It began with a text message from Simone Biles.
She had a golden idea for the design of her gymnastics leotard, one that would create a uniform unlike any other worn by a professional athlete.
It was a fashion statement, of course, but also a declarative one. Having already won four Olympic gold medals and seven national titles, and having turned gymnastics into a “Who’s finishing second?” competition by defying the laws of physics in ways never before seen, Biles’ position in the sport was already determined:
Greatest. Of. All. Time.
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And as the GOAT of her sport, Biles embraced that self-assured and widely-recognized statement by placing the image of a goat on her leotard.
"I just hope that kids growing up watching this don't or aren't ashamed of being good at whatever they do,” Biles said of the goat leotard in a recent interview with Marie Claire. “And that's my problem: when people kind of harp on other people that are good at something. And it's like, everybody can say you're good, but once you acknowledge it, it's not cool anymore. And I want kids to learn that, yes, it's okay to acknowledge that you're good or even great at something."
Inside the Pennsylvania headquarters of GK Elite, which designs and manufactures leotards and apparel for Biles and the United States women’s and men’s National Teams, a day that had been business as usual suddenly was anything but after Kelly Christman’s cell phone lit up with the text from Biles.
Watch all the action from the Tokyo Olympics live on NBC
Christman, the company’s vice president of gymnastics product, quickly relayed the request to the design team.
Amid the excitement over the company’s GOAT-requested assignment, there was initial back-and-forth over whether the image would be too brazen, too presumptuous. But Biles earned the right to be bold when she won gold, and that was all the justification she needed when asked why she wanted the goat on her leotard.
“Simone just said, ‘Well, because I can,’” Christman recalled. “And she has the medals to prove that she truly is the greatest of all time.”
Red carpet exclusivity and energy
The Olympic mat is not just a playing field for world-class gymnasts, it’s a red carpet and modeling runway.
It’s where the glitz and glam of leotards fully designed and manufactured at GK Elite are unveiled on the world stage. At the company’s headquarters in Reading, Pa. – about an hour and a half outside of Philadelphia – shelves are fully stocked with an array of fabrics, containers are filled with thousands of glimmering crystals, and employees are tasked with outfitting top Olympians who soon will have all eyes on their every move.
“It’s truly a red carpet moment,” said Matt Cowan, GK Elite’s chief commercial officer. “And we want the athletes to feel that energy and that exclusivity in their leotards when they unveil them to the world.”
Why is Simone Biles called the GOAT?
No leotard is more exclusive than those with a crystal-encrusted goat head emblazoned on them. They belong exclusively to Biles, who first debuted the goat on her training tanks at the 2019 GK Classic and then added it to her competitive leotards during Olympic trials.
Goldie the Goat, as it has since been named, was one of many iterations created by the GK Elite design team and selected via text message and email by Biles.
“We did a couple goat head options, then we did a full body of a billy goat but landed on the more simplified line art version that we went with,” said Jeanne Diaz, GK Elite’s senior designer.
Claiming to be the GOAT is a declaration few can reasonably make. Biles not only was claiming it, but wearing in on her sleeve…literally, and also on her back or hip.
By doing so, Biles took GOAT-status to the next level at a time when female athletes have had to fight publicly for the equality and recognition in sports that they deserve.
“It was a bold choice, but I thought it was an appropriate choice for Simone considering she truly is the GOAT,” Diaz said. “So, I thought it was super cool to see a woman in sports calling it like it is and owning it.”
Pushing boundaries while balancing fit and aesthetics
Like a tailor’s familiarity with a regular customer, the staff at GK Elite is well-aware of Biles’ fit and style preferences.
That includes a custom-sized high-neck leotard, angled raglan sleeves that accentuate her shoulders and innovative design elements like Biles’ recent snakeskin leotard.
“She likes to push the boundaries with the trends,” Diaz said. “She just likes to stand out.”
The design for Olympic apparel, done in partnership with USA Gymnastics, can be a two-year process, Diaz said.
