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Sweats appeal: A new show celebrates the union of fashion and sport

Love it or loathe it, there's no avoiding sport this summer. From Wimbledon's down-to-the-wire finale, to the vicarious pleasure of Spain's rise to Euro glory, television schedules and water-cooler debates have been dominated by matters sporting. And with the Olympics set to kick off in Beijing in less than a fortnight, there's little chance of any respite.

So it's fortunate that you don't have to know your ace from your tennis elbow to be able to enjoy one aspect of the action that is now as much of a talking point as any botched shot or winning goal. From the Sharapova mini-tux to Beckham's gold trainers, it seems as though as much thought goes into the modern athlete's working wardrobe as that of the average Hollywood starlet – and the public lap up the ensuing style hits and misses with a comparable enthusiasm.

Outside the stadium, the crossovers between fashion and sport multiply, with players moonlighting as models in ad campaigns, and designers such as Stella McCartney and Rei Kawakubo teaming up with the likes of Adidas and Speedo to produce their own take on contemporary sportswear, not to mention the numerous sporty references that find their way on to the catwalks.

On the other hand, of the legions of people wearing the latest hi-tech trainers and tracksuits, the vast majority are more likely to be relaxing than limbering up for a 10km run. So blurred, in fact, are the boundaries between sport and fashion these days that it is often hard to know where they lie, or if indeed they exist at all.

Gamely attempting to answer that question, however, is the Victoria & Albert Museum's latest exhibition, Fashion V Sport, which examines the long history shared by the two fields and their reciprocal influences. If it sounds like an unlikely premise for an exhibition that takes in everything from street style to couture, it's worth remembering that some of the 20th century's highest-profile designer brands owe their existence to sportswear, albeit in a different form to the clothing we might now associate with that term.

Coco Chanel's original designs, for example, were inspired by her love of the outdoor Riviera lifestyle, inspiring her to produce the liberating jersey separates that revolutionised womenswear. Meanwhile, the Italian label Pucci, best known for its brightly patterned silk scarves and dresses, grew out of a small ski-wear collection. And in America, where the concept of sportswear as casual daywear originated in the Fifties, designers such as Ralph Lauren (the official outfitter at Wimbledon) have built their entire brands on clothing associated with yachting and polo.

Ligaya Salazar, the show's curator, agrees that the influence of sportswear on fashion is far greater than immediately obvious. "The common reaction when I told people about the exhibition was, 'What are you going to show, tracksuits and trainers?'," she says. "Fashion and sport have borrowed so much from each other for so long, yet it wasn't until the official collaborations between designers and sportswear brands in the late Nineties that the relationship was openly acknowledged. We're now exploring the many other ways in which the two areas have been influencing each other for more than a century."

The structure of the exhibition – and, of course, its name – reflects the complex, push-and-pull nature of the exchange, avoiding any attempt to map out a neat parallel development to focus instead on four main intersections at which fashion and sport meet, with outcomes that range from the innovative to the bizarre.

The "Play" section examines the differences in the way sportswear is used in catwalk fashion compared with its appropriation on the street, while "Display" looks at the many ways in which this customisation makes seemingly homogeneous items such as tracksuits highly individualised. "Desire" delves into the cabinet of curiosities resulting from the fusion of sport's insistence on functionality with fashion's playful frivolity, featuring covetable oddities such as a Chanel fishing bag, complete with a pocket for maggots, and diamond-encrusted trainer laces.

It is the first part of the exhibition, "Dare", however, that holds the key to the dynamic at work between fashion and sportswear. Subtitled "Tradition V Innovation", it highlights the constant struggle between old and new within the two fields, which has been the driving force behind some of the biggest developments in both.

"On the one hand, sport is all about innovation," Salazar says. "It's about taking these massive steps forward with technology to produce clothing that makes people faster. Fashion, however, is more engaged with its own tradition, looking back and reworking what has gone before. But there is crossover between the two: sportswear has started to adopt a fashion aesthetic; while fashion has become more interested in the functionality that sportswear offers, and how it can adopt that."

It is this exchange that has taken the elasticated waistbands and shapeless forms associated with sportswear and transformed them into some of the most desirable pieces of contemporary casualwear around. Yohji Yamamoto's prototypical Y-3 range for Adidas set the standard when it launched in 2003 to resounding critical and commercial approval, and since then Stella McCartney's playful, feminine styles (also for Adidas) and Alexander McQueen's tough, sleek designs for Puma have confirmed the success of the designer-sportswear hook-up.

The British designer Kim Jones, whose five-year collaboration with Umbro propelled the once dowdy sports brand into cool urban fashion territory, thinks that such partnerships are a win-win situation for sport and fashion. "The price point of sportswear meant I could have a bit more fun than I could with my mainline, and people could buy into it relatively easily. Umbro brought me the technology and manufacturing skill, and I brought them a relationship to fashion and youth culture."

So, if fashion designers are changing sportswear, how is sportswear changing fashion design? Designers regularly borrow from the "iconography" of sportswear, mixing shapes and fabrics to unexpected effect. This season, for example, Stefano Pilati at YSL used grey jersey, not unlike that used for prisoners' tracksuits, for tailored cocktail dresses. At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld sent out denim swimsuits and tennis sweaters, declaring: "Sportswear is what we wear everyday!" (despite rarely being seen in it himself). In London, Paul Smith gave us elongated rugby shirts worn as dresses.

Less obvious, but perhaps of more long-term importance, is the impact that the technological know-how developed by sports brands can have on fashion. "Fabrics are developed with the utmost functionality in mind for sport, and people lead such active lifestyles now that they want the same qualities from their everyday clothes," says Salazar. "Designers just need to find a way to give it to them."

Fashion V Sport is at the V&A from 5 August (www.vam.ac.uk)

Sporting chance: Fashionable accessories:

*Green/grey gym-studio mac, £175, Stella McCartney for Adidas (0870 240 4204)

For yoga bunnies and yummy mummies everywhere, and an affordable version of Balenciaga's anorak, Stella's collection for Adidas is girly, not geeky.

*Turquoise flat-top cap, £50, Y-3 Yohji Yama-moto for Adidas (www. y-3.com)

A flat-top cap in one of this season's bright colours is the fashion-forward alternative to the far too ubiquitous baseball cap.

*Brown leather cut-out bowling bag with white panels, £720, Miu Miu (020-7409 0900)

A sleek and sporty design, this bag would be as good as hand-luggage as for carrying gym-kit – although you might have to cancel your gym membership to cover the cost of it.

*Grey jersey hi-top trainers, £25, Office www.office.co.uk

Lightweight and breathable, jersey is also very fashionable since, at YSL, it was the fabric of choice for cocktail dresses.

*Extra long black leggings, £15, Topshop ( www.topshop.co.uk

Whether for jogging or clubbing, so much better long than half-mast.

harriet walker