At the Olympics, Liberians wear cool looks

By Vanessa Friedman

the Olympic Games are several things: a mythical sporting event, an emotional outlet, a tool of soft politics. And, of course, a huge branding and marketing opportunity.

According to estimates by the International Olympic Committee, more than half of the world’s population watched the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in one way or another: there were 356,924 hours of coverage on 584 channels. television and 270 digital platforms. That’s a lot of consumers’ eyeballs. No wonder brands like Airbnb, Coca-Cola and Intel are willing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to be official sponsors.

Each country also has sponsors and these often include fashion brands: designers and the sports brands that dress Olympians for their big public moments, then sell versions of those clothes to anyone who wants to embrace the idea, however romantic, that they too can achieve little sporting success.

Historically, the countries with the best and most buzzed looks are also the countries with the most famous fashion industries: Italy (where Armani has been creating the opening ceremony looks since 2012), France (Lacoste since 2012). 2016), Great Britain (Ben Sherman, after Stella McCartney between 2012-16) and the United States (Ralph Lauren since 2008). Designers use the relationship to polish their patriotic credentials and suggest the breadth of a national talent pool; teams use it to raise the profile and confidence of their athletes.

Yet risk-taking tends to be left to sporting exploits; official Olympian cupboards are often very traditional, even boring; they generally look like the kind of outfit a golf professional might wear at a fantastic country club. They are rarely “cool” – and rarely available for smaller countries with less promotional force.

But this year, Liberia changed that narrative.

Liberia, a country in West Africa with a population of around 5 million, is one of the poorest in the world. Yet he has fielded a summer Olympic team almost every year since 1956. He has never won an Olympic medal, however, and had to seek sponsorship before almost every Games.

Until now. This is where Telfar Clemens comes in.

Clemens is a Liberian American designer who founded his own company in 2004 with the motto “Not for you, for everyone”. He was creating deconstructed unisex basics intended for subcultures long rejected or neglected by the fashion world established long before diversity was an imperative and gender fluidity a movement, and has always been more interested in building fashion. a modern community than by the status quo. His popular handbags, called “the Bushwick Birkin”, have become passports to this new world.

Even before arriving in Tokyo, the Liberian Olympic team was already winning. How did they get to the top? Ask designer Telfar Clemens. (Valerio Mezzanotti / The New York Times)

In fact, it was the handbags that caught the attention of Emmanuel Matadi, a sprinter who has been part of the Liberian Olympic team since 2016. His girlfriend followed the Telfar de Clemens brand on Instagram, and once As Matadi realized that there was an increasingly famous designer who was actually Liberian, he suggested to Kouty Mawenh, Liberia’s Olympic attache, to see if Clemens, whose design studio is in Brooklyn, might be interested in working with them.

Mawenh had represented Liberia at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, and he made it his mission to try and strengthen the team. But it’s hard to persuade athletes to run for a country that isn’t really able to support them by creating the kind of eye-catching moments that can lead to wider recognition and success – and it’s hard to interest sponsors if the team itself does not. no famous athletes already entered.

Liberia, which fielded three athletes in the Tokyo Olympics – Joseph Fahnbulleh, the NCAA 200-meter champion; Matadi, currently ranked 23rd in the world in the 200 and 25th in the 100; and hurdler Ebony Morrison – hadn’t had an official sponsor since 2000, when New Balance pulled out. Instead, if an athlete qualifies for the Olympics, a brand can help with shoes here or a jersey there.

Mawenh agreed that Telfar might be able to help, so they got in touch via an email – which Clemens received on a trip back to Liberia for the first time since the age of 5. He, his parents and his four brothers had emigrated to Liberia. United States in 1990 during the Liberian Civil War.

“I had been talking about going there for so long, and I was finally here, and it was mind blowing,” said Clemens. “And then it happened.”

Mawenh said: “As soon as I heard he was Liberian, I felt he was my brother.”

As it happened, Clemens and his business partner and creative director, Babak Radboy, had been thinking of expanding into sportswear, although they had come a long way, with a very specific definition of ‘performance’. It was the perfect opportunity. They agreed to equip the whole team, to pay for their travel and their meals. It’s the biggest investment the company has ever made, but it was worth it because for Clemens and the Liberian team it was more than a mutually beneficial marketing exercise.

