“It’s about the mittens”

Crowds line Granville St. for a pair of the $10 Olympic fashion craze

The digital countdown clock behind the Vancouver Art Gallery ticks  down the remaining few hours before the 2010 Olympics officially begins. A man who looks like Johnny Depp, but isn’t, quietly walks along the sidewalk holding a piece of paper that says: “With a joyous heart we destroy the arts.”

He’s not alone; activists protesting the Games mobilize among the greater mass of red-and-white-ware that has overtaken downtown, punctuated only by the turquoise of Olympic volunteer jackets and yellow slickers on police behind the barricades. It isn’t all tasteful Canadian red-and-white as rendered by a long list of fashion stores, but also the more playful, garish use of the combination in Russian and Croatian team gear.

More extreme and wondrous is the sight of two gamine women in the crowd encased head to toe in red leotards, their facial features ghostly pressed against the lycra. In front of the art gallery, a cable wire runs above Robson Square hurtling jubilant dare-devils over the crowd with a “Look at me, look at me” glee—the perfect metaphor for the city itself.

Nothing, not the streets cordoned off by police guard, not even the shock of an athlete’s sudden and tragic death, seems able to dampen the frenetic energy. Two blocks over, crowds sail by a TV in the window of the Hudson Bay Company broadcasting “breaking news” from fellow Olympic sponsor CTV—news of the horrific crash that took the life of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the 21-year-old from Georgia during a practice run.

The crowd is thronging to The Bay’s Olympic Superstore. A lineup snakes the entire block down Granville St. behind the kind of velvet ropes commonly associated with keeping undesirables out of clubs. The only bid to exclusivity here is a Bay employee instructing: “Cash or Visa only.” Many are already wearing the Bay’s Olympic gear. Robert Foothorap, who works for CNBC in New York, is willing to wait it out for a few pairs of  $10 knitted mittens. He was at the 2002 Olympics and remembers how Roots’ “poor boy” hat created a retail sensation after Prince William donned one. He sees the red mittens with white maple leafs on the palm as the hot item of the Games that have yet to begin. Already, the Bay has moved close to two million units. As for the other gear, he’s not as interested: “It’s all about the mittens,” he says. Inside, mayhem; two middle-aged women with maple leafs painted on their cheeks snap up mitts in bulk.

Outside, the day is mild, grey and drizzly, not mitten weather at all. And still, people wear them.