PARIS — Athletic achievements aside, the Cuban national team will be turning heads with their official nonperformance gear for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer, thanks to shoe designer Christian Louboutin and SportyHenri.com’s Henri Tai who codesigned the outfit.

For the global launch, hosted by actor and former Olympic athlete Pedro Lima, they chose the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, as a port city that, for Louboutin, has a similar feel to Cuba and Rio de Janeiro.

“There’s that same beautiful light. I wanted to bring the Cuban athletes somewhere that had a similar ambiance to Rio, and where they wouldn’t feel [too far in spirit] from their own land,” said Louboutin, who has a house in Lisbon as well as a small beach house just outside of the city.

The designer plans to head to Rio de Janeiro midway through the Games, which begin Friday and run through Aug. 21. He’ll also attend the closing ceremony, which will see Cuba’s athletes parade in his and Tai’s designs.

Here, the designer talks to WWD about how the project came about.

WWD: Do you have close connections with Cuba?

Christian Louboutin: I first went to Cuba 20 years ago to visit a friend who was doing a shoot there. I returned around eight years ago and have gone back every year since for vacations. I go everywhere — from the north to south, the east to the west, from the Cuba Keys to inland.

WWD: How did the idea for designing the non-performance outfit for the Cuban national team come about?

C.L.: My friend Henri Tai was shooting a documentary in Cuba for his new e-concept store, SportyHenri.com. I ended up joining him there and we were discussing how great the athletes were and how stylish the Cuban people are in general. Henri was saying that the athletes, who are so good-looking and elegant, deserve the right outfits for the Olympic ceremonies. The conversation started there…

WWD: The designs have a Fifties-Cuba feel…

C.L.: Cuba has always been a place of inspiration, from the Tropicana [cabaret in Havana] to the architecture to the music and colors and the people in general. The designs fit perfectly with the elegance, style and beauty of the Cuban athletes and with Henri’s vision of what looks good on an athlete, which is what his site is about.

WWD: Which of the Cuban athletes impressed you the most? Any potential breakout stars?

C.L.: The most representative athlete is wrestler Mijaín López Núñez. He represents absolute dedication and has an incredible sporty attitude.
He is the standard-bearer for Cubans, a star and icon. He will have his eye on the gold medal for the third time. Triple jumper Pedro Pablo Pichardo is so feline in the way he moves and Lázaro Martínez [in the same category] is a promising young champion and could pull some surprises. Gymnast Manrique Larduet Bicet impressed me with his determination to bring Cuba the first Olympic medal in artistic gymnastics. Yarisley Silva Rodríguez is an incredible pole vaulter. She already won the IAAF World Championships in Beijing in 2015. I also have a lot of admiration for top Cuban judoka Idalys Ortiz, who won the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics. They’re all superheroes.

WWD: What are some of your favorite addresses in Rio de Janeiro?

C.L.: I love Rio in general but one of my favorite places is Polis Sucos in Ipanema. They do the best juices but they also have delicious sandwiches. It’s just a bar, so you stand up in the street. They have this fruit, the açai berry, that you can only find in the Amazon forest and has a lot of properties for the heart and eyes.

WWD: You’re known more for sexy than sporty. Has this project pushed you to develop your athletic side?

C.L.: First of all, I think sporty can be sexy. I’ve been doing a lot of shoes for men for the past five or six years and they’re popular with people in the field of entertainment. You have music and cinema, but there are also the sportsmen. Just as my shoes for women speak to the showgirl in every woman, there is also a showman in every man, and all great athletes also deliver a great show. When you see Kobe Bryant, he’s not only good at getting the ball in the hoop, he’s also hugely entertaining and so funny. You’re not a great sportsman unless you deliver a great show, and that’s something that totally corresponds to my brand.

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