“It’s important to me on a number of levels,” said Clemens. It turned out that one of the runners was a distant cousin, and the team doctor was a childhood friend of one of his older brothers. His story is their story.

They were so interconnected that he was invited to travel to Tokyo with the team, a pretty much new addition to the delegation. But for them, he was also an athlete.

In just four months, Telfar manufactured around 70 parts, working remotely with factories in China, Portugal, Vietnam and Italy. The clothes are the designer’s signature pieces, filtered through a prism of the questions asked by Clemens: “What is Liberian fashion? It’s not just about putting a kente print on a tank top. What does nationality even mean? “

Walking around Liberia, Clemens said: “I realized that the clothes where I come from and the clothes I make are already the same thing. According to Ayodeji Olukoju’s book “Culture and Customs of Liberia,” many young people in the country wear second-hand clothes from the Western world, and Clemens said from his visit that this has not changed. The off-center proportions and customizations find an echo in his own work.

Olympic pieces are designed to be worn by both men and women. This is for example the “three-hole top” of the opening ceremony: a silk and fishnet basketball jersey that has become a royal tunic, stretched to touch the knees or even the ankles, and placed on each shoulder, like one evening. . dress, worn with shorts that have been transformed into matching wide leg palazzo pants. Then there is the ‘demi-tank’, a tank top whose straps are suggestively pulled to one side to create an asymmetrical line off the shoulders, which has been incorporated into a unitary compression top and running. , and the “what!” »Shorts, which are essentially compression shorts.

Performance gear works like performance gear – it contains what needs to be held and streamlines what needs to be aerodynamic – but it challenges you to look away.

Like their bags and clothes, each item will be dropped on Telfar’s platforms during the Games, but will not be available in any other point of sale. And they will be “evergreen,” Clemens said. “These are clothes that we want to sell for the rest of our lives.” His goal is to win on par with Nike and Reebok: in the same space, but different.

Even though Mawenh had given him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, Clemens was unsure of the athletes’ reaction. (“They’re unlike anything out there,” Clemens said of his pieces. “I want to open up the conversation about what sport, competition and performance really mean.”) Athletes had their first overview of the new equipment. weekend before flying to the Games, when Clemens hosted a fitting and dinner in New York (his aunt cooked Liberian dishes). It was a test that turned into a kind of psychological pre-Games party.

Aside from a few basic changes – “We didn’t see the thighs coming,” Radboy said of the riders’ muscular legs and the need to adjust the dimensions to match – the team was grooving with it. what they saw.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Matadi. “At first I thought, ‘Sounds a little crazy. When he tried the collection, however, he decided it was exactly what he and the rest of the team needed. “We will definitely talk about it,” he said.

When Fahnbulleh first saw the “three-hole pants” – pants that look like sweat shorts and are single-stitched at the front and back of the mid-thigh to cover the waistband. lower legs and playing cuckoo on the sides – he said, “I ‘I’ll never wear that.

Clemens replied, “How do you know what you’re going to wear if you’ve never worn them?” “

Fahnbulleh agreed to test them. So he wouldn’t take them off. “It’s forward-looking,” Mawenh said.

He did a bit of that himself, walking, as a designer, with Liberia at the opening ceremony – the equivalent of the biggest fashion show he has ever put on. His family in Liberia and the United States was watching.

Matadi said for the first time that he felt like the Liberian team got what the American team and the Canadian team had always naturally had. The Olympic kit designed by Telfar gives them “a psychological boost: if you feel good, you are performing,” he said.

Not having had this boost before, added Matadi, this is particularly significant. “We are really proud,” he said.

Mawenh said, “We’ve always had elite athletes, but they never felt important. Now they feel important. Even beyond that, he added, he believes Telfar clothing will have wider national and international repercussions.

“I want people to see this and say, ‘Oh, this is Liberia,’” Mawenh said. “To identify with it, even after the Games are over, it’s not just about war. For too long, he said, the Liberian narrative has been linked to the past: the civil war and its aftermath. But, he said, “War is not what Liberia is anymore. My goal in all of this is to change perception.

(This article originally appeared in The New York Times.)

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