlete, Diaz, the GK design director, said.

Carey and Lee usually request specific colours and leave the design direction up to GK. Chiles sends reference photos.

Diaz has collaborated with Biles for so long that she knows the 2016 all-around Olympic champion’s taste.

Diaz said that Biles’ style is “timeless but also unique, high-fashion”.

Her fuchsia leotard for the Core Hydration Classic in May had a criss-cross pattern of crystals on the bodice that evoked the iconic quilted Chanel handbag, while her brown leotard for the second night of US Championships on Sunday (June 2) featured gold Swarovski crystals with a high collar to give a royal feel.

The design reflects Biles’ position as the 27-year-old, accomplished face of the sport.

“At the beginning of her gymnastics career her 'leos' were really playful, fun,” Diaz said. “Then they got a refinement to them. They’ve culminated now with this really regal look.”

Simone Biles’ style is described as “timeless but also unique, high-fashion”. Photo: ReutersSimone Biles’ style is described as “timeless but also unique, high-fashion”. Photo: Reuters

According to Diaz, Chiles, who trains alongside Biles at her Texas gym, “has a more edgy flair to her”.

“She has a very expressive personality and that shows through in her leotards that she gravitates toward.”

The final night of the women’s event on Sunday (June 2) saw Chiles wearing – as described by Diaz – a “showstopper”: a white leotard based on a Bronx And Banco bodysuit Beyonce wore onstage in Las Vegas last August.

The idea behind Beyonce’s bodysuit was the artiste being the diamond at the center of a crown, Natalie De’Banco, Bronx And Banco’s founder, said.

Five people worked on the garment simultaneously, taking 150 hours to attach each crystal individually.

Chiles was drawn to the eye-catching silhouette of the catsuit, which GK mimicked with mesh-lined cutouts. Her version features 3,086 crystals and a detailed strappy back. But it’s not so easy to dress like Beyonce.

“It’s heavy!” Chiles said. “It feels like a wedding dress.”

Gymnasts’ performance styles also influence their competition leotards, as is the case for Lee and Carey.

“Suni gravitates towards more feminine looks, softer looks so the style lines do have curves to them,” Diaz said. “We tend to lean sportier for (Jade) but still strong looks and still filled with bling.”

GK isn’t the only outfitter of elite gymnasts.

Sylvia P, an Australian gymnastics wear brand based in Brisbane, creates custom looks for Shilese Jones, who withdrew from championships due to a shoulder injury but remains a front-runner to make her Olympic debut in Paris.

The brand looks to the runways of fashion weeks, the Met Gala and red carpets to come up with concepts that bring Jones’ personal style out on the competition floor, Sandra Cunningham, Sylvia P’s creative director, said.

Jones, a two-time world champion, cited Zendaya and Beyonce as her style icons and also looks at figure skating dresses for ideas for jewel placement.

As for colours, the 21-year-old prefers a darker palette.

“I stick to the dark purples, blue, red and black. Those are my top favourites,” she said. “I just don’t feel 100 percent confident if I’m wearing something Skittle yellow or bright sun orange. It’s just not completely for me.”

The goal is an elevated look with an elegance Jones carries in her gymnastics – with sparkles, of course, lots of sparkles.

“I want to feel the sparkliest,” Jones said. “I want to have the most jewels on my leotard, and I want to feel all types of confident.”

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Bedazzling is the most time-consuming part of the process. Hundreds of crystals must be placed by hand to fill out a machine-generated motif.

The leotard Jones wore, which had around 6,000 stones forming intricate line work down the sleeves, took four hours to fully cover in crystals, Cunningham estimated.

Jones’ leotards often feature an extra bit of sparkle as a nod to her father, Sylvester, who died in 2021 after a long battle with kidney disease.

She frequently incorporates crystals spelling out “XII XX MMXXI” – the date of her dad’s passing – into her designs and wore the Roman numerals down the sleeve of her leotard at the Core Hydration Classic.

“I wanted to carry him out there with me on the floor, doing the gymnastics with me,” she said.

“Having my dad out there, it just means more to me and makes my heart happy going out on the floor.”

Two hours after she debuted her lavish look, Chiles ended the night by taking the floor to a mix of Beyonce’s tracks and vocals, connecting her leotard to her routine.

Her night wasn’t without blemish – she fell on the final tumbling pass of her routine and landed seventh in the all-around – but with a month until the US Olympic Trials, Chiles and the other gymnasts still have time to hone their skills and prove why they deserve a spot on the five-person team in Paris.

The styles and sparkle they wore on the floor showed they’ve already brought Paris Fashion Week to Fort Worth. – The New York Times

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