Inside the design of intricate, crystal-patterned U.S. Olympic gymnastics team leotards

The day after hearing their names called as members of the 2024 U.S. gymnastics team in front of a sold-out crowd in Minneapolis’ Target Center, Simone Biles, Suni Lee, Jordan Chiles, Jade Carey and Hezly Rivera assembled on an NBC stage in front of an exclusive audience. Each gymnast received a red box labeled with a gold plate that read “made exclusively for” with their name. On three, each gymnast opened their box.

A sparkling, star-spangled leotard glittered inside.

“They were in awe,” said Jeanne Diaz, the design mastermind behind the U.S. Olympic leotards.

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Simone Biles, Suni Lee and Jordan Chiles show off some of the U.S. team’s leotards for the Paris Olympics. (GK Elite Sportswear)

While trying to recapture team gold in Paris, the Americans will wear an eight-piece leotard collection that aims to take the Olympic leotard to new heights of both fashion and function. Don’t let the crystals — up to 10,000 on one — be a distraction. These bedazzled bodysuits are just as tough as the athletes who wear them.

“We are charged to create this beautiful intersection of fashion and sport and the Team USA leotard represents that at its pinnacle,” GK Elite CEO Matt Cowan said. “But ultimately they’re there to perform. They’re there to win gold medals.”

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U.S. gymnasts show off some of their custom leotard options for the Paris Olympics. (GK Elite Sportswear)

Diaz’s Olympic process starts two years before the Games. The GK Elite gymnastics design director started planning in August 2022, compiling a mood board for a theme that could unify the collection. The Olympic host city provided a perfect muse.

Paris — one of the fashion capitals of the world and the city of light — is reflected in a pearl-studded white leotard inspired by couture runway gowns, the delicate art nouveau embellishments that loop and curve across an ombre bodice, and an Eiffel Tower-inspired crystal pattern that looks like a firework bursting in the sky.

But the leotard slated for the team final is Diaz’s favorite.

One sleeve is decorated with crystal stars on a blue background as red and silver crystals cut diagonally across a white body. The design evokes an athlete wrapped in an American flag.

“We want to make sure that when spectators, when viewers at home are watching the Games, they know exactly who Team USA is without seeing the USA on the hip of their leotards,” Diaz said.

The same way athletes continuously upgrade skills and push the boundaries of the sport, GK Elite, which manufactured the U.S. Olympic leotards under deals with Adidas and Under Armour before finally putting its logo on the Olympic garment for the first time in Tokyo, always feels pressure to one-up itself. The Paris Olympics collection supercharged the classic solid red U.S. leotard with an innovative stretch satin more commonly used in high fashion designs. It’s the first time GK Elite has brought the fabric’s unique shine to a leotard, Diaz said.

Each athlete will receive eight competition leotards that have a combined 47,102 crystals. Thousands of the jewels are hand-glued by workers in the company’s Reading, Pa., factory. The white leotard adds 970 pearls, a new twist on the usual leotard embellishment. Each garment’s retail price would be pushing $5,000, Cowan said.

The number of crystals on each leotard seems to increase exponentially with each Olympic cycle, but Diaz believes they may truly be approaching the limit. While gymnasts never turn down more bling, Diaz never forgets the mission of function. Designers wouldn’t put crystals near the leg line or under the arms where they could be uncomfortable during competition.

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A close look at details on the U.S. gymnastic team’s Paris Olympics leotards. (GK Elite Sportswear)

“I want them to feel extremely confident, beautiful, powerful,” Diaz said. “I don’t want them to have to worry about their leotard. I want them to feel so confident in what they’re wearing, not only the aesthetics of what they’re wearing, but also the function of what they’re wearing, that they can really focus on their performance.”

All fabrics used by GK Elite must pass a rigorous four-way stretch test, Diaz said, to ensure they can keep up as gymnasts contort their bodies into a tornado of flips and twists. Making sure the leg line stays in place during competition is also necessary because gymnasts can get marked for deductions for pulling on their leotards.

Advancements in fabric technology allowed the leotard to graduate from an ill-fitting one-piece to today’s highly contoured garments. Simple leotard designs started getting bolder in the 1980s after Mary Lou Retton became the first American woman to win Olympic all-around gold in a white leotard with red stripes running down one sleeve and white stars on a blue background cutting diagonally across her torso. The 1996 Magnificent Seven’s blue sleeve with stars with red and white stripes on the other arm remains an iconic design that inspired GK’s ideas for Rio, Tokyo and Paris.

Women’s gymnastics reigns as one of the most popular and commercially influential Olympic sports. The leotard helps lift star gymnasts into the mainstream. Gold medalists Biles and Lee walked at the Met Gala months after the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Former UCLA gymnast Nia Dennis, who went viral earlier that year for her Black excellence floor routine, turned her star power into the opening position at the Met. Her blue unitard designed by Stella McCartney wasn’t just a fashion statement. It held up during Dennis’ acrobatic tumbling performance on the Met steps.

“It goes back to the ‘look good, feel good’ mentality,” Dennis said. “When that leotard comes on, it’s showtime.”

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UCLA’s Nia Dennis competes on the floor at Pauley Pavillion during the 2021 season.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Gymnasts can also use their uniforms to send a message. UCLA, one of the nation’s most popular college gymnastics programs, debuted a black and gold “Black excellence” leotard in 2021. The German women’s Olympic team wore full-length unitards at the European championships in 2021 and during the Tokyo Olympics to push back against the sexualization of girls and women in the sport.

While U.S. gymnasts have not expressed an interest in shifting to full-length bodysuits for competition, GK Elite would be ready to provide a design.

“Ultimately we have to provide whatever the athlete asks for,” Cowan said. “The athletes are first and foremost.”

The designs for the Paris Olympics were the first to incorporate feedback from a survey sent out to all national team members. The questionnaire asked athletes about preferences for necklines, fabrics and colors. Through working with many top athletes — including Olympic team members Biles, Lee, Chiles and Carey, who have leotard partnerships with GK — Diaz already has a sense of what gymnasts want, but the survey results confirmed her ideas.

Athletes wanted all patriotic colors and were open to all sorts of necklines: scoop, high or V. All are represented in the eight-piece collection, and gymnasts can choose which ones they want to wear for individual event competition. The athletes were open to a variety of fabrics, including velvet, a more “throwback” fabric, said Erica Schnebel, GK Elite’s director of marketing. The design team took the feedback and helped modernize the vintage fabric by using it for details in a black leotard across the collar and around the waist.

The final designs were all approved by USA Gymnastics last year before production, which turns Diaz’s original drawings into the one-of-a-kind creations on the floor. Under the arena lights, the thousands of crystals catch the light like a turning disco ball.

The only things that sparkle brighter could be the medals on the podium.

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