Just in time for the opening of the Pan Am games in Toronto, Canada’s Design Exchange museum has unveiled “Smarter, Faster, Tougher,” a visual tribute to the rapid and innovative growth of activewear in today’s culture.

Running until Oct. 12 in Toronto’s Distillery District, the exhibit – which is curated by Marie O’Mahony, professor of Digital Futures at OCAD University — brings together a host of designers and brands including Stella McCartney, Puma, Tommy Hilfiger, Adidas, Rip Curl, Loudmouth and Canada Goose.

The items, perched onto crisp white displays, are also wide-ranging, including 3-D-printed bikinis, shark-resistant wetsuits, shirts with built-in heart-rate monitors and loud, showstopping argyle-patterned golf pants befitting the cool, young, “in-your-face” swagger of a Kanye West.

“Elite athleticwear is driven by performance, so naturally we wanted to showcase clothes that can make the human body go faster, run longer and keep fitter,” O’Mahony said.

“We also wanted to illustrate how today’s new high-tech materials and use of digital technology can monitor the body as it walks, runs or swims,” she said.

One exhibit piece from the Canadian company OMsignal features a shirt with a built-in biometric pad that can provide real-time data on the body’s performance. Another item, in this case a long-sleeve compression shirt, helps pump blood into the muscles, which aids the body during training and recovery times.

More impressive, still, were the Bruise Suits for paraplegic athletes, which were designed with a special film that changes color should the skin suffer any dangerous bruising.

“Things are changing at a phenomenal rate in terms of the nanotechnology that is being used to put super-fine finishes on fabrics, as well as new digital technologies that can custom fit a ski suit or wetsuit to the exact shape and stance of a particular athlete,” said O’Mahony. “The level of customization today is amazing. Yet when you really think about, it’s not that far off from what a consumer would expect when shopping Savile Row.”

The exhibition, which unfolds over four sections focusing on ethnography, nature, fashion and performance, also spotlights the wider, cultural meaning of athleticwear in the 21st century.

“There are certain pivotal moments in the last century that clearly shaped the kind of athleticwear that is now available to consumers,” said O’Mahony.

“First came the introduction of Lycra in the 1970s, which was an industry game-changer. The popularity of color TV played its role, too,” she added. “Suddenly it wasn’t enough to have a garment perform well on a body. It had to perform well on camera and that changed everything.”

Another definitive moment came with the invention of the sports bra in the Seventies.

“It may seem ridiculous now, but not so long ago women’s sporting clothes were being completely dismissed by manufacturers. That was certainly the case for the sports bra, which was turned down by a number of companies before two women invented it and produced it,” said O’Mahony.

In fact, one of the show’s most appealing components is a runway featuring dresses, skirts, bomber jackets and a cummerbund inspired by a weight-lifter’s belt that all reflect the enormous cross-over appeal of today’s high-performance athleticwear.

“These clothes are all great-looking, functional and comfortable. But like the athleticwear that inspired them, it’s all about the spectacle,” said O’Mahony.


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