Wilma den Hartigh
South Africa’s athletes will be walking out in style at the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics in London, in a kit created by Durban designer Leigh Schubert.
It was up to South Africans to decide which kit makes it onto the field, and the public voted overwhelmingly in favour of Schubert’s striking designs.
The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) invited the public to vote for their favourite kit from a selection of six designs, shortlisted from more than 20 fashion houses and designers who submitted entries.
The panel of judges consisted of celebrities such as retired soccer ace and Team South Africa ambassador Lucas Radebe; sporting television personalities Robert Marawa and Carol Tshabalala, and fashion expert Grant Blackbeard.
The panel also sought the opinion of marathon runner Rene Kalmer and wheelchair tennis player Lucas Sithole, who are both competing at the Olympics this year.
Since Sascoc announced the winning designer, Schubert has become a household name just about overnight. At the opening ceremony, billions of people will also be watching South Africa’s athletes walk out wearing her designs.
“One might be a well known name in fashion circles, but this is an opportunity for me to become known in South African homes by consumers who don’t necessarily go to fashion shows,” she says.
“And it is nice to win a competition that people have judged. That makes me even more chuffed.”
Meeting the brief
Criteria for the creation of the designs stipulated that the outfits must be proudly South African and comfortable, and Schubert’s suggested kit met the brief.
“I wanted the athletes to be proud of what they are wearing,” Schubert says.
She now joins the ranks of other gold medallists of the fashion industry such as Stella McCartney, designer of the Olympic kit for team Great Britain; and Ralph Lauren, who fashioned the US team’s outfits. Another iconic designer, Giorgio Armani, created the Italian kit.
Her competitors in the fashion race included prominent South African designers Colleen Eitzen, Craig Native, Gert Johan, Gina@Work and JJ Schoeman.
As soon as Schubert received the invitation to submit her designs, she started researching previous opening ceremony outfits as she only had a few days to put the design boards together.
“I wanted to try something new, yet ensure that it is comfortable and elegant,” she explains. “I did not want the athletes looking like farmers, air hostesses or as if they were about to play lawn bowls.”
Athletes will walk out wearing a two-piece outfit, consisting of black tops with diagonal stripes in the colours of the South African flag, and black trousers. “The tops have been designed in such as way that one can see the full South African flag from all angles,” she says.
“The kit is African, striking and has strong lines.”
And when it comes to footwear, the designer quickly adds that the athletes will not be wearing plastic clog-like shoes known as Crocs, which have been worn once before. Instead, they will be wearing African-style Converse sneakers.
“This adds a sense of humour to the kit and the sneakers also have a strong African edge,” she says. “They add a bit of cheekiness.”
Top South African designer
Even as a young designer, Schubert never doubted that she would have a career in the fashion industry. “I used to make clothes for my Barbies,” she says.
Her mom recognised her talent and Schubert got her diploma in fashion when she was only 17 – even before she had a driver’s licence she was ready to get going at establishing a career.
Schubert worked as a buyer for South Africa's largest and fastest growing retail chain, Mr Price. She also became the youngest merchandiser for textile company Ninian & Lester.
She’s an all-rounder in the industry, with experience ranging from commercial fashion and clothing retail to financial planning and range assorting, skills which contribute to her acute design sense. Her eye for commercial trends and what makes a viable design is what possibly made her kit stand out from the others.
Schubert’s collections have been met with great acclaim at local and international fashion events, but for her, the public’s vote of confidence in her designs and skill is one of the biggest gains of the competition.
Schubert, who launched her label "Leigh Schubert" in 2002, was named one of South Africa’s hottest ten designers, according to Marie Claire magazine’s 2006 shopping directory.
The magazine also listed her in its 2007 shopping directory of best South African designers, specifically noting Schubert’s use of texture and her timeless, sophisticated and feminine pieces.
“My garments are quite classic, but interesting. I don’t do pretty and I have a hard core rock ‘n’ roll edge,” she says. “I like women to be powerful, in control and sexy.”
Team South Africa’s Olympic kit will be manufactured locally. Ahead of the Games in less than a month, Schubert is hard at work making all the tops for about 400 people, including the athletes, managers and anyone who is representing South Africa on the field during the opening ceremony. The manufacture of the trousers has been outsourced to another local supplier.