Ever wondered about the team behind New Zealand’s Olympic uniform? Rebecca Baker goes behind the scenes to find out what goes on overseeing the design and production of clothing for over 450 Kiwi team members.

When a fraction of the 211 Kiwi athletes who’ll compete in Tokyo march in the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday night, back in Auckland Liane Smithies will be closely watching the cut of their cloth.

At the Olympics, the black uniform with the silver fern is a symbol to which Kiwis feel really connected. It’s the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s ethos that our teams and athletes showcase our unique culture and values on the world stage.

Smithies, the NZOC’s uniform project manager, and her team of tailors have helped bring that vision to life.

Describing herself as “56 years young”, Smithies trained at a fashion design school and has spent 30 years working in the garment industry, the last six with the NZOC.

The way Smithies sees it, her Olympic event requires a sewing machine, a whole lot of attitude and a big heart. Although it does not grant her medals, it’s still a rewarding, but sometimes brutal, experience.

She believes it’s crucial to have the athletes as part of the uniform process, especially when designing the village and podium wear. So she forms focus groups with athletes to voice their opinions.

“I truly believe that we all feel good about ourselves when we’re wearing clothes that we like,” she says. “If we wear clothes we feel dumb in, we don’t feel good about ourselves and we may lose confidence. My role is to make everyone feel good about what they are wearing at the Games.”

Liane Smithies alters opening ceremony trousers for the 2021 NZ Olympic team. Photo: supplied. 

It’s Smithies intention to make a uniform that’s presentable and comfortable for every member of the New Zealand team.

She measures each person and discusses how they wear their garments. Smithies is honest and straight to the point about what looks good and what doesn’t. So the unique “dynamic garments that work” are produced in a swirl of blunt opinions and colourful swearing.

She credits her 16-strong production line as a “well-oiled machine”, who can adapt to any curve ball that’s thrown their way.

“You can’t be a perfectionist because things change all the time,” she says. Instead, adaptability is a key attribute because “the deadlines don’t change and the garments still have to meet high standards.”

For these Olympics, the New Zealand teamwear is dominated by the traditional black, but there are also ‘flashes of Pacific blue’ in the clothing. New Zealand is written in Japanese script, katakana, as a nod of respect to the host nation. Quick-drying fabrics and white and light grey options have been used to keep athletes cool in what’s predicted to be the hottest Olympics yet. 

Flagbearer Hamish Bond in the NZ uniform and Te Māhutonga, the team’s kākahu [cloak]. Photo: Getty Images. 

To the public, Smithies’ job might seem like a dream, but really it’s a hectic nightmare. “I love helping at the Games, but it isn’t a walk in the park as I work solo for up to 30 days straight,” she says.

She jokes that “coming home… exhausted and sleeping in my own bed” is her favourite Olympic memory.

But on a more serious note, watching her production team’s hard work parade before the world at the Olympic opening ceremony is a highlight. “It always gives me goosebumps and brings tears to my eyes,” Smithies says.

Smithies was lucky enough to attend the 2016 Rio Olympics and the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games where she worked in the athletes’ village as the alterations guru.

But the strict regulations that have come out of the Covid-19 pandemic mean she’ll be watching from home this time around.

“The majority of the team have been measured and assigned sizes that should fit okay,” Smithies says. “Generally, most athletes will be in the village a shorter time than at other Games, so they can cope if items are not a great fit.”

Still her team put a ‘swaps programme’ in place where spare uniforms have been sent to Tokyo, so athletes can trade uniform items to help get a better fit or in the unlikely case of a uniform malfunction.

Surfer Ella Williams shows off the silver fern on the 2021 NZ Olympic tracksuit. Photo: Getty Images. 

Smithies emphasises the NZOC’s integrity lies at the heart of the organisation. One way this comes through is in her own mantra: “Repair. Reuse. Upcycle.”

Extending a garment’s life beyond the Olympics is an important sustainability goal for Smithies. This starts with the design, where she adapts the logo placement and colour of the garment so Olympians will feel comfortable wearing the uniform once the Games are over.

It brings her joy knowing the uniforms aren’t going to waste. Whether garments are passed down through the family or donated to people who need them most, they will always have a story to tell.

She believes New Zealand is “a humble country with humble values”, which becomes obvious in the Games Village where the NZOC, in an act of respect and friendship, gift any leftover uniforms to low decile areas of the host country.

Smithies does her part to help other countries on a smaller scale. At the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, she watched the Ghana women’s hockey team playing the Black Sticks (NZ won 12-0).

“Their uniform was practically falling off them”, she says, so she helped alter their playing strip afterwards to be more presentable and comfortable for the rest of the competition.

(Above: The label sewn into the New Zealand Olympic team’s blazer)

The ethics of NZOC preparation help create a uniform that means more than just a piece of fabric because it honours the athletes and people around them.

Beautiful things can happen, one stitch at a time.

Rebecca Baker, from Whanganui, is currently in her second year at the University of Auckland studying sport health and physical education, and hopes to be involved in journalism in the future.

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