LONDON, United Kingdom — I’ve always loved the Olympics. Ever since the Winter Olympic Games in my hometown of Calgary back in 1988, I’ve been drawn to the sense of global togetherness and sportsmanship, the competition and personal rivalries, and especially the raw athleticism of the remarkable individuals who go for the gold, pursuing their dreams on a world-sized stage.
In the run up to the London Games, the British media seemed to churn out story after story on why the Olympics were destined to fail: the rainy weather which had dogged London all summer; the interminable delays in immigration at Heathrow airport, and of course, choking traffic congestion, made worse by a creaking public transport system and special ‘Games Lanes’ reserved for Olympics vehicles only. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Londoners skipped town.
But the traffic never materialised, immigration was smooth, and, for the most part, Mother Nature co-operated. Indeed, right from the first few minutes of the quirky, and quintessentially British, Opening Ceremony, those Londoners who stayed were hooked and all of that initial scepticism seemed to melt away.
More than anything else, the Olympics is about the athletes. And here in London, it was British competitors Mo Farah, Sir Chris Hoy, Nicola Adams, Jessica Ennis and Andy Murray – as well as their international counterparts, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt and 17-time Olympic champion Michael Phelps of the United States – who captured our hearts and provided the gripping narrative that drove wall-to-wall media coverage.
But part of what made these Olympics different was how digital technologies – and social media, in particular – fundamentally transformed the viewing experience, breaking down barriers between fans and athletes and enabling once passive spectators to not just watch, but also cheer on and interact with their favourite competitors on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Michael Phelps attracted an additional one million Twitter followers and 800,000 Facebook fans during the London Olympics, while Usain Bolt, whose Twitter profile describes him as “the most naturally gifted athlete the world has ever seen,” now has almost 1.6 million followers.
In terms of Olympic marketing, it was global sports giant Nike who took home the gold, despite the fact that the company wasn’t an official sponsor of the Games. Nobody could have missed the fluorescent yellow Nike Volt trainers, scientifically designed to attract consumer eyeballs, that were worn by over 400 athletes. “Of all the colours of the rainbow, the human eye and visual system is most sensitive to the yellow-green zone,” said a Nike spokesman. But it was Nike’s broader strategy of integrating into the event itself by enabling the athletes and thereby demonstrating the power of their product — not just talking about it — that deserves the closest study. “[It was] even about the way the athletes trained,” said Martin Lotti, creative director of the Olympics for the brand, which set up a sparkling media centre in the sprawling British Medical Association campus in Tavistock Square in Central London.
But what of British fashion’s role in these London Olympic Games?
Stella McCartney created the kit for Team GB. Tom Ford and Thom Sweeney dressed Daniel Craig and David Beckham, respectively, in tuxedos for their James Bond cameos in the Opening Ceremony. Emerging designers Nasir Mazhar, Christopher Shannon and Michael van der Ham made costumes worn by dancers in another segment of the opening show. And yes, the Olympic flagbearers wore outfits designed by Palmer Harding and Richard James. But most of this was lost on the general Olympic-watching public for whom British fashion was largely absent.… until the Closing Ceremony.
Along with appearances from more than thirty artists from the past 50 years of British pop music, a gaggle of British supermodels, including Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and David Gandy, the famous face of Dolce & Gabbana’s Blue fragrance, appeared in a brief segment showcasing British fashion brands including Alexander McQueen, Burberry, Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders, Erdem, Paul Smith, Victoria Beckham and Vivienne Westwood. To the soundtrack of ‘Fashion’ by David Bowie, who reportedly declined to participate in the event, huge trailers rolled onto the Olympic stadium track, covered in giant billboard-sized fashion images shot by Nick Knight for the pages of British Vogue’s September issue, which then dropped to reveal the models themselves, who strutted their way to the centre of the massive set, and then promptly turned around and walked off.
“What was that about?” asked my seatmate. I shrugged my shoulders. Ostensibly, the intention was to show the inextricable links between British fashion and music. But while it may have made for powerful imagery in the pages of Vogue, on the global stage of the Olympic stadium, it simply wasn’t impactful.
“The segment seemed to be stuck in a generic timewarped view of fashion that didn’t seem to connect with what’s actually going on in fashion today,” wrote Susie Bubble. “Oh, strutty models. Oh, strike a fierce pose at end of catwalk. Oh, credits read out loud in manner of a catwalk show at The Clothes Show at NEC Birmingham.”
The clothing itself was stunning and there were name checks for all of the designers involved, which certainly amounts to some well-deserved publicity for British fashion. But this was surely a missed opportunity to make an indelible and truly modern statement about the role of fashion in global culture and the walk-up-and-down, catwalk-like presentation was just not enough. Indeed, if fashion is going to communicate on a global stage this size, this format needs a rethink. Perhaps the organizers would have done well to study Burberry World Live, an immersive media experience the brand launched in Taipei earlier this year.
Ultimately, I agree with Hadley Freeman who wrote in The Guardian: “Seeing models strut in six-inch heels looked a little less impressive after a fortnight of watching extraordinary athletic feats, not least because those who performed them had to stand on the sidelines and watch some women walk about in clothes.”
Will anyone remember the fashion segment 20 years from now? Not likely. But we will always remember the athletes. Or maybe, I’m just a sucker for the Olympics.
Imran Amed is founder and editor-in-chief of The Business of Fashion
Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 21 August, 2012. An earlier version of this article failed to mention that Nasir Mazhar, Christopher Shannon and Michael van der Ham made costumes for a section of the Opening Ceremony, while the Olympic flagbearers wore Palmer Harding and Richard James.