From the court to the catwalk: Serena Williams elevated tennis and fashion like no one else.
“A love that started a movement. The movement of loving exactly who you are. Of being so in love with your identity that your true essence cannot be contained.”
Beyoncé’s voiceover in the Gatorade commercial that pays homage to Serena Williams in her “last dance” plays on the word “love”. Which in tennis jargon is equivalent to “zero”. When there are no points on the scoreboard. When the number is shaped like an egg, which is “l’oeuf” in French, which later became “love”.
The singer narrates that starting at zero the most iconic tennis player of the 21st century started a movement. Her own revolution of many edges, with fashion as a protagonist.
It was no coincidence that she announced her “evolution” (avoiding the word “retirement”) from professional sports through Vogue. She could have announced it through any medium or platform. At this point, she can announce it however she wants. But she chose to do so in the iconic American publication, on the cover, alongside her daughter Olympia.
Her first appearance in the magazine was in May 1998, when Serena and Venus Williams were photographed by portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz. The dresses they wore on that occasion, by Carolina Herrera, saw a revival by Leylah Fernández last year. The 19-year-old Canadian tennis player attended the MET Gala as vice-champion of the US Open wearing a dress made for her as a tribute to that production.
The August 2022 cover wasn’t Williams’ first Vogue cover. In April 2015 she was featured on the cover, and three years later she appeared again with Olympia in her arms.
Serena traced her history through some of her most memorable looks on and off the court, starting in 1992 in her native Compton, California, in a dress her mom bought. She was usually the one who made the clothes for them and the one responsible for the Williams sister’s love for fashion.
She remembers as one of her favorites the outfit at Roland Garros 2002: a notable nod to soccer, with a short green and yellow dress, knee-high socks, and tennis shoes similar to a pair of cleats. This coincided with France’s bid to retain its world title at the Korea/Japan World Cup. The outfit suited Williams well: she won her first title in Paris that year.
She also points to her transfer from Puma to Nike as a turning point. The change of sponsor was made official for the 2004 U.S. Open with a very specific request: Serena wanted something similar to the jean shorts popularized by Andre Agassi years earlier. That was the beginning of a partnership that has been going strong for almost 20 years.
The “muse of a generation”
Every tennis tournament, and especially every major, is a special catwalk to showcase a different outfit. Tennis has that freedom because it is not a sport that requires uniforms.
While Williams trained before each Grand Slam, she prepared in detail what she was going to wear on the court. The high expectation to see what the tennis player would wear, is renewed in each event and remains so to date. This year she attracted attention with a black dress, encrusted with 400 diamonds, made of six layers, representative of her six titles at Flushing Meadows.
Probably the peak of that curiosity was reached at Roland Garros 2018, the tournament that marked her return after her pregnancy.
A collaboration with artist and designer Virgil Abloh resulted in a black, leg-length catsuit that appalled the president of the French Tennis Federation, who said that one had to “respect the game and the place.” Serena later clarified that she needed clothes with such compression because of postpartum blood circulation problems.
Virgil, creator of Off White and renowned for his work at Louis Vuitton, returned to collaborate with Williams later that year. “The Queen Collection,” as it was named, was designed for the New York Open. In that edition, she reached the finals for the second time in a row after becoming a mother, wearing an outfit similar to that of a ballet dancer. The outfit was immortalized, though not for the ideal reason.
Williams was defeated by a young Naomi Osaka in a contested final: a strong argument with the chair umpire Carlos Ramos, an uncontrolled tennis player, a defeated player and booing at the awards ceremony.
Before his tragic death last year, Virgil Abloh was one of the busiest designers in the fashion industry. He told CNBC what it was like to work with the younger Williams: “I didn’t have to think about it. My interest in fashion is not about the clothes, it’s about the people. She’s so much more than an amazing athlete, she’s the muse of a generation so, in a way, the clothes design themselves.”
With her farewell to competitive tennis, Nike loses one of its most coveted athletes: 23 Grand Slam singles titles, 14 in doubles, and four Olympic golds. A woman who changed the way tennis is played, but who took her performance to the next level: she knew how to break with the way female athletes are perceived, she released ties and relaxed ways of expressing herself. Williams embodied the courage to be herself and broke down barriers along the way.
Her career had an impact on the culture, and a big driver of that impact was fashion. Williams paved the way for every athlete to express herself through clothing. She was singled out, watched and even judged. Today, another story is being told.
Beyoncé shook up the music industry this year with her album “Renaissance.” The singer’s own work could be a reference to Williams in her track Alien Superstar: “I’m the only one. Don’t spend your time trying to compete with me.”
Cover photo credit: NIKE
Translation: Laura Gallacher
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