Kelly McKeown has been in the business of Olympic gymnastic leotards for over 20 years: she cut her teeth leading up to the 1996 Atlanta Games when USA Gymnastics won gold for the very first time; and right now, she's in Rio de Janeiro cheering on Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman and the rest of the impressive 2016 team as they go for gold in the colorful, Swarovski-covered leotards she designed just for them. With USA Gymnastics coach Márta Károlyi's approval, of course.
In 2006, McKeown joined GK Elite, the world's largest gymnastics apparel company, where she is now the executive vice president of design and corporate relations. It's a multi-part business: GK Elite sells all kinds of competitive all-star cheerleading and gymnastics apparel, designs sideline cheerleading team uniforms in a licensing partnership with Under Armour, owns swimwear company Dolfin, has a licensing agreement with Cirque du Soleil and is about to launch a leotard collection with Disney. But perhaps most excitingly, the company designs and manufactures leotards and uniforms for the women's and men's Olympic gymnastics team in a triangulated partnership with Under Armour and USA Gymnastics. It is an eight-year agreement that is halfway through, and involves the design of leotards not just for the Olympic Games, but also for all major USA Gymnastics elite events including the World Championships.
I spoke with McKeown last week before she took off for Rio about the design process, how the technology of leotard design has changed throughout her career and how she and her team approach designing USA's leotards differently from those for other countries. (That's right: Dutch and Russian gymnastics are also officially outfitted by GK Elite.) Read on for our conversation.
How does the design process work for Olympic leotards? How long have you all been working on this?
That process really takes about two years— making sure we're on the same page with USA Gymnastics and with Under Armour and looking at some different options and then drilling it down into more of a direction with what resonates well with the athletes and with their leaders. Márta Károlyi, being in charge of the women's team, she's definitely the final decision maker when it comes to what the leotards should look like.
[Each gymnast will get] eight competitive leotards and 12 training leotards. There’s sometimes a lot more of a playful vibe when it comes to the training leotards, and a very regal chic.... We laugh because we call it a prom gown for competition. Because these girls, at that level, do not go to prom. They live in the gym and they forgo so many things that are normal to a teenager in school. They want to walk out onto that competition floor and feel beautiful and feel confident and so Márta Károlyi does an amazing job of making sure they have that elevated look, very chic and beautiful and very sparkly. We always have tons of crystals on the leotards.
What happens after the sketches are narrowed down?
I fly down to the Károlyi Ranch [the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center in Texas] throughout the years, several times, and have meetings when the team is there for their monthly training. After we get through the sketch section and decide on the ones we want to make into prototypes, we go through that process all over again. Then we finally sign off on the line and we produce and manufacture custom-fit leotards for each and every girl.
But the Olympic trials only just happened in early July. How do you turn those around so fast?
It’s very difficult. It is so intensive because some of the leotards have almost 5,000 crystals on them, like 4,995 crystals. There are some really heavily embellished designs. Months before Olympic trials, the top girls all get sized.
When we're looking at leotards, Márta will have different girls try on the same leotards, because she just wants to see if it's flattering on their bodies. She wants to see color-wise, because we have such a diverse mix of athletes, to see if it's good for everybody or if it's not good for everybody.
Getting the fit exactly right must be very important.
When you think about these girls — for the most part they are teenagers and a few of them are maybe 20, 21 — on the biggest stage of the world in our sport, on a field of play, cameras on every inch of your body, you can't have a wardrobe malfunction.
And there are some girls who are just so ripped in the shoulders, like Simone [Biles]. Because her back and her shoulders and her arms are so muscular, we have to compensate for that in that area because she has to be really comfortable when she's moving around. Engineering the custom fit is a very big part of what we do and our company does.
What are the biggest changes you've seen in the past 20 years?
The fabrics just keep getting more and more techy with the stretch and recovery. But we also have all the finishes of the foils and holograms and then embellishments — the sublimation technique, which is the printing process that we have a team of graphic designers here create. They use all of their techniques to create beautiful art that could not be used for cut and sew, like to do gradients and to do stars that are bold and fade away.
Do the team uniforms always need to red, white and/or blue?
Historically, they are a little bit more patriotic. We had some years when they had fashion colors in the mix, with pinks and purples and things, but I think people will be excited to cheer USA on this year and feel that they know what country they are coming from.
Can you give us any hints about what the competition leotards will look like?
I don’t know what they are going to wear for team and individual, nobody knows until the day of the event and they keep that top secret.
It's part of Márta and USA Gymnastics' ethos to have that be one of the "wow" factors when the girls walk out onto the floor. You are wowed by everything visual, from their performance to how they're going to present themselves.
GK Elite has also designed the leotards for the Russia and the Netherlands teams since 2000. How is that process different?
We have distributors in those countries but after the World Championships this year in Scotland, I flew from Scotland over to the Netherlands and met with the Dutch team and we started really getting serious about designs for this upcoming year. I've flown to Russia several times to work directly with the team. This past year I didn't; we handled everything through our distributor and via email and phone to get things finalized and pushed across the finish line there.
Have you noticed different aesthetic preferences in different countries?
The vibe is different from country to country, which makes our job a lot easier because what USA wants isn't what the other countries want, and vice versa.
[The Netherlands] flag and their country's colors are different so there's kind of a fun play on introducing red, white and blue with some orange, which is very unique. In our country, our flag color and our country's color are the same.
Does the color of the field of play impact your design process?
Completely, yes. The first thing that we need to know is, what is the color of the floor. One of the reasons that Márta loves the girls in pinks and reds and purples has been, historically, because not only do they look glamorous and beautiful, they highly contrast the royal blue mats that are on the floor. And those mats are a pretty standard color. In Rio, the floor color is a creamy white, but not a bright white, and it has a green border around it. And that's the first time in history that we've actually had that color combination. [The Rio mats] opened up a whole other world of, well, maybe blue is not a bad color, because it's going to highly contrast the white. So [blue] wasn't off the table anymore.
How do the Olympics impact GK Elite's business as a whole?
So many little kids get excited about the Olympics and start tumbling in their living room watching, and moms will sign them up for gymnastics classes at that entry level and beyond. It’s just perfect timing as enrollment spikes after the Olympics, we have that customer to cater to and it's a new and exciting look for us. Right after the Olympics, the replicas will be available for sale.
Actually Gabby, Ally and Simone — all three of those Olympians are GK's endorsed athletes. We have a contract with each of the three girls and we also have that with [2008 Olympic individual all-around champion] Nastia Liukin, who is commentating for Olympics gymnastics in Rio. They also have their own signature collection, so we work together and get the inspirations that they have in mind. We put together a collection for them and then they approve it. It has a co-branded signature on the actual leotard.
It sounds like you all are very close with these athletes and this team.
You get to become friends and feel like you're very invested with them. Back in the 2012 Olympics in London, I sat with Kyla Ross’s mom and she squeezed my hand as her daughter was out there on the floor. And it just makes you love that sport even more because you're feeling it from so many levels: from the athletes and the parents and us as a family. And then as a business. There are so many layers to it, that makes my heart so happy seeing it. There is so much passion in this sport.
This interview has been edited and condensed.