2 Years and 10,000 Swarovski Crystals: Inside the Making of This Year’s Olympic Leotards

Designing an Olympics leotard is similar to the craftsmanship behind a haute couture piece: There are mood boards, hand appliqués, and lots of trial and error. The biggest difference? Runway looks don’t also need to allow the wearer to tumble, twist, and fling their bodies high into the air off a spring vault. “There’s a real couture element to this,” says GK Elite lead designer Jeanne Diaz, who worked on the leotards for this year’s Paris Games. “But ultimately it is a performance garment.”

As the Olympics approach, American gymnasts are favored to sweep every single women’s event, as they have consistently done for decades. Still, there’s a lot of pressure riding on Team USA to keep up their hot streak. That means their gear also needs to be in tip-top shape. Two years ago, Diaz and four other designers put their heads down and got to work in the lab creating leotards befitting the best. “This is the world’s biggest stage, and gymnastics is one of, if not the, most watched Olympic sport,” she says. “We put a lot of care and dedication into this.”

blue leotard with crystals

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Back in 2022, Diaz and her team began sketching out digital illustrations. But before bringing those ideas to life, they polled a group of the country’s top-ranked gymnasts to see what they wanted in an Olympics leotard. The responses were varied when it came to fabric types and neck lines, but everyone was united on one front: “The more sparkle, the better,” Diaz says. Message received. One design incorporates 10,000 Swarovski crystals, while another features a brand-new type of redstretch satin that creates a shimmer effect. “It’s really exciting,” says Diaz, a graduate of Cornell University’s fashion design program. “We have all this texture play going on and shine contrast.”

The next step was to create mood boards, which were presented for approval to USA Gymnastics, the governing body for the sport. The first was titled “American Woman,” and it contained “Vintage, edgy imagery from the ‘80s,” Diaz says. The second board, “Opulent Femininity,” featured snaps from Balmain runway shows, Art Nouveau buildings, and portraits of actresses from the 1920s wearing French couture gowns, draped in soft marabou feathers. “Chic, Shimmer, and Shine,” the third board, centered on the color red and an “exclusive fabric that were only using for this Olympics,” Diaz says.

a woman wearing a black and red garment with a white and red logo

ROBERT J POLETT

a close up of a red and white checkered surface

ROBERT J POLETT

The result is a collection of eight new leotards, three of which invoke Americana design elements with stars and stripes. The other five styles pay homage to Paris, which Diaz says “lends itself to being used as inspiration.” Each of the five female gymnasts—Simone Biles, Suni Lee, Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles, and Hezly Rivera—competing in the Olympics will receive all eight leotards, which will be worn at events and public appearances. The gymnasts are all required to wear matching leotards for podium training, qualifications, and the team final, but can choose their favorite for each individual event.

Because Diaz started designing so far in advance, the leotards aren’t specifically tailored to each individual competitor. “But in terms of the fit, we manufacture to specifications of the national team athletes who are most likely to make the Olympic team,” she says. “We make more leotards than are needed, so that everybody who could possibly make the team has a leotard in their size.”

a person holding a red and white checkered flag

ROBERT J POLETT

The design and fits don’t change from event to event, but Diaz does stay away from using style lines that might draw attention to flaws in a routine. “We don’t want to accentuate bent arms in a bar routine, so we avoid straight style lines down the underarm of a sleeve.”

When it comes to incorporating crystals, certain patterns reflect light better than others. “If we mix together two different tones of crystal of the same color, from far away it’s going to give a lot of dimension,” Diaz says. “We have to think not only about the crystal pattern, but also the detail of the leotards in general. Is this going to look good on TV? Is it going to look good in the arena? Is it going to look good in print photography? And, the biggest and most important question: is the athlete going to feel really confident in this?”

a person sitting in front of a computer

GK Elite Sportswear

Jeanne Diaz working on this year’s Olympic designs from her GK Elite desk.

Adhering the crystals, which are all made by Swarovski, to the leotards is a big job. A computer-aided design program helps determine exact placement, and then a machine generates the desired motif onto a sticky-backed paper that is placed on a leotard. When that sticky paper is ripped off, the crystal motif is what remains.

GK Elite, which has been designing and manufacturing leotards for 45 years, also uses a precision laser with a presser foot that can apply the stones one by one in a more precise location. And, for really high-profile applications, specifically for the Olympics, larger crystals are applied by hand using tweezers.

a person sewing crystals on a leotard

Courtesy GK Elite

For big events like the Olympics, GK Elite designers adhere larger crystals by hand.

a machine with a blue light

Courtesy GK Elite

Designers also use computer-aided design programs and precision lasers to apply crystals in more precise locations. 

One of Diaz’s favorite leotards this year has a star with five different colors of crystals. “It’s all varying tones of blues and reds, and there are a couple of gold crystals incorporated in there that probably nobody but the wearer is ever going to know about,” she says. “Team USA has built a dynasty on winning, so we put that in there to pay homage to that dynasty.”

Another piece she’s “really, really proud” of is the team-final leotard that looks like an American flag. “We incorporated some diamond-shaped crystals from Swarovski,” she says. “They’re bigger than our round stones, so they reflect more light and make a bigger impact. From far away, it’s going to look extra shiny.”

a person wearing a red garment

ROBERT J POLETT

The shape of the leotard has stayed relatively consistent for the last 50 years, save for the German gymnasts who wore full-body unitards at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to feel more “confident and comfortable.” Diaz doesn’t see a major change in silhouette happening any time soon. “There are certain design elements that can certainly evolve,” she says. “Wherever we can infuse innovation, we do. We pride ourselves at being on the forefront of that.”

While contemplating the future of sportswear, Diaz has her sights set on something that will be here before we know it: the 2028 Summer Olympics, slated to be held in Los Angeles. “As a designer, you dont really turn your brain off,” she says. “We like to put a lot of thought into what we do.”

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