At the back of a small Mississauga factory lined with shelves of bright-coloured fabrics, a large rhinestone machine is hard at work, rapidly and precisely placing hundreds of the little crystal stones in the pattern of a Maple Leaf.
This is where Olympic gymsuits are made – the same jewel-covered ones Canadian trampolinist Rosie MacLennan will wear at the Rio Olympics on Friday when she tries to defend her gold medal.
MacLennan went to Rio with four different suits, custom fit and designed for her at this Jagwear Gymnastic Apparel factory – two of them for competition day. In a Rio Games alight with gymnasts wearing trendy bling-encrusted leotards, MacLennan is, by comparison, conservative with the sparkle. Her competition suits are bejewelled with just 1,400 rhinestones each – arranged tight in a maple leaf on the chest and cascading randomly over the rest of the suit, a little like shooting stars.
Jagwear gifted MacLennan and Canada's five-woman artistic gymnastics team their suits for Rio. They'll be showcased before a global television audience – one no doubt full of fashion-fascinated young gymnasts. The artistic team got three different competition suits – all emblazoned with some 3,000 stones each, all incorporating a shimmering maple leaf. Knowing most of their competition in their discipline would be heavily gemmed, Canada's artistic gymnasts chose the shinier and more expensive Swarovski Crystals. Since they don't retail, Jagwear won't estimate a price for the Olympic suits, but say the crystals alone cost about $300 per suit.
If it seems excessive, consider that most gymnasts at the Olympics are in suits loaded with gems. It's a judged sport, and no one wants to lack the twinkle and polish everyone else has on display.
The U.S women's artistic team – the one dominating the competition in Rio and being called the best Olympic gymnastics squad ever assembled – has been decked in red-white-and-blue suits that practically glow.
According to the New York Times, their leotards – made by Under Armour and GK Elite – have upwards of 5,000 Swarovski Crystals apiece and would retail for about $1,200 (U.S.). That's about three-and-a-half times more stones than the Americans wore at the 2012 London Olympics.
"If you watch the Americans at a meet, their suits bling in a way that it looks like they pressed a button and they're in a light show," said Serena Bono, who oversees the orders and the design team at Jagwear. "Canada's artistic girls really wanted that too – they wanted to bling it up."
There's a surprising amount of detail involved in the making of an Olympic leotard – a piece of clothing akin to a women's bathing suit. Jagwear consulted with MacLennan and the artistic gymnasts on designs. Many of the suits were made in Mystique – a special nylon with a foil overlay that gives the suit a unique lustre.
Every Olympian got her own custom pattern cut, down to the most meticulous specification, like where she prefers the neckline or how tight she likes the elastic around each leg. Then the fabrics were cut and sewn.
Designers first sketched the looks, then finalized them in a computer program where they could manoeuvre each rhinestone or bit of accent trim with precision. Next the design was sent to the rhinestone machine, which has several hoppers full of different crystals and rhinestones. The machine used a compressor gun to rapidly punch the stones into the design on a sheet of hot-fix tape – a task that took the machine about 90 minutes per suit for some of the more complex designs. That sheet was then transferred onto a suit.
They knew the lighting inside Rio Olympic Arena – like most at major televised international gymnastics events – would dance off the gems.
"Think about how spectacular diamonds look under the high-end lighting in a jewellery store," said Jagwear founder Donna Cowell. "The lighting inside these big meets has the same effect.
Jagwear began 29 years ago in Cowell's Mississauga home, as she sewed her first gymnastics leotard for her five-year-old daughter. The small mom-shop kept growing over the years into one that now has 10 employees and produces some 60,000 items a year. While they've outfitted Canadians at four different Olympics, their biggest business is kids' gymnastics clubs and young gymnasts designing their own unique suits on Jagwear's website – training suits that retail for $50 to $80, or competition suits listed for $120 to $230.
"This is prime time now, during and after an Olympics when the numbers of kids will go up at the gyms," Bono said. "We always see growth after an Olympics."