It's easy to remember the 2012 Olympic Games, when the U.S. women's gymnastics team won gold. The image is still burned into my retinas, not from the athletes' blinding smiles, but from what they wore on the podium that evening: Gray and black tracksuits punctuated by electrically lime Nike "Volt" colored sneakers—a color that was suddenly everywhere, and is still fetishized by the high-design techwear industry.
Volt has continued to be the color of progress in sports, a literal, brighter future looking right at you—and so over the years, Nike has resurrected it for important product launches.
But at this year's Olympics in Tokyo, the tracksuits and shoes that Nike will provide athletes are a complete 180 from previous years. The uniforms are neutral in color—they appear to be white, but are actually a very faint gray.
"This year ... it's almost a denial of color ... that we think is gonna be [the standout]," says John Hoke, chief design officer at Nike. He jokingly calls the new aesthetic "rawthentic."
Nike is reading the room: Both Japan and the Olympic Committee have made sustainability a big priority for the 2020 games.
If all goes as planned, they will be powered 100% by renewable energy. Disposable plates and cups will be made from 65% renewable material. The city is trapping rainwater to be used for cleaning venues. Even the medals themselves are made from recycled materials—the precious metals inside were mined from 47 tons of old electronics, donated by citizens across Japan.
Why the lack of color? It's both a function and symbol of sustainability as Nike moves to what it calls a "zero waste" production process. The jacket is made from 100% recycled polyester. The pants are made from 100% recycled nylon and polyester. The shape of its silhouette makes some concessions for efficient, puzzle piece-like pattern cutting, which allows Nike to use almost all of the fabric on a spool in the garments. Nike could have dyed the material, but instead, the company left it raw to signal its own virtue.