The bright lights beam down from the rafters of Lloyd Noble Center, reflecting off the sparkling logo adorning the front of the Oklahoma gymnast. Light refracts back into the arena, bouncing off these rhinestones as she and her Sooner teammates compete in front of their home crowd.
Just as the Sooners dazzle and captivate fans with their athletic talents, so do their leotards in catching the eyes of those in the stands. Gymnastics fans have seen these OU leotards over the years, often praising the unique and stunning designs.
But just how do these signature Sooner uniforms come into existence?
It all starts with head coach K.J. Kindler, who begins the design process “with a little help from famous people.” The Sooners then work with GK Elite Sportswear to design and produce their garments.
Inspiration and design ideas are sparked from different places for Kindler, including a magazine, a costume worn on stage by a singer or a celebrity’s beautiful red carpet gown. Oklahoma aims to be innovative in many facets of the sport of gymnastics, whether that’s through choreography or combinations on events, and the uniforms are no exception.
“Our goal is to stand out and to have something that’s unique and different and that makes us special,” Kindler states. “We try to take a unique spin on what we’re doing every year and really try to do something different that people haven’t seen before because a leotard obviously has been around a very long time and so in order for us to look different, we really just try to go a different direction than most people have.”
When it comes to the design of OU’s leotards, there are some elements that can be spotted on each look. The Sooners’ uniforms always feature three-quarter length sleeves, the school’s branding and colors – and plenty of sparkle, of course.
The Sooners in the leotards they wore as they secured their first-ever NCAA Championship in 2014.
The Sooners obviously utilize Crimson and Cream in their leotards but also incorporate nude, black accents and sometimes silver and white. Fans can always see “Oklahoma” or “OU” or “Sooners” somewhere on the front, back and probably the sleeve of each leo. Usually, Lycra, an elastic fabric, is the material used to create the leos, and Kindler likes to incorporate mesh into the designs.
“I like to use mesh in the upper part of the body. I think it’s more comfortable and they can move around better in it. Believe it or not, I do take comfort into a small account when making these leotards,” Kindler says with a laugh. “Because if it’s tragically uncomfortable, they won’t want to wear it no matter how beautiful it is.”
When creating leotards each season, Kindler and the GK crew focus not just on the front design but also utilize the back of each garment since fans see every side of a gymnast while they are competing.
“A lot of times the celebrities you see the front of their gowns as they walk in, but you’re seeing a full 360 of a gymnast,” Kindler says. “We really try to take it to another level in the back and we’ve done open backs, we’ve done crisscross backs, and then we just fully bling out in the back as much as we do in the front.”
And the Sooners definitely know how to use the bling. GK utilizes Swarovski crystals on its leotards, and Kindler likes to use a lot of rhinestones to make the designs stand out and sparkle under the lights.
“I do not know the exact amount (of jewels on each leotard),” says Calli Campo, a GK Business Development Specialist for the Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas area. “All that KJ tells me is the more the better!”
Several people have a hand in the leotard creation process, including Campo, who works directly with Kindler from the beginning stages.
The pair sits down during the summer and start to discuss ideas for the upcoming season, often texting each other pictures when they spot a costume or dress they like on the Oscars or another show. When there is inspiration they both like, then the discussion about how to apply the look to a leotard begins until it eventually transforms into a sample product.
“I usually see something that I think is captivating and really interesting and then I tailor it to a leotard,” Kindler explains. “Obviously an evening gown goes all the way to the ground, so you have to make some changes and alterations to what you’re going to do.
After Kindler and Campo find an inspiration, they send the idea onto those at the GK factory in Reading, Penn. There, these ideas become a reality.
"I feel like when we finish it’s not just a design, it’s kind of like an art piece that we’ve done."
— Calli Camp, GK
“They (the company) then makes a virtual design of that leotard and I then make changes to their virtual design until we come up with an idea that we think is great,” Kindler states. “Then they make a sample. When they send a sample, we try it on the athletes so we are able to see where everything hits and lands on the body. Then we make alterations to that then finally there’s your final product.”
Generally, the entire process for designing a leotard takes five to six months. For this season, Kindler, Campo and others at GK began the design process in July and finished up in December, creating four new looks thus far with one more to go.
Many departments and people at GK play a part in the creation of these “beautiful garments”, explains Curry Ridings, a pattern maker for the company. These groups who help make the garments come to life include the sewing department, glue and zig zag, cutters, bundlers and inspectors. The GK designers and pattern makers constantly communicate with each other during the process, testing fabrics and making sure the design in no way will compromise fit and will be able to be sewn without the crystals or other elements getting in the way of the construction.
“University of Oklahoma designs are all so beautiful and packed with jewels and if the design is beautiful, then it’s our job as pattern makers to make the leo look like the design and at the same time fit perfectly so the gymnasts look beautiful and they are not in any way constrained by the garment so they can do their job the best, looking the best,” says GK’s Anetta Pluto-Jakowczyk. “As a pattern maker, when I see beautiful design packed with jewels and unique, it makes my job more pleasurable I would say.”
