Next week, Serena Williams will debut her newly-released Nike "Queen Collection," designed by Off-White designer and Louis Vuitton men's creative director Virgil Abloh, at the U.S. Open's 50th edition tournament in New York. Though the 23-time Grand Slam winner is historically known for her fashion-forward outfits at matches — see her sleek black catsuit from the 2018 French Open — her anticipated look, consisting of a one-shoulder dress with a tutu skirt and glitter sneakers, takes the sartorial relationship between fashion and tennis to another level.
With a slew of major fashion statements throughout 2018, from collaborations and new launches to on-court appearances, tennis is having a very stylish year. Earlier this summer, streetwear dominated Wimbledon, thanks to Palace's collaboration with Adidas, which garnered even more attention when Angelique Kerber took home her first Wimbledon title sporting the British skate label's logo. Roger Federer also made waves as soon as he stepped onto the grass courts in London: His all-white outfit confirmed rumors of a new endorsement and global ambassadorship deal with Uniqlo, and the end of a two-decade relationship with Nike.
"I have a very classic, nice style on and off the court, which apparently reflects a lot with what Uniqlo also stands for," said Federer at a private event in New York on Wednesday. The Swiss tennis champ's reportedly $300-million, 10-year contract with the Japanese mega-retailer will not only allow Federer to "make the best-looking apparel for a tennis player" alongside artistic director Christophe Lemaire, but he'll also be involved with its LifeWear collection of everyday apparel. After all, Uniqlo is a fashion brand above all else.
"Tennis has sometimes lost its way a little bit to just performance," noted Federer, using the evolution of tennis shoes as an example, which used to be wearable on the streets but have now become so aggressively designed solely for function and the sport. “I try to always bring back simplicity and the craftsmanship and the beauty of it back onto the tennis court."
According to Clare Varga, WGSN's Active Director, the traditional tennis aesthetic is as much of a perennial trend as nautical or florals. "Right now, though, tennis has certainly raised its game and is having more than a moment both on and off the court," she tells Fashionista. In the menswear space, specifically, Philipp Plein created an entire tennis-themed collection for Spring 2019 in Milan. At Pitti Uomo, Z Zegna also looked to tennis for inspiration, as well as signed young tennis player Alexander Zverev (who is, currently, ranked fourth in the world) as the face of the brand. Supreme also revived its love for the sport this year by collaborating with Lacoste for a second time and releasing box-logo tennis balls by Wilson Sporting Goods.
So, why now? Varga notes that the sport itself is becoming more diverse and accessible. The United States Tennis Association started an effort last year to inspire more kids to play tennis, and, as of Wednesday, you can even have a match in space.
With the launch of its tennis collection in June, Outdoor Voices aimed to do away with the country-club connection usually associated with the sport. Instead, design director Alexa Silva was inspired by the team's own interest in the game. "A lot of us have played together and have a variety of skill sets," she says. "From choosing activities, [tennis] definitely kept coming up." To maintain tennis as a democratic sport, the brand partnered with Global Tennis Network to provide an interactive map of public courts on its website.
"Tennis has always had an elite feel and therefore naturally speaks to the ath-luxe market and high-end designers, but it's also a sport that's rich in nostalgia and retro appeal, which equally has huge youth appeal," says Varga.
Fila is aiming to attract a whole new generation of tennis players and fans by signing 15-year-old Leo Borg (son to Swedish tennis legend Björn Borg), a partnership that was announced back in June. "Björn really made the brand famous, and he was a style icon in the early '70s," says Jennifer Estabrook, COO at Fila North America. "It just seemed to make sense as a logical next step to sign Leo." The sportswear brand is also making its first formal appearance in the high-fashion space with a runway debut at Milan Fashion Week this fall.
Forever 21 is bringing tennis to Gen Z, too, with the arrival of its collaboration with Wilson in the beginning of August. The collection boasts vintage-inspired styles, like windbreakers, track suits, tennis skirts and crop tops.
Lilly Pulitzer started offering tennis-focused apparel after almost a decade since its first-ever capsule release. "At the time, we had a designer who was a very avid tennis player and she wanted to get it out there," recalls Mira Fain, the brand's executive vice president of design. "We wanted to get back into it when we really had the know-how for great and superior product. We came back this year and we just did it bigger and better."
Though the collection speaks to Lilly Pulitzer's ethos of year-round resortwear, Fain made sure the pieces featured performance-friendly fabrics with sun-protection and moisture-wicking elements. "The response has been great," says Fain. "I literally just came from a meeting and we're launching another capsule in the spring. It's definitely part of the line going forward."
This increase in consumer demand for tennis goes beyond Lilly Pulitzer's shoppers. In a new report from Lyst, fashion searches including the word "tennis" are up 59 percent compared to last year. (Tennis skirts, dresses and men's tennis shorts are considered the most-wanted items.) Plus, the global fashion search platform acquired 3,200-plus results for tennis-related pieces, which amounts to a 15-percent jump in volume year on year.
"If the appeal of tennis was in any doubt, a quick look at the celebrity and fashion elite audience will confirm that the front row has most definitely moved court side," says Varga. Indeed, Wimbledon welcomed Alexa Chung, Stella McCartney, Meghan Markle, Kate Middleton and, of course, avid tennis fan Anna Wintour to catch a few matches. Come September, we certainly expect the Vogue editor-in-chief to traverse boroughs for a night session at Arthur Ashe Stadium, too — as soon as she's done with a full day of shows at New York Fashion Week.
Homepage image: Adidas x Palace Tennis 2018 lookbook. Photo: Alasdair McLellan