Four years ago, when U.S. athletes accepted medals in the Olympics, the uniforms they wore were designed and made in Germany.
The U.S. Olympic Team this year is wearing suits for awards ceremonies and a sportswear collection designed and manufactured by HEAD Sports Wear International, Inc., a Howard County company that has gained international success.
As an Olympic sponsor, HEAD has been thrust into an unofficial Olympic event: The competition among international couturiers for the best sportswear in the world.
The contest pits HEAD against the likes of Lecoq Sportif of France, Bogner of Germany and Fila of Italy. The spoils are immeasurable as millions worldwide watch their favorite winter sporting events while simultaneously witnessing an international fashion show.
"The publicity alone is invaluable," said Kay Burton, a licensing official for the U.S. Olympic Committee, which granted HEAD the rights to design and manufacture the official suit for awards ceremonies and sportswear collection for the approximately 500 American athletes and coaches.
HEAD, which began in the 1950s as a ski manufacturing company in the Cockeysville basement of aeronautical engineer Howard Head, has blossomed into one of the world's major manufacturers of sportswear for skiers, golfers, runners and tennis players. The company is owned by Odyssey International Group, an American apparel manufacturer based in Hong Kong.
With its headquarters now nestled within a nondescript, one-story office building in a Columbia industrial park, HEAD's local presence belies its worldwide influence as well as its net sales of more than $60 million last year.
HEAD has spent more than $250,000 to design and manufacture the more than 7,000 uniforms and accessories with the hope that when U.S. athletes step forward to accept their Olympic medals, a worldwide audience will see the HEAD logo emblazoned on the red, white and blue uniforms.
Four years ago, in what turned out to be an embarrassment to the U.S. Olympic Committee, the U.S. uniforms were supplied by Germany's Adidas Inc. In 1990, the USOC approached HEAD about submitting design sketches.
HEAD officials won't try to guess what Olympic sponsorship will mean for the company's future profits, but expectations are high.
"Just to have that broad identification worldwide in front of millions of people, it's really impossible to assess what the return on investment will be," said Cindy King, a HEAD spokeswoman.
While the Italian-designed outfits are considered the ones to beat, the fact that European sportswear is heavily influenced by designs from Tokyo makes this year's competition a timely fracas between the United States and Japan.
"We wanted something that would absolutely show that we are serious about sportswear and we can compete with the Europeans in winter wear, which really is a Japanese look," said G. Michael Hubsmith, HEAD executive vice president. "What we're doing in the Olympics will influence all of our other sportswear designs."
While the Japanese are known for angular silhouettes and primary-color fabrics cut in sharp, wedgelike patterns, HEAD designers chose a softer, rounded contour for the American team uniforms. While patriotism seemed to inspire the colors, the hues are actually non-traditional indigo, royal blue and a pink-tinged red.
"We wanted to take the colors of Old Glory and try to use different kinds of reds and blues that were really fashionable," said Mr. Hubsmith.