Fashion is often considered a competitive sport, and if it is, it's safe to assume that the gold medal won't be going to anyone donning a tracksuit. While sportswear might be the global style staple of everyone from rap stars to young urbanites, elasticated waists and shapeless jersey are not usually considered cornerstones of classic design in the rarefied world of high-end fashion. One only has to picture the average British footballer in their off-duty finery to know that when the worlds of sport and fashion collide, the results can be rather dubious.
Nevertheless, in recent years these two worlds have been meeting with increasing regularity, and Gucci designer Frida Giannini is the latest high-profile name to turn her attentions to sporting matters with the launch of a capsule collection to commemorate this summer's Beijing Olympics.
Entitled 8-8-2008 Limited Edition, the range comprises eight exclusive accessories, the most highly coveted promising to be the I-Gucci watch, the brand's first digital timepiece. Other offerings likely to become future collector's items include a mah jong game set, two bags crafted in red La Pelle Guccissima leather, men's and women's sports shoes and even a red bicycle complete with the signature double-G logo (for the cyclist who has everything, presumably).
While the sporty, resolutely casual nature of the collection represents a departure from the Italian label's default lofty glamour, it is fair to say that Giannini has played it relatively safe by confining the collection to accessories and avoiding any actual clothing, thereby neatly dodging the questions that beg to be asked when high-end designers turn their hand to modern sportswear.
After all, catwalk fashion favours form above all else, placing it fundamentally at odds with sporting attire, where functionality is its very raison d'être. Do breathable fabrics really have a place in the designer's atelier? Can a humble tracksuit ever be truly stylish and worth a correspondingly upmarket price tag?
Recent evidence suggests that designers and consumers alike think that the answer is "yes". Following the consistent critical and commercial success of the veteran Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto's groundbreaking Y-3 collaboration with Adidas since its launch in 2003, a succession of fashion's great and good have teamed up with sportswear giants to put their own high-end spin on tracksuits and trainers. Whether it's Alexander McQueen's tough, sleek styles for Puma, Kim Jones' colourful graphic prints at Umbro or Stella McCartney's urban chic for Adidas, each has been a highly lucrative act for both parties.
While it is easy to be cynical and view these pairings as glorified publicity stunts, Harriet Quick, Vogue's fashion features director, believes such collaborations can produce genuinely interesting results that are about more than just generating a fast buck. "I think high-end fashion and sportswear can certainly coincide successfully; the Stella McCartney range for Adidas is the proof of the pudding. Basically, a good designer can turn their hand to anything, and what they can bring to sportswear is a fashion element through the detailing and coloration – a stronger graphic sense that adds real interest, because so much of what is out there is basically quite dull."
Quick warns, however, that such projects need to be thoughtfully conceived if they are to truly engage with their brief and succeed as more than just a designer tie-in. "It has to be the right marriage of designer and sportswear company, and function absolutely has to come first," she adds.
With this in mind, it's not surprising that the two most lauded examples of this hybrid genre have come from designers whose main catwalk collections are often about playing with the balance between aesthetics and utility. In the same way that Yamamoto reinvented sportswear by bringing his avant-garde sensibility for directional tailoring and fabrics to Adidas's staple pieces, McCartney's collections for the brand have gone from strength to strength in the past three years thanks to a winning combination of feminine prettiness offset by tough practicality.
At the presentation of her 2008 spring/summer Adidas range at London Fashion Week last October, McCartney underscored the functionality of her clothes by forgoing the runway. Instead, she created a giant holiday-camp style installation complete with putting green and paddling pool, around which models limbered up in outfits created with specific disciplines in mind. To complement her existing gym, yoga, tennis and dance lines, the new golf collection means that the fashion-conscious now have no excuse for looking less than fabulous while keeping fit.
Tellingly, however, as Vogue.com's Leisa Barnett puts it, "The pieces we'd choose to wear were the ones you wouldn't choose for a spot of tennis – a low-fronted white dress with a bubble hem, for example."
Therein lies another contradiction of designer sportswear. Functionality may be crucial to a range's credibility and success, but how often will it really get put to the test by the average fashionista? Because if something looks this good and costs so much, who would want to spoil it by anything as inelegant as sweating?
The 8-8-2008 Limited Edition range will be sold in Gucci stores in China, Hong Kong and Macau from the end of January. The I-Gucci watch will be available worldwide later this year. For further information go to www.gucci.com
Beauty Spot: Four winning scents for post-match seduction
By Eliisa makin
1. Smell of roses
Rock 'n Rose, £40 per 50ml, by Valentino, from www. escentual.co.uk - keep it in the locker
2. Passion play
Maîtresse, £46, by Agent Provocateur, www.agentprovocateur.com - sweet and saucy
3. For the 19th hole
Vanilia, £50, by L'Artisan Parfumeurwww.artisanparfumeur.com - delicate and sensual
4. Winning wonder
Lady Vengeance, £40, by Juliette Has a Gun, from Selfridges, tel: 0870 837 7377 - a sophisticated scentReuse content