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The North Face designed the first Olympic climb uniforms for the US, Austrian, South Korean, and Japanese teams, a two-year process, which turned into three thanks to the COVID pandemic.
Designing the Olympic climbing uniforms was a matter of understanding what climbing is all about. Climbers need freedom of movement to be able to experiment with different methods: to stretch different ways, reach, jump, balance and spring in those dynamic moves, and to stick to the wall in those static ones. It’s also an exploration of movement creativity, because each climber, being built differently, might successfully flash a route in a different way.
The North Face product manager Laura Akita describes the design process as a puzzle: “Every time we make a product, we’re trying to get all the pieces to fit, and sometimes you’re going through a pile of square pieces trying to find a round one. Sometimes it takes forever, sometimes it’s really easy.”
Each of the four Olympic Climb teams for which The North Face designed uniforms has four different athletes – two men and two women. So that’s 16 different athletes that needed three different uniforms, one for each event – bouldering, speed climbing, and lead climbing. “[In speed climbing] you’re basically running up the wall, but just putting your hands down every now and again,” says Laura, “and then bouldering you have those huge dynamic movements, and then [lead] climbing is all the things in between.”
Women’s and men’s uniforms are slightly different, but beyond that, the four different teams have the same design for each event. But even though they all have the same design, each uniform is uniquely fitted to the athlete to enable that athlete to use their own special techniques to get up the wall. So how did they enable the ideal freedom of movement when one athlete might reach where another might leap?
The design of these uniforms was, as Laura describes it, an exploration of efficiency and movement. The goal? Maximize mobility. And they began the process by using a new technology in clothing design: 4-dimensional scanners. Now you might be wondering, 4 dimensions? What’s the fourth? Space-time? And the answer is, well, yes. They put athletes into the 4D scanners and tracked their movements while they mimed climbing (over space and time) to map how they extended their arms for a hold, how they moved their bodies when they were speed climbing, lead climbing, or bouldering, and how their climbing biomechanics worked – i.e., muscle movements. Then they took those 4D movement maps, and their knowledge that Japan would be a hot and humid environment, and started looking for the ideal material. They needed a light and breathable material that was durable so they could create seams that wouldn’t get in the way, and a material that wasn’t see-through (especially for the leggings!). “With the tight material in particular, we went through several rounds of working with the mill to get that fabric dialed in. Because …we got somebody up on the wall and the designers looked at each other like…wait, can I see…what color underwear are you wearing? OK, back to the drawing board on that one!”
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One of the biggest challenges during prototyping was working with US athlete Colin Duffy, 17, who is still growing. “We’re trying to dial in measurements for all of these uniforms to the athletes’ exact measurements. And we got around to protos, and a month or so, maybe two, will go by between proto rounds. And he gets his next set of stuff, and we’re doing our feedback session with him…and his mom,…she’s like, ‘Yeah, he hasn’t been able to wear them because they’re too small… he’s grown a few inches since the last time…and he’s probably going to keep growing until the games,’ and we were like, oh dear, how are we going to account for this? Because there’s going to be some months that pass between our final proto round and final measurement adjustments and when he has to compete. And we were like, it was a collective moment of, holy crap, what is going to happen? Is he going to get to Tokyo and just be busting out of his uniform? So that was a fun challenge that I don’t expect we’ll come across in other projects.” Their solution? They’re building a little bit of extra ease for him into his final kit, and they’ll keep some extra yardage on hand, just in case.
Beyond these challenges and explorations, the design team is very excited to play a part in the first climbing Olympics. “Getting to be a part of these uniforms for this sport, it’s an honor.”