Ugly Sweater Party or Team USA’s Olympic Uniforms?

SochiUSLast week, iconic American designer Ralph Lauren unveiled the uniforms that U.S. athletes will wear during the opening ceremony for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The ensemble features an American-made patchwork cardigan emblazoned with bold stars and stripes, paired with a cream-colored turtleneck sweater, white fleece athletic pants and black boots.

On the whole, the public’s response has not been positive, with many likening the cardigan to an ugly Christmas sweater. We checked in with Drexel fashion design expert Alphonso McClendon for some insight into the concept behind the design, the significance of the uniforms being made in the U.S. and whether or not consumers will be flocking to purchase the patriotic apparel.

amcclendonMcClendon is an assistant professor of fashion design in Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, who previously worked for Izod and Nautica for over a decade. He was the driving force behind the success of Nautica men’s swimwear and prints. In 2013, McClendon published “Fashionable Addiction: The Path to Heroin Chic” in the edited book Fashion in Popular Culture from Intellect Books. He is currently working on Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity, and Subcultural Style, which is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Publishing.

The sweater. What’s the deal there?

I believe the Ralph Lauren design team has made a concerted effort to turn around the negative publicity of manufacturing the 2012 Olympic uniforms in China. The cardigan design boastfully celebrates patriotism, craftsmanship and homespun Americana. It pays homage to one’s grandmother who tirelessly worked the knitting needles producing items passed from one generation to the next. Likely due to the proportions of the stars and stripes and extreme motif coverage, critics see the sweater as garish. However, this same embellishment has resonated on the Ralph Lauren Polo Shirt that flaunts a 4” tall polo player embroidered on the chest. Heritage and Ivy League aesthetics are in vogue for menswear where a Woolrich cable sweater, Harris Tweed duffle coat, Red Wing boots and horn-rimmed spectacles demonstrate dress distinction.

Sochi3Do you think consumers will be interested in purchasing the ensemble, especially in light of its high cost (cardigan retails for $598, turtleneck retails for $245 and fleece athletic pants retail for $165)?

For consumers of Ralph Lauren apparel, upper tier prices are anticipated in exchange for product quality and the American heritage and the affluent lifestyle signified. I’ve noticed that the cardigan and turtleneck are no longer available for online purchase, indicating strong demand, probably from Lauren enthusiasts, relatives of athletes and Olympic merchandise collectors.

There seems to be a renewed interest in products that are made in America. Has any apparel production returned to the U.S.?

Some companies have shifted to domestic sourcing for greater control of quality and development. However, a scant 2% of total apparel manufacturing occurs in the U.S. Ralph Lauren’s emotional narrative attached to the Olympic sweater traces its lifecycle from a ranch in Oregon to yarns in Pennsylvania concluding with dyeing in North Carolina and knitting in California. This account complements the sustainability initiatives and benchmarking being applied in the U.S. fashion industry.

The U.S. State Department has warned athletes not to wear their uniforms outside of designated Olympic venues. Do you think this will be a challenge for the athletes since their uniforms are a point of pride?

Sochi 4It definitely presents a conundrum for American athletes that are representing their nation through performance and attire. Historically, uniforms have a close link with military exhibition where pride of service, designation of rank and magnitude of war are conveyed. The regalia posits tradition, standardization and cohesiveness. Often, I’ve seen U.S. servicemen receiving an emotional applause or standing ovation as they pass through American airports. The caution regarding wearing conspicuous American uniforms transforms the contemporary motives of dress including display, attraction and identification, swaying athletes to attain protection by concealing and altering their clothing as physical and psychological defense.

What can we expect to be the fashion highlights of the Olympics?

I look forward to seeing multicolored, bold and overlapping patterns applied to technical performance outerwear and compression ski apparel. In the winter of 2014/15, this technology will filter to the consumer via mass-market brands like North Face, Patagonia and Columbia, providing improved breathability, lighter fabrications and diversity of print patterns. Also, we should see outrageous print combinations influenced by the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and African print techniques.

Members of the news media who are interested in speaking with Alphonso McClendon should contact Alex McKechnie at 215-895-2705 or