When dealing with the most acrobatic of Olympic athletes, fit is paramount, aesthetic is essential. A final pre-Olympic fitting was held in March at the National Team training camp, where all potential members were intricately sized.
Lead times, from the start to finish on production of a high-profile leotard, typically are six to eight weeks. The GK Elite staff have been pushed to the pressure test before though, and the result was a leotard produced on 24-hour notice when Biles needed a last-minute leotard to film a recent Uber Eats commercial with Jonathan Van Ness.
A look behind the curtain
GK Elite, which designed and manufactured leotards for 11 countries in the Tokyo Olympics, uses four-way stretch fabric that is spread and laser cut for proper fit before being bundled by athlete size and alteration. Through sublimation, custom artwork is laser printed and transferred via heat press from paper to fabric to lock in the garment's vibrant colors. Laser cut appliques are then hand-placed and glued to the body of the leotard to ensure proper placement before being stitched. Swarovski jewel motifs are applied by heat transfer, with some applied by hand and other fill-in jewels by laser machine. From there, the garment is sent to the sewing floor for the finishing touches before quality inspection.
“Obviously, we want to make sure that the leotard and garment when it’s put on is tight to all the contours of the body,” Cowan said. “In gymnastics, if a competitor is pulling at the leotard or adjusting the leotard, there can be deductions, and obviously that’s the last thing we want. We want their performance to be the only thing that’s being judged that day, not the fit of their leotard. So, we want to ensure that our fit of the leotard is perfect so the athlete can focus entirely on their performance.”
Only a select few of those leotards have left the facility with a goat head on it. Jewel machines create a crystal embellishment of the goat head on a flat sheet. The embellishment is then sealed onto the leotard using a heat press, making Biles’ goat request a bedazzled reality.
“We wanted to do it in a way where we didn’t just put a simple goat on the leotard. Let’s crystalize it, let’s bring some bling to this, let’s add some flair to this and let’s bring some attitude to this,” Cowan said. “It’s one of one. Simone, to this day, is the only person who has ever worn it.”
Special delivery … with a Swarovski sparkle
When the National Teams unveil their apparel on the mat at the Olympics, it’s not just the gymnasts who are overcome with pride. That sensation is shared by designers, fabric spreaders, cutters, embellish sewers and many others at GK Elite who brought the leotards to life and delivered them to top athletes on the world’s largest stage.
“We have over 500 employees here in Reading, Pa., and the pride that is engulfed in this building when we see the best athlete in the world in Simone Biles walk out and win gold in a garment that was made from scratch here in this building, it's a tremendous pride,” Cowan said. “It's an incredible moment for our country and an incredible moment for our company that's born here in the United States.”
The National Teams got a sneak peak of their apparel for the Tokyo Games, with GK Elite representatives hand-delivering their leotards the day after the team was announced in late June.
Mini spoiler alert: the athletes were given one leotard paying homage to America’s birth in 1776 by featuring 7,600 ruby and Swarovski crystals. Another boasts 76 individual applique stars, another was inspired by the rose gold Tokyo Torch, and another features a crystal motif inspired by the Bald Eagle design from U.S. currency.
“This year on the mat at Tokyo,” Diaz said, “you'll see a lot of patriotic leotards and a lot of bling.”
'The goat is exclusively for Simone Biles to wear'
While one GOAT is set for the Olympics, another is not. Biles will be in Tokyo looking to win five more gold medals. Goldie the Goat is not expected to make an appearance due to International Olympic Committee guidelines regarding logos and brands on Olympic apparel.
The goat’s next cameo could be at Biles’ post-Olympic tour featuring 36 performances between September and November that is called the Gold Over America Tour (See what they did there? G.O.A.T). Replicas of Biles’ goat leotard eventually could be on the market, but not quite yet.
“I would say at this point in time the goat is reserved exclusively for Simone,” Christman said. “If she wants to make that available to the public, we would work with her on what that would look like. But for right now, the goat is exclusively for Simone Biles to wear.”
Because she can.