In LSU football, fans know the team will wear the classic white jerseys and gold pants. LSU baseball fans know the weekend rotation will go white, purple and gold, in that order.
For LSU gymnastics, fans never know what they’ll get when they walk into the PMAC for another sold out meet.
Gymnastics is a sport that is just as much about presentation as it is athleticism, and teams across the nation use that every week with new leotards throughout the season.
“It’s important that you feel good about how you look,” LSU coach D-D Breaux said. “There’s a tremendous amount of pride in wearing your school colors. In gymnastics, the uniform and the pomp and circumstance of the beauty of the leotard plays a part in feeling good about how you look, and it’s important.”
Some schools order leotards from catalogs from various companies, but many bigger name schools like LSU design their own.
LSU gymnastics assistant coach and floor choreographer Ashleigh Clare-Kearney has been a part of the LSU gymnastics program since her freshman season in 2005, and she’s contributed to the success of the Tigers in many different ways. Perhaps the best and most entertaining contribution is her leotard designs.
Around 2014, Clare-Kearney, who is an attorney for the state, negotiated LSU’s contract with the leotard company Alpha Factor, who allows Clare-Kearney to order three customized leotards per year as part of the contract.
“What I found when I started being a part of it is that everybody’s leotards are getting more elaborate and intricate, and the catalog leotards are not designed for that because they’re supposed to be cost efficient and effective,” Clare-Kearney said. “Not that we don’t try to be cost effective, but we have a little more leeway to be creative.”
Breaux said she used to participate in the designs, but she was fine handing off the mission to Clare-Kearney and student assistant coach Ashleigh Gnat.
Leotards have changed a lot since the time Breaux was a gymnast, or even since Clare-Kearney was a gymnast just over 10 years ago, but the evolution of the sport is what makes it that much more interesting.
The intricacies of the patterns and materials and crystals — LSU uses swarovski crystals — are becoming more and more complicated.
“It just one of the little things that matter because the girls care about what the leotard looks like,” Clare-Kearney said. “I believe — and D-D believes it, too — that when you look good or when you feel good, you compete well. So if you love the leotard and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I get to put this on,’ you already have a heightened sense of excitement going into the meet.”
Clare-Kearney said she’s never been artistic and cannot draw at all, but she has a creative mind that allows her to envision what kinds of “uniqueness” she wants before it comes to life.
She said it’s rare that a complete design just comes into her head and certain things are limited because of the fabrics and materials that are able to be used on leotards.
“What inspires me the most is gowns — evening gowns, specifically like red carpet events,” Clare-Kearney said. “When I see a gown, sometimes I see multiple gowns, and I try to put it together and add my own flare to it ... for the most part, it’s a combination of my ideas or what I envision and also those evening gowns that I see.”
Though inspiration comes from different places, she doesn’t necessarily have much of a creative process. Clare-Kearney says that two and three heads are better than just her own, and she often asks for input from Gnat or even the gymnasts themselves.
Senior all-arounder Sarah Finnegan said that Clare-Kearney once walked into the locker room with blank sheets of paper and told the gymnasts to draw a leotard in order to spark ideas.
“It’s just interesting to hear different perspectives,” Clare-Kearney said. “I get input from people too before I finalize anything. It’s an exciting process for me, and I hate when it’s over.”
Typically, Clare-Kearney likes to save the best and newest leotards for last. Most of her favorite designs have been used at the SEC Championship meet, the Super Six or the NCAA Semifinals the day prior because those are the most televised and watched meets. It puts an exclamation point on the season.
Though nobody talks about it, Clare-Kearney knows that people are paying attention to what leotards teams come out in.
“I pride myself on trying to make them look different and utilizing the colors in a different way so it’s doesn’t look like we’re coming out in the same leotard every week,” Clare-Kearney said. “We don’t have anything where LSU is the focal point, I think it’s because we’re not a red school, so we can get away with not naming our leotards.”
In that same vein, Clare-Kearney knows that leotards preferences are not the same for every person.
“It’s just a form of art,” Clare-Kearney said. “A lot of people don’t like the same type of art. I think that’s another thing that I love about design — I don’t like to feel like people don’t like what I do, but I appreciate it because it reminds me that everyone is so different. Different minds coming together is what makes the world such a special place. I think it's like a microcosm of the world. It allows people to express different things.”
Clare-Kearney doesn’t repeat leotards within a season. She likes to switch it up enough to keep the girls and the fans excited about what’s coming.
“They all tell a different story,” Clare-Kearney said. “I know what goes into having it come to this point. It’s just an opportunity for me to express my artistic and creative side. It’s fun that I’m able to also do it with leotards.”
She also likes to make sure that every gymnast is comfortable in the leotards that she designs. As a former gymnast and dancer, she knows they can be body-conscious.
So for 2017’s Super Six leotard, Clare-Kearney designed it so that the lines came inward at the waist and at the bottom so it “pulls you in.”
LSU has two leotards that are used every year — the Mardi Gras leotard and the pink and blue leotard for cancer awareness, which has a new design this year.
“I love [the Mardi Gras leotard],” Clare-Kearney said. “It’s just so unique to me. I think the accents and the details are just so different. I feel like it screams — beyond just the colors — it screams Mardi Gras to me with the fan and the feather and accents.”
For Clare-Kearney, the more stones and crystals the better. She said you can usually tell the older, catalog leotards from the newer custom ones by how shiny and sparkly they are.
The signature style for the 2018 Super Six leotards is a cutout at the top — with added crystals.
Clare-Kearney came up with the design for those leotards because she likes shirts with that style that can be dressed up or down.
“I was thinking that nobody had an actual hole. People had mesh cutouts, but not an actual hole,” Clare-Kearney said. “That was the one thing that I did that was different. The back on this one — I wanted it to be delicate. I saw a dress that sort of looked like that and had the straps like this. It didn’t have the stones like this, but I thought we definitely need stones.
A leotard inspired by a Balmain dress worn by a Kardashian debuted at the 2017 NCAA Semifinals and was worn when the Tigers faced Missouri earlier this season. Breaux said that was “a classic.”
“I wanted to do something that looked like patchwork because you can only do so much with the colors,” Clare-Kearney said. “I try to think about fashion and what I like. I wanted to do something that nobody else had done, so I thought about these patches. I added that. This was just on a dress that I saw.”
One of Clare-Kearney’s favorite leotards to design was a white one that debuted at the 2017 SEC Championship meet.
D-D Breaux always says “Winners wear white,” but Clare-Kearney was hesitant to use white as the prominent color on a leotard. She said she felt like the team was in a good place mentally and physically to give it a shot.
“I had a conversation with the girls because, again, I think it’s important for them to feel comfortable,” Clare-Kearney said. “I felt like it was a show stopper. Putting on white, being able to rock white on a leotard is a big deal because people don’t do it.
“This one was inspiring to me. The fact that they rocked the white they way they did. They rocked it like they were confident. Other teams commented and said, ‘I can’t believe you guys wore white, that’s crazy.’ And they wore it so well. This one is moving.”
“For me it’s fun,” Clare-Kearney said. “I just think it’s so pretty. They didn’t do all the glitz like this when I was a gymnast. It’s exciting for the girls, and it’s fun for me to create. It’s nice to see different creative minds and what different people think is gorgeous or what will work for leotard to leotard or team to team. It’s become a part of the sport.”