- Feb 5, 2006
Polo to Outfit U.S. Team
For the Beijing Olympics
By RACHEL DODES and STEPHANIE KANG
April 7, 2008; Page B1
Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. plans to announce Monday that it will be the official outfitter for the U.S. team at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Polo, which signed a contract with the U.S. Olympic Committee last week, replaces the Canadian apparel company Roots Ltd., which outfitted the U.S. team for the past three Olympic Games and was to continue through 2008. But the two parted ways in January after Roots presented the USOC with designs the committee deemed too informal.
The preppy styles Polo is making for the athletes to wear in the Opening and Closing ceremonies and in the Olympic Village will mark a departure from sporty outfits that the American team has worn in recent years, such as retro ski jackets inspired by vintage Ducati motorcycle ads that were worn in Turin, Italy, in 2006.
David Lauren, senior vice president of advertising, marketing and corporate communications at Polo Ralph Lauren, and the designer's son, says he is hoping the athletes' new look will help boost America's image internationally. An ad campaign, touting the brand as the "official outfitter of the U.S. Olympic team" will be unveiled this summer. The company has outfitted Olympians in the past, such as snowboarder Ross Powers in 2002, but it has never designed outfits for the entire team.
Polo's Olympics deal, which includes September's Beijing Paralympics, is the latest coup for the apparel maker, which is also the official outfitter of the U.S. Open and Wimbledon tennis tournaments. Under terms of the new agreement, Polo will provide apparel for around 1,500 American athletes to wear to the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as wardrobes for their off time in Olympic Village venues. The company wouldn't disclose the specific terms of the deal, but said it will cost "less than $10 million."
The Olympics deal is expected to translate into millions in sales of Olympics-branded products that will be carried at Polo boutiques in the U.S. and on the company's Web site starting in mid-July. The company is now negotiating with several U.S. department stores to carry the clothes and is working with officials to potentially set up shops in Beijing. About 10% of sales of the Olympics-branded Polo products will go to the USOC as royalty payments, according to people familiar with the contract.
The USOC and Polo both say they are hoping that the deal will be extended to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, in 2010, the Summer Olympics in London in 2012, and beyond.
Polo is betting that its association with the Olympics, one of the most widely viewed sporting events in the world, will enhance its brand image as it expands overseas. While around 69% of the brand's $5.5 billion in world-wide wholesale sales for the fiscal year 2007 were concentrated in the U.S., sales in the European market have more than doubled in the past five years.
Since Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg withdrew from his role as artistic adviser to the Beijing Olympic Games in February over concerns about China's connection to Sudan and the situation in the Darfur region, some executives have expressed concerns about risks in corporate sponsorships. However, David Lauren says he doesn't believe that Polo's support of the U.S. team will have any negative impact on the brand's image. "Right now our job is just to work on making America look great," Mr. Lauren says. "That's our mission."
Polo's sales in Asia are relatively small, but the Beijing Olympics could accelerate expansion plans in the region, he says.
Roots late last year had unveiled a "yoga-inspired, technical, green product" for the U.S. athletes to wear in Beijing, according to Roots Chief Executive Michael Budman. But Norman Bellingham, chief operating officer of the USOC and a former Olympic kayaker, says that he wanted the athletes to be attired in a "classic and more formal manner."
"They wanted blazers and slacks, a more formal look," Mr. Budman says. The two mutually agreed to terminate their contract.
Mr. Bellingham says he asked former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw to contact Ralph Lauren to see if Mr. Lauren might be interested in designing for the U.S. team. At a meeting at Polo's headquarters on Madison Avenue in New York, Mr. Bellingham told Mr. Lauren that his inspiration was "Chariots of Fire," the 1981 movie about British athletes competing in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Upon hearing that, Mr. Lauren smiled, Mr. Bellingham recalls. "He knew precisely what we were going for."
"We have to put America on a world stage that looks refined and appropriate," says David Lauren.
At the Olympic Village and at the Closing Ceremonies, athletes' wardrobes will include V-neck tennis sweaters and ties, classic Polo mesh shirts with "Beijing" written in big Chinese characters across the front and cargo pants -- all in a patriotic palette of red, white and blue. The Olympic logo featured on the new uniforms may include a replica of a crest with stars and stripes used by the 1932 U.S. Olympic team at the Los Angeles Games. Polo ponies of varying sizes will also make an appearance on the garments.
In keeping with Olympic tradition, the athletes' Opening Ceremonies attire won't be revealed until Aug. 8 -- the day of the Opening Ceremonies. The look for the Closing Ceremonies will be unveiled at a media summit in Chicago next week, where they will be modeled by Olympic athletes.
Roots scored the sponsorship deal after the USOC was impressed with the red "poor boy" hat, similar to a beret, that Roots had designed for the Canadian team in Nagano, Japan in 1998. Actor Robin Williams sported a Canadian cap at the Academy Awards, and Britain's Prince William was also photographed wearing one.
The fleece berets that Roots designed for the U.S. team, with an American flag embroidered on one side, caused a retail sensation in Salt Lake City in 2002 amid a groundswell of patriotism following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After beret-wearing athletes led the way into the Opening Ceremonies accompanied by New York police and firefighters "it set a frenzy for the product that was unprecedented in Olympic history," says Mr. Budman. Roots sold more than a million $19.95 hats and had to keep its flagship stores open 24 hours a day to accommodate demand.