Inside the hottest swag suite of the Olympics

I’m standing in swag epicentre of the 2010 Olympics, or, as it’s also known—the Bay’s “gift” suite located in the penthouse of the Loden, a luxe boutique hotel discretely off the downtown beaten track. The room is bright and airy, filled with neatly ordered racks of the Bay’s official 2010 Olympic branded gear. The scarce red mittens that have become a cult item are piled in a wicker basket. A PR person politely asks if I’d like a pair. “No, thanks,” I tell him. It’s a rule (often broken) that journalists never accept gifts.

Since the Games began, a steady stream of famous folks have visited the space to stock up on freebies—the Gretzky family, Hayden Christensen, Rachel Bilson, Jon Hamm. The day before the big Canada-US men’s hockey final, CNN is filming Canadian actress Emmanuelle Vaugier, best known for her recurring role on Two and a Half Men and Canadian actor Byron Lawson, of Snakes on a Plane fame.

The pair are being styled for the camera in a series of outfits by Tu Ly, part of the Bay’s Olympic design team. Ly should have his own TV show: he’s a sound-bite machine. In his hands, the Olympic gear looks like it’s ready for Milan fashion week. An upturned collar here, a scarf thrown there, a hat slouched just so—Ly knows what he’s doing.  “Wear the Canada logo at the back of your head,” he instructs Lawson. “I want all of this,” the actor tells the camera.

Vaugier is trying on a series of jackets. The gear is hot, she says: “I have so many friends in LA saying you have to bring some of  [the Bay clothing] back.” Ly puts a black Canada jacket and black-and-red checked toque on her head. “A pair of black leggings, Louboutins and you’re good,” Ly tells her. “Everybody wants a piece of the Olympics,” Ly says. On cue, NBC correspondent Kevin Tibbles arrives to pick up a bulging yellow Bay bag. Ly hands Vaugier one of those Cowichan-inspired knit sweaters that caused a ruckus when it was discovered Cowichan tribe knitters had not made them. She looks a little leery. “Try it on. It’s going to be a huge part of the closing ceremonies. But that’s all I can tell you.”

Swag greases the celebrity-branding complex.  It’s a paradox of celebrity that once you’re rich enough to afford to buy anything you want, everyone gives it to you for free. The gift bags given Oscar presenters are estimated to be worth upwards $70,000 retail. Getting your stuff associated with influential celebrities is known as “seeding” in the trade. People see style-setters like Rachel Bilson in a Bay blanket coat in US magazine, and, bingo,  everybody wants it.

The system works like this: the Bay extends invitations to celebrities expected to be visiting the Olympics through agents and publicists. They arrive, they’re styled, and they select what they want—as much as they can tote out themselves. Some are more discrete than others, a Bay PR rep in the suite says, refusing to name names. An unwritten rule is that they wear the stuff out.

Everyone is handing swag out at the Olympics. But, given Canada mania it didn’t take long for the Bay’s gift suite to be the place to be (among the few no-shows: Michael Buble and Shania Twain). The line, launched to mixed reviews, has taken off with the Olympic fever. Context is everything: the graphics look sharp on Vancouver streets; the mittens have become a sort of public Masonic handshake saying you’re part of the team. (The line has been so successful in fact that the Bay is talking about making it a permanent part of its inventory.)

I’m with Maclean’s photographer Brian Howell, a veteran of the Torino Olympics. There were no long line-ups at the Torino Olympic souvenir stores like there are at the Superstore that the Bay set up for these Games, he says. In fact, there were none at all. Maybe there’s been more excitement about these Games. Or maybe North American’s are more comfortable with logos on their clothing. Or maybe photos of Wayne Gretzky in a Cowichan sweater has made the stuff cooler.

Outside, I open the door to the wrong SUV. Inside sits a man who’s gracious about the mix-up. Before I shut the door, I notice a huge long-lens camera on his passenger seat. Oh yeah, there’s one final cog in the swag machine: Remember those paparazzi photos of Wayne Gretzky and his family in Olympic Bay gear that were splashed all over? In the background is the front door of the Loden hotel.