By and  on February 12, 2008

Six months before the Summer Olympic Games, Speedo will unveil its fastest swimsuit ever today, Fastskin LZR Racer, with a design twist.

The swimwear brand has collaborated with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons to create a limited edition version of the FS LZR Racer, which uses a fully bonded fabric that Speedo executives describe as so close-fitting it's almost a second skin.

Kawakubo, who for the last three years has collaborated with Speedo on a capsule collection of nonelite swimwear, created a logo that will be printed along one side of the suit, which incorporates the Japanese character Kokuro, or "heart, mind and spirit," by the calligrapher Inoue Yu-ichi. The designer also has created another graphic element for a special version of the suit for Team USA that will make its debut at the Olympics in Beijing.

"For the launch of the LZR suit, we have used simply the calligraphy denote the ultimate will to win," said Adrian Joffe, managing director of Comme des Garçons, adding that Kawakubo had to work around technical restrictions when creating a design for a hydrodynamic fabric. "We accepted without question that, in this case, technology takes precedence over aesthetics, and we designed around the restraints. Sometimes the greatest creations come out of the strictest restrictions."

In May, Speedo will sell 1,000 limited edition calligraphy pieces. Those suits will be more expensive than the competition version — $600 compared with $550 — and will be sold more exclusively, at Comme stores, online and possibly at one high-end New York retailer. Suits with the Comme graphic will be available in the classic tank suit for women and a tight knee-length style for men for around $100, available online and in Comme boutiques, Speedo said.

The competition version of the LZR will be introduced today in New York, London, Tokyo and Sydney. The elite training suit is swimwear's version of couture: It doesn't make money in itself, but allows Speedo to sell swimsuits to teams and regular folks who don't have the patience to spend 20 minutes squeezing into the body suits (because that's how long it takes).

"If you look at the hierarchy of the business, the elite zone sets the stage for everything else we do at Speedo," said Helen McCluskey, Warnaco Group Inc., president for intimate apparel and swimwear, Speedo's U.S. licensee. "Elite is a relatively small piece of the swim business, and this particular swimsuit won't be a money maker, but the trickle-down effect of the technology and excitement should set the stage and establish growth for the rest of the brand for the next four years."

With 80 percent market share in the elite swimwear category, Speedo has a $15 million wholesale business in the category, a tiny fraction of the $1.3 billion division of Warnaco. Since the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Speedo has spent tens of millions of dollars — a record — on research and development for the FS LZR Racer.

"The first priority is always to be a fast swimsuit, but I am a girl and want to look good, too," said seven-time gold medalist Amanda Beard, who turned pro in 2001 but plans to try out for the Olympics this year.

Speedo's first priority was the technology. The R&D for the suit spanned the globe: testing at the Speedo Aqualab in England; partnering with NASA to help reduce drag; quantifying swimmers' oxygen usage at the Australian Institute of Sport and putting swimmers in a water flume at New Zealand's University of Otago, and testing sports physiology at Iowa State University.

"We spent a lot of time in Australia testing the suit — like eight hours in the pool — and it wasn't fun," said Natalie Coughlin, who won five medals at the Athens games. "I'm glad we did it and that they have that attention to detail, because the science backs it up that it's a fast suit. The testing was very scientific: We used a regular spandex suit, the FS-Pro and the new FS LZR Racer, and we did each test five to nine times in each suit."

Speedo's launch of technology in Olympic years isn't unusual. The Fastskin family was unveiled at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Last year, Speedo introduced the FS-Pro suit, which was worn by swimmers who set 24 world records in its first year, and retailed for $400 — the most expensive competitive swimsuit until the LZR Racer. The suit will be made in three silhouettes for each gender, including a full-body suit with no arms, a knee-length full-body suit and a full-body suit with an open back.

The suit features major advances: The LZR Pulse fabric uses the same base fabric as the FS-Pro, but is improved by being fully bonded for the first time by ultrasonically welding the seams from the three-piece pattern. LZR panels provide compression, which reduces muscle vibration and fatigue. The result is a suit with 10 percent less passive drag compared with the suit Speedo made for the last Olympics and 5 percent less passive drag from the FS-Pro — crucial in a sport where hundredths of a second can determine a gold medal.
Speedo usually waits until the spring of Olympic years to introduce its newest design, but the swim company felt that the magnitude of the technology in the FS LZR Racer earned pushing up its debut. Of the four global events today, Manhattan's is the biggest with seven athletes modeling the suits: Michael Phelps (to whom Speedo has promised a $1 million bonus if he gets seven of the eight gold medals he is going for), Natalie Coughlin, Dara Torres, Katie Ziegler, Katie Hoff, Ryan Lochte and Amanda Beard.

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