Observant tennis fans - especially male tennis fans - may have noticed something revolutionary about Martina Hingis at this year's Wimbledon - apart from the fact that she was tragically knocked out in the first round. It was her outfit: a skin-tight, long-sleeved ultra-high-tech ensemble designed by Adidas to provide 'essential support in critical areas, and to improve efficiency and accuracy of movement'. The outfit is part of the company's new ASP sportswear technology range, which appears to be striving towards some kind of virtual nudity: it offers athletes all the comfort of having no clothes on, but with support in key areas and without the embarrassment.
Adidas is certainly not alone in its aims. The concept of almost-not-there sportswear has been around for a number of years, with top swimmers and sprinters squeezing into an array of lycra body-suits in the quest for perfect aqua- and aerodynamics. Now, however, the second skin concept is moving out of specialist sports and into mainstream fashion. Take football, for example. Twenty or even ten years ago, players used to drink, smoke and stay out all night with Miss World contestants - the last thing on their minds was the quality of their footy kits. Now they're all on strict diets controlled by sports scientists, and teams are looking for any technology that can give players that extra edge.
Kit manufacturers are hungry to oblige. The floodgates opened last year when Italy strolled out for the first game of Euro 2000 wearing hi-tech skin-tight tops designed by Nike. Suddenly fabric technology became the industry buzz phrase. David Blanch, who designed the sleek new England strip for Umbro, claims 'the shirt was anatomically designed to aid freedom of movement, reduce all overall weight and to increase ventilation using body mapping techniques which significantly improve overall comfort and fit'. Meanwhile, over at Fila, designers have developed a fabric named FTEC, which according to spokesman Dominic Munnelly, 'wicks away the sweat from the skin out through the material, leaving the body and shirt dry, and the player comfortable'.
But this current vogue isn't entirely motivated by player comfort. Two distinct forces guide the design and manufacture of mainstream sportswear - the needs of the athlete and the sartorial whims of the consumer - the latter, of course, being the major financial motivation. Sport clothing manufacturers are obsessive about anticipating street and catwalk fashions. In the USA, Nike famously employs kids as style detectives, roaming schools, ghettos and malls, and reporting back with the latest fads, while Milan-based Fila sneaks many a crafty glance at the world of high fashion.
What they've noticed over the last two years is the whole 'retro' thing - the fashion obsession with a blurry, idealized 1970s. Consequently, modern fitted football shirts aren't just about making the players feel nice and comfy, they're about grabbing back a share of the street fashion market. Fila's skinny new West Ham kit is heavily inspired by the team's Bobby Moore era and couldn't be more retro-chic if they'd changed the shirt sponsor to Spangles.
The hi-tech side of second skin sports clothing is also a big consumer pleaser. The world is currently deeply in love with technology, and everyone from Dyson to Honda to Persil has discovered the best way to sell your fear is to fill adverts with ludicrous techno-gibberish. So when sportswear manufacturers mention things like 'moisture wicking fabric', they're really just talking dirty to technophiles. And of course there are people out there who believe their dribbling skills, gold swing or backhand volley will be magically improved by this cyber-apparel - it's the Emperor's new sportswear.
On the subject of golf, Nike's current clothing for Tiger Woods shows how the skin-tight trend doesn't always work. The kinky take on traditional golf wear worn by Woods throughout the British Open is as disturbing as you'd imagine a combination of Pringle and Lycra would be. Elsewhere, Hingis can be spotted modelling Adidas' new Precision polo tennis top - which has a long sleeve on the right arm (for greater racquet holding support) and a short one on the left. Function over form is all very well, but asymmetry is sooo last year.
Unperturbed by these occasional aberrations, the quest for the perfect 'second skin' continues. Nike has recently released teasing concept sketches of its Mecurial boots due to be worn by sponsored stars such as Thierry Henry and Hidetoshi Nakata at the 2002 World Cup. Working to a theme of 'absolute minimalism' the designers are creating a boot so lightweight it should feel like playing barefoot - the idea being to enhance speed and touch, creating 'the ultimate striker's weapon'.
To think we all once scoffed at Star Trek's vision of a future in which we would all wear identikit skin-tight uniforms. Want to know what Brazil's top will look like in the 2002 World Cup? Simply slap an image of Captain Kirk into Photoshop and replace the Federation insignia on his yellow top with a Nike swoosh. You heard it here first.