Fashion Focus: Eileen Gu and a brief history of ski fashion

From New York Fashion Week to Rihanna’s Super Bowl halftime performance in all-red exclusive Alaïa and Loewe garments, sports and fashion saw so much in the beginning of 2023. This week, though, I want to underline skiing — the winter sport that embraces quite a few layers of clothing.

Whenever I put on my winter jacket, wool beanie, heavy boots and tinted goggles, how I look often loses ground behind the urge to get on a lift and swoop down the white hills.

But that’s not the case for California-born Olympic gold medalist and luxury fashion model Eileen Gu.

“People always think that fashion and skiing are these two completely disparate entities … when in reality, the core aspects are actually very similar,” Gu said in an interview with CNN. 

Gu’s interaction with fashion traces way back to her childhood. Gu attended her first-ever fashion week event in Paris when she was 15 and has said the experience was “absolutely life-changing.” Not only was Gu captivated by the way art was put on the body, but also by the expressiveness and atmosphere of the fashion show. Much like competing for medals, Gu described sports and fashion as interconnected in the same interview. 

“Both are rooted in a sense of self-expression and creativity. Both require a lot of confidence, being able to perform under pressure, and being able to be yourself unapologetically,” Gu said.

The San Francisco native, who is currently a student at Stanford University, not only finds balance between handing in college essays and gearing up for the Olympics, but also prioritizes balance in her personal fashion style. Gu designates her way of dressing through a mixture “between masculine and feminine, between elegant and sporty, between playful and mature.”

Making her runway debut at the Louis Vuitton Cruise 2023 Fashion Show, Gu modeled a cropped vest top paired with a matching two-tiered ruffle skirt. A pair of metallic lace-up sneakers, a monogram handbag and a black leather belt secured around her waist completed Gu’s look.

Currently signed with IMG Models, Gu has worked with Louis Vuitton, Victoria’s Secret, Tiffany & Co., Swiss watchmaker IWC, Estée Lauder and many other brands in China. Yet, the 19-year-old’s fashion involvement extends further into her ski design. Apart from incorporating her signature, in 2022 Gu pitched the Chinese proverb “A Dragon Amongst People” in the shape of a dragon. This year, she plans to ski above a phoenix with “Eternal Flame” etched onto the edge of the sidewall, representing the Olympic flame.

“There are a lot of personal style elements I’ve put into my gear that mean a lot to me,” Gu said in an interview with ELLE. “Skiing and fashion feed into each other in that they’re both so personal and expressive, so the play of both is something that’s so fun for me.”

Although fashion on the slopes may not be as renowned as the NBA pregame tunnels, ski gear has been growing increasingly stylish over the past decades. From Princess Diana’s retro puffer jacket to Jackie Kennedy’s full-body red ski wear, fashion has always been a channel of personal narration atop snowy hills.

Looking back at the 1910s, ski apparel was dominated by wool. Men wore long jackets over wool trousers while women wore the same jackets over pants and knee-length skirts for warmth. 

In the 1940s and ’50s, the production of synthetic materials introduced by Eddie Bauer began to overtake wool in ski fashion. Those materials were made into looser tops but tighter trousers for elevated mobility. Legging-like pants in thicker material were the trend among skiers.

From the 1970s to the ’90s, bright colors, neon and color blocking styles raged as spandex ski outfits spiked in popularity. Fleece and the technology known as GORE-TEX were introduced during this time period. Materials that were lightweight, waterproof and kept the same warmth were frequently worn.

Ski outfit trends began to grow baggier at the beginning of the 2000s. Compared to the ’80s and ’90s, neon colors dimmed down and looser synthetic fleece layers were worn more often. Luxury brands such as Chanel, Christian Dior and Prada emphasized designing fashionable threads for both on and off the slopes. It became a trend for designers to blend the slopes and streets into one style.

Recently, more and more brands have released collaborations that make mountain dressing more fashionable. Canada Goose partnered with Reformation to display colorblocked and floral-patterned puffer jackets along with vests and scarves. DL 1961 collaborated with Perfect Moment, bringing denim to the slopes in one collection, including a houndstooth denim winter jacket and matching snow pants. Gucci Vault partnered with HEAD Sportswear, presenting a selection of ski suits, vests and accessories in street style at high altitudes.

Unlike the saying that fashion goes in cycles, I find ski fashion to hardly ever go out of style. Whether vintage or modern, ski fashion is especially expressive due to the color contrast when one dressed in neon speeds down a white hill. In my opinion, seeing a skier from afar is almost like witnessing an artist’s first streak of paint on a clean canvas.
Being as expressive as ski fashion is, celebrity skiers such as Gu undoubtedly have a great influence on younger generations, as Gu closed out her interview with CNN by saying, “I just want to be the person that a girl at home can see on TV or on their phone and say, ‘Hey, you know, if she can do that, then I want to try it, too. She looks like she’s having fun. When can I try?’”

James Bao is a freshman writing about the interrelations between sports and fashion, as well as athletes’ identities, in his column, “Fashion Focus,” which runs every other Friday.