Inspiration for leotard designs truly comes from a variety of outlets for Kindler. Some of the initial ideas for the 2016 looks came from a swimsuit and an evening gown.
“K.J. has a really good eye for design and by that I mean she can look at an ice skating outfit or a gown that a celebrity is wearing and really kind of visualize it and put it in her way of doing it to make it into a leotard,” Campo says. “She’ll even send me drawings … She will kind of draw it up and do arrows, ‘I want this here, this here, this here.’ It’s unique in its way that it’s so intricate and she really focuses on the details when it comes to her leotards.”
A recent notable leotard is the one the Sooners wore in the 2016 Super Six when they soared to their second NCAA Championship. That design, referred to as the “Armour leo,” began as a swimsuit Kindler spotted in a high-end magazine as she was sitting under the dryer at her hairdresser’s. She took a picture of the swimsuit on her phone because she thought it was amazing, and the process began from there.
“What we used for rhinestones, they were gold studs on the swimsuit,” Kindler shares. “They had an open cutout, which I meshed the back of it. They couldn’t see the back of this swimsuit, so I had to make up the back, how I thought it should look because the picture was front only. So we worked on the back a lot, got a couple samples of it in. I liked a lot of it right off the bat.
“But it was where do you put the Sooners? Where do you put the OU? Where do you want to brand this leotard? So we went through that part as well but I thought it was just really beautiful,” Kindler continues. “And I love the designs you can make with rhinestones alone without changing material. There’s just a lot of things you can do with that. So we definitely did the design through the rhinestones on that leo.”
Another leotard worn by the Sooners in 2016 was a design featuring black ombre sleeves. OU donned it when they won their fifth straight Big 12 Championship, and it can also be seen on the Sooners in the smoke photos from this season’s photoshoot. This look began with a picture of the crisscross back of a dress that former Sooner Maile’ana Kanewa sent to Kindler. Since they just had a picture of the back, they made up what they thought the front would look like.
“We had to make it so it could fit on a leotard, which is difficult sometimes,” Kindler explains. “You have to make sure the sides come in a little bit and they don’t go too far off to the seam and you have to make sure the crisscross it can actually work because working with Lycra is not the same as working with other materials. I give full credit to the leotard company for figuring all that out and making it work when you put it on the body.”
THE FINISHED PRODUCT
Oklahoma’s leotards stand out year after year, as fans look forward to seeing what the Sooners have in store each season. Just as fans enjoy seeing the new designs, those at GK appreciate the opportunity to help bring the new leotards to fruition.
“Even though we make leotards every day, and for all different customers, when we see Oklahoma, we basically fight to get the quote because it’s just challenging,” shares GK designer Rosanna Venditti. “Every leo is unique and because it’s a new experience and it challenges us as designers because it’s a new construction, a new way to do jewels or a new pattern, it’s just unique from start to finish and we’re proud to be part of GK and a force that makes their leotards.”
What’s in store for this upcoming season? Inspiration came from the likes of Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Demi Lovato and Oklahoma’s own Carrie Underwood. The Sooners will wear five new leos, with four inspired by the women mentioned above and one still to be designed for the postseason.
"We used a jersey-like picture of Beyonce in a leotard and one of our leos looks like similar to a jersey but a little blingier." - K.J. Kindler
"There's the Carrie Underwood. She wore a costume in one of her shows. It was black and very detailed and so we used that as the inspiration for one of our leos." - K.J. Kindler
"This was an amazing dress that was sublimated, and I actually mimicked the sublimating on her dress and on the top portion on the top of the leotard. That’s an open back leo, so we are excited about that, but we can’t wear those for postseason (because of having to pin on a number) so that’s probably one that you’ll see during the year." - K.J. Kindler
"Then for one of them I used a JLo costume that she wore, and she’s very eccentric as you know, and I put material where there was none in the costume. But it turned out really great. I really love the way it looks on them and it’s very unique. I haven’t seen anything quite like it. So that’s really cool." - K.J. Kindler
“I think a lot of the really entertaining women, the women who do pay attention to their costume and do pay attention to their craft are often the ones who are designing really creative things,” Kindler explains. “And so I am drawn to those people and what they can do with their imagination and it just helps kind of spark me.”
Fans attending Friday night’s season opener against No. 3 Alabama will get the first peak at a brand-new garment, the one inspired by a picture of Beyoncé wearing a jersey-like leotard.
“I feel like when we finish it’s not just a design, it’s kind of like an art piece that we’ve done,” Campo states. “It just takes a long process and when we get to the finish then you just kind of feel excited that this is what we came up with and this is what came to life.”
An art piece perfected through months of work, becoming motion under the bright lights.