When the American Olympic team rolls into PyeongChang for this year’s Winter Olympic games, they’re not going to be cold. The team’s opening and closing ceremony uniforms, designed by Ralph Lauren, nod to iconic symbols of American fashion—jeans, wool sweater, mountaineering boots, and brown suede explorer gloves—while prioritizing warmth in the chilly South Korean winter. There’s also another high-tech advantage: As part of the uniform, Ralph Lauren designed a parka and a bomber jacket that each use a heat-conducting ink to generate warmth like an electric blanket.
“We’re looking back and celebrating what’s iconic and symbolic of America, and merging that with where we’re headed,” says David Lauren, the company’s chief innovation officer and son of the designer who founded the brand. The uniform, he says, represents American frontiers: “the frontiers of the 1800s and 1900s, between the jeans and the gloves, and then the frontier of today, which is technology.”
Lauren says the top priority in designing the uniform was keeping the athletes warm, as temperatures in South Korea are expected to hover around 15 degrees Fahrenheit. But designers hesitated to create gear for a specific temperature range. What if South Korea experienced a cold snap and the Olympians’ jackets weren’t warm enough? What if temperatures turned out to be warmer than predicted, or the athletes were packed into a stuffy backstage before the ceremony? Would the athletes sweat through their jackets, or end up taking them off? “We looked at different kinds of fabrics,” Lauren says, “and then we were like, ‘Why don’t we use technology?’”
The heated jacket works almost like an electric blanket—except instead of wires or coils sewn into the fabric, the heat comes through a special type of carbon and silver ink bonded to the jacket lining. (In true patriotic fashion, Ralph Lauren applied the ink in the shape of an American flag.) The ink conducts heat in the same way a wire would, and connects to a small battery pack sewn into the garment. When fully charged, the jacket itself stores up to 11 hours of heating time.
Athletes can adjust the temperature up or down through a smartphone app; designers stress-tested the jacket inside of meat lockers to ensure that, on the highest setting, it could withstand temperatures as cold as 20 below zero.
For years now, Ralph Lauren has looked toward technology to improve and refresh its clothing, experimenting with solar-powered backpacks, athletic shirts with built-in activity trackers, and button-downs woven with conductive threads. During the 2016 Summer Olympics, Ralph Lauren created a blazer with electroluminescent panels for torch-bearer Michael Phelps, and debuted a new type of “smart shirt” for the 2014 US Open.
While the new heat-conductive jacket is specifically designed for the US Olympic Team, Lauren says the piece foreshadows designs to come from the brand in the coming year. “Our hope is that we’ll learn enough that we’ll be able to go into production with a different, limited edition jacket for this fall,” he says. That jacket, and future designs from the brand, will use the same type of conductive ink to add extra heat. If it’s good enough to keep ski racers, curlers, and speed skaters warm, Lauren hopes it’ll be good enough for the American public too.
See how Levi’s and Google teamed up to make the jean jacket of the future.
The story of how Gore-Tex was invented by accident.
To get an early look at next year’s ski gear, head to Portillo, Chile.
What do you get when you combine skiing and horseback riding? You get skijoring.
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