Stylish athletes to make Tokyo the most fashionable Olympics yet

Euro 2020 and Wimbledon may be over but 2021’s summer of sport and style continues. Next up is the Olympics, which begins on 23 July and promises to be more glamorous and fashionable than ever before.

Thanks to a combination of especially stylish athletes and a new roster of designer names working with Olympic teams, Olympians on the radar of fashion insiders include US gymnast Simone Biles, Bahamian sprinter Shaunae Miller-Uibo and British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith.

Biles appeared on the cover of fashion magazine the Gentlewoman in 2017, and on WSJ magazine this month. She will also design capsule collections for Athleta, the activewear brand owned by Gap.

Miller-Uibo stands out on the starting blocks with pink or green hair, and her Instagram feed features as many gowns as it does sports bras. Asher-Smith, meanwhile, comes to Tokyo off the back of an eight-page fashion shoot in British Vogue, in which she wore sequins, heels and lipgloss. The cover of the magazine calls the shoot “fashion’s love affair with Dina Asher-Smith”.

If fashion designers have often created the outfits that Olympians wear, this year those designers are fashion’s buzz names. Telfar, the brand that created 2021’s most fashionable bag, is working on the Liberian team’s outfits. The Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens and his team created 70 unisex pieces in four months, despite never making performance wear before. Team USA, meanwhile, have the might of Kim Kardashian. Her shapewear brand Skims will provide underwear and loungewear for all female athletes across the Olympics and Paralympics.

Felicia Pennant is the founder of Season zine, which covers sport and fashion. She says this shows a change from the Olympics being seen as primarily a “performance-based space”, and emphasised that the power of the Telfar collaboration on such a global stage goes beyond sport. “It’s cool for Black people in the diaspora to go back to their roots and use sportswear to tap into that and express that side of their heritage in a way they haven’t before,” she said.

The publicity of these alliances is significant. In an interview with the New York Times, Telfar compared the Olympics to a fashion show, “but a show everyone gets to see”, while Pennant says Kardashian working with the always-successful Team USA will no doubt make her designs even more popular: “They’re winners and you want to [wear] the winners’ stuff as well.”

Team GB’s opening ceremony outfits will be designed by Ben Sherman. Inspired by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the Mod heritage of the brand, creative director Mark Williams has taken athletes out of sportswear and put them in civilian Harrington jackets and button-down shirts. “Creating a balance between making a statement and having the ability to wear your look again is one of the most important points we agreed on from the start,” he says.

The designs were showcased last month with a photoshoot featuring diver Jack Laugher and sprinter Asha Philip, captured by fashion photographer Rankin. “They felt super sharp and loved the secret inspirational messaging hidden in the linings of the jackets and clothing,” says Williams.

Not all collaborations between brands and Olympic teams have been well received. Ralph Lauren’s designs – windbreakers and polo shirts – for Team USA were described as a “wearisome repetition of yuppie stereotypes” by Slate. The graffitied denim jacket designs for the Canadian team by Hudson Bay were even less appreciated. “Cancel the Olympics” wrote one Twitter user.

Ultimately, it’s the style flair beyond these official outfits – Miller-Uibo’s hair, for example, or Biles’ leotards – that will win the fashion Olympics this year. Gaining a reputation as a style reference is an opportunity to score sponsorship beyond sport but it’s also part of growing confidence of athletes to express themselves, as other sportspeople including Marcus Rashford, Naomi Osaka and Lewis Hamilton have recently.

“Athletes are being more unapologetic about their values and how that is reflected in what they do and what they wear,” says Pennant.