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Ralph Lauren Writes A New Chapter In Wearable Technology

photo by Ralph Lauren

When Team USA enters the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony on February 9, they’ll be dressed head-to-toe in Polo Ralph Lauren, an official outfitter of Team USA since 2008. And, despite PyeongChang’s frigid February temperatures, they’ll also be nice and warm.

Some of that warmth, no doubt, will come from the pride that goes with representing your country on the world’s largest stage. The rest? For that you can thank the limited-edition opening ceremony parka, a groundbreaking mix of iconic Polo design and cutting-edge American technology that was created specifically for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. Thanks to an American flag, on the interior back panel, printed via a highly advanced, conductive carbon and silver ink, each jacket has the ability to augment the natural warmth of 750-fill-power down with modern technology. The water-repellent jackets are equipped with a slender battery pack with three heat settings (that lasts up to 11 hours at full charge), allowing athletes to maximize their own comfort based on outside conditions—and internal excitement.

On the heels of the innovative PoloTech shirt and the light-up blazer worn by flagbearer Michael Phelps at the 2016 opening ceremony in Rio, the heated jacket is the latest in a series of pioneering wearable tech offerings from RL. “This time, the team took it to a new level, using flexible fabrics to heat a jacket in a way that we had never seen before,” says Chief Innovation Officer David Lauren. “Beyond adding extra warmth, the technology added a modernity to the iconic style of the Olympic and Paralympic outfits. And the American flag pattern was a clever touch.”

As with all Team USA gear, the opening ceremony jacket was developed with direct input from the people who’d be wearing it—the Olympians and Paralympians themselves. “There’s nothing more interesting than having Team USA athletes brainstorm with you. They tell us what they like, and what we can improve. We listen,” says David Lauren, adding, “The athletes really responded to the light-up jacket that Michael Phelps wore in Rio.”

To bring their dreams to reality, the RL innovation team relied on some of America’s most innovative companies, from a small design firm in New York City to Delaware-based technology giant DuPont, whose two centuries of innovation experience includes the invention of nylon, neoprene, and Teflon—as well as the conductive ink technology used in the jacket.

For DuPont, the challenge was to make the technology blend seamlessly into the design. “Other heated garments are available, but they are heavy and full of stiff wires,” says Michael Burrows, a global venture leader for the company. “Ralph Lauren was looking for something better.” And so, working hand in hand with the Ralph Lauren design team, DuPont’s engineers delivered something that had never been done before. It’s “a great opportunity to show the ingenuity of American manufacturing,” he adds.

To meet Ralph Lauren’s exacting standards, Burrows and team partnered with Butler Technologies, a high-tech precision screen-printer based in Pittsburgh. Employees there were initially unaware their work would eventually end up in PyeongChang. When they found out, “it was a great honor,” says Michael Wagner, an engineering manager at the firm. “The employees at BTI have taken great pride in knowing they have contributed to their country in such an extraordinary manner.”

When it came time to bond the heater to the jacket’s lining, Ralph Lauren turned to 99Degrees, an apparel manufacturer based in Lawrence, Massachusetts’ historic Everett Mill, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. As CEO Brenna N. Schneider put it, the project “celebrates the very reasons why we’re excited to be a US apparel manufacturer—pushing forward a future of apparel manufacturing that combines the best of design, engineering, and technology.”

For its part, the battery pack presented its own design challenge. It must be slender and lightweight, so as not to add bulk to the parka. And it must be able to be controlled by athletes wearing gloves. To accomplish this, RL partnered with Key Tech, a high-tech design firm located in Baltimore that designed the battery pack. An NYC-based firm, Principled Design, designed the connectors that attach the battery pack to the heater in a streamlined way. “It is not about the technology but the experience of comfort,” says Principled Design’s founder and CEO Despina Papadopoulos. “The jacket looks great without the technology, but the technology brings a new layer to the experience.”

Then there’s the parka itself—which is also made in America by Better Team USA, just one of the many American apparel manufacturersthat Ralph Lauren enlisted to create the uniforms. They’ve also crafted the limited-edition closing ceremony bomber, which uses the same heating technology as the parka to ensure that Team USA stays equally warm both times they parade through the Olympic Stadium.

Ultimately, the jacket embodies Ralph Lauren’s long-standing love of purpose-built clothing, a very American merger of substance and style. “At Ralph Lauren we’re always trying to celebrate the American spirit, but we also want to have a point of view,” says David Lauren. “The red, white, and blue sensibility is something we believe in, but we also wanted to reinvent that sensibility for the modern spirit of today’s athletes.”

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