Made in America: Outfitting Olympic Gymnasts
From dazzling sequins embedded over bold colors to nude bodysuits embellished with crystals, the leotards worn by gymnasts during the Olympics are almost as fascinating as the Olympians that wear them. The garments have to be comfortable and flexible, while accentuating the movements of the athletes.
While you might assume these complex designs come from a French fashion house or a haute couture designer, a majority of these leotards are actually made by a 30-year-old apparel company based in Reading, Pennsylvania.
GK Elite Sportswear has designed and manufactured the leotards for the world's top Olympic gymnasts for two decades. For the London Games at the end of the month, GK Elite produced uniforms for nine teams, including Russia, Britain, Greece, and, of course, Team U.S.A. "Gymnastics is one of the most watched sports during the Olympics," says CEO Dan Casciano. "It always surprises people that a good number of those teams' leotards are made right here in the U.S.A."
The Best Kind of Marketing
It all began in 1989, when the then-8-year-old company inked its first deal with the U.S.A Gymnastics, the sport's governing body, to supply the American national team with leotards. This led to the company's debut Olympic leotards at the Barcelona Games in 1992, and soon other national teams approached GK Elite for leotards. By 2000, GK Elite was supplying dozens of countries with women and men's leotards, and it also became the sole manufacturer of all adidas-branded national team gymnastics apparel.
Behind the scenes, the company spends years (yes, years) developing, designing, and manufacturing these high-profile uniforms.
The process typically requires collaboration with coaches on everything from shape to color, 12 designers to ink prototypes, and then multiple fittings that usually require some of GK's design team to travel to opposite ends of the globe. There's one small catch though--most countries don't know which athletes will compete in the Olympics until a few weeks before the event. This means GK has a flurry of final fittings at the very last minute.
The teams pay top dollar for this type of customization: Kelly McKeown, the company's EVP of Design, says just one Olympic leotard can cost about $1,200 to make, which is "several times" the average cost of a gymnastic leotard, and the company makes over 1,000 of them. One athlete can have as many as 20 leotards for the Olympics, each worn for different competitions. McKeown says the cost comes mostly from materials and embellishments, like Swarovski crystals (the company says it used a staggering 19.5 million last year, for example).
From left, leotards designed by gymnasts Shannon Miller, Svetlana Boguinskaia, and Carly Patterson (on models).
"There's a lot of pressure to get these uniforms perfect. Just think about how much gymnasts move. They have to do flips and have cameras filming them up close, so everything has to be in place."
Surprisingly, the Olympic leotards only account for a small portion of GK Elite's overall annual revenue, according to Casciano. The company gets most of its revenue from direct to consumer sales of gymnastics, dance and cheerleading apparel. But the summer Olympic Games are still a seasonal boon for the company--a stage to show off its brand and signature product to the world.
Running a Seasonal Business
This kind of seasonality can be challenging--especially when the core business is also seasonal.
"In addition to the Olympics cycle, gymnastics as a sport is seasonal. We see more business in the fall and less in the summer," says Casciano. "So dealing with that fluctuation is certainly not easy."
To prepare for this onslaught of high-pressure, high-skilled, quick-turnaround production, GK hires a slew of administrative and production temps. "At our peak busiest times, we probably have ballpark 400 employees." In off-peak seasons, the employee count can go as low as 300.
"In the competitive season, we do more custom fit and custom orders," says EVP Carter Cheskey. "There's a much higher skill level involved in those collections and in creating those garments." The company, which operates out of a 150,000-square-foot facility, typically hires administrative and production temps to help their permanent workers focus on the higher-priority tasks.
The company's ability to manage this ebb and flow of business, while crafting dependable and beautiful sportswear has earned it several key relationships. Beside being worn by top Olympic gymnasts, GK Elite's garments are also sold around the world via its own website and smaller retailers. Earlier this year, the company launched a celebrity gymnast designed collection called Legends. It includes designs from the sport's most famous athletes like Shannon Miller.
"Most of these gymnasts wear leotards more than they wear jeans," says McKeown. "These athletes have great intuition about design and fit, whether its for the Olympics or for the designer line, the process always begins and ends with how these athletes feel about what they are wearing."