Why Olympic Gymnasts Are Inspired by Designers and the Met Gala

As Simone Biles, Suni Lee and Jordan Chiles compete at this weekend’s national championships, they will be sprinting, vaulting, twisting and landing in GK Elite leotards.

They and their rivals will have a lot on the line at the Dickies Center in Fort Worth, Texas, since the 2024 Xfinity U.S. Gymnastics Championships are the last stop before the Olympic Trials. Once the U.S. team is finalized, they will all wear plenty of the sportswear-maker’s leotards at the Paris Games.

More from WWD

GK’s design director Jeanne Diaz knows better than anyone how much consideration, preparation and development goes into each high-performance look. Through an ongoing deal, USA Gymnastics uses GK Elite, a brand of Elite Sportswear, as its exclusive provider of competition and training attire for its national team athletes. Functionality is key, given how many rotations can be happening in the air at any moment such as Biles’ “triple double” in the floor exercise that is a maneuver that involves three flips and two twists. “She doesn’t want to be thinking about her leotard and whether that is staying put — or not,” Diaz said. “She can leave that to us — the experts. And she does. The garment has to perform and function, and it does.”

During an interview on Wednesday, Diaz, a 14-year company veteran and former recreational gymnast said the sport has always been her passion (outside of her job) and is her favorite one to watch. The 43-year-old company will outfit 35 of the women artistic gymnasts in Fort Worth. Although she won’t be at this weekend’s nationals, she will make the trip to the Olympic Trials at the Target Center in Minneapolis. GK Elite first inked a licensing team with the U.S. national gymnastics team in 2000. With each elite athlete representing their respective home clubs at this weekend’s competition in Fort Worth, they will not be suited up in patriotic, U.S. designs, Diaz said.

Gymnastics is among the most-watched Olympic sport, and the sport usually gets a boost in participants in a post-Olympic year. Last year’s national championships attracted 2.7 million viewers on NBC, due partially to the return of Biles and what turned out to be her eighth national title. As of 2023, there were 4.8 million U.S. gymnasts — age six or older — compared to 4.6 million in 2022.

Biles, Lee and Chiles will be wearing custom looks from the label to compete, but fans can buy replica leotards from the Reading, Pa.-based brand. Gabby Douglas also had a custom club leotard, but she withdrew from the nationals Wednesday. Deciding on and developing the leotards takes three to four months of coordinating with the gymnasts, with “first and foremost design being the number-one topic,” Diaz said.

Key colors are also discussed for specific events and in general, some athletes are very opinionated — “in a good way” — about what they want and what they want to be inspired by,” Diaz said. Chiles, for example, was specific about wanting at least one of her leotards to be inspired by one of Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” tour costumes. With a variety of colors, vibrancy and different elements, that design is not the usual leotard.

“Our athletes don’t necessarily always tell us, ‘Hey, I want you to be inspired by Louis Vuitton or any specific designer.’ They will just send us images of things that they like and they see as inspiration. They haven’t been that specific for this go-round,” Diaz said. “But in general, they will send us images from the Met Gala or red carpet events from time to time.”

Moreover, Elite Sportswear’s in-house design team is inspired by fashion and that can come from anywhere, according to Diaz. Elie Saab and Chanel are among the ones that the team looks at to translate high fashion elements for gymnastics. The company created a leotard for Biles that has a quilted crisscross pattern on the bodice that is reminiscent of a Chanel handbag.

As the leader in gymnastics performance wear, Elite Sportswear focuses on function, knowing that every product must hold up so that athletes can perform their routines without thinking about their leotards, Diaz said. That has helped the label be known for having leg lines that don’t ride up, overexpose a gymnast or make them feel uncomfortable, she said.

Lee, on the other hand, knew before this month’s classics event that she wanted a hunter green style that was more subdued. Biles, whom Diaz and other staffers have worked with for years, “really trusts that our design team is going to come up with something that is not only beautiful, but that is unique to her. And it will be something that will make her shine that much brighter,” Diaz said, adding that there is always a back-and-forth exchange.

Ahead of the national showdown, there were some color tweaks to be made for some of the GK Elite-sponsored athletes. Biles, for example, has chosen a leotard in a dusty nude and brown for the second day of this weekend’s competition. “We really pride ourselves in putting our whole passion and heart into each athlete to make sure they really feel special, because they are special to us in their own way,” Diaz said.

After major competitions like the Olympics, the Pennsylvania company sees increased interest, which can translate to sales for replica product sales. In addition, historically, interest and participation in gymnastics also gets a bump following the Olympics. That, of course, results in more leotards being sold, Diaz said.

Best of WWD