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June 10, 2011 10:02 pm

New ballgowns please

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From Björn Borg’s headbands to Roger Federer’s monogrammed cardigans, fashion is as integral to Wimbledon as Murray Mount, or Henman Hill, as it used to be known. Whether through sports labels sponsoring players or designers revisiting traditional whites, clothing is a key part of the spectacle.

Stacey Allaster, chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, says: “Overall, we are in the entertainment business and tennis is one of the most theatrical sports stages. Players are on stage by themselves so their unique personality comes through and the costume is part of the show.”

Players are increasingly under scrutiny for what they wear off the court as well as on. Cue a new collaboration to celebrate Wimbledon’s 125th anniversary between the WTA and the British Fashion Council that will see British (or British-based) designers dressing tennis stars for the WTA Wimbledon party next week, which officially kicks off the tournament. The dresses will then be auctioned for charities.

In the tennis world, big fashion brands such as Ralph Lauren, the official Wimbledon outfitters, and sports labels such as Nike tend to dominate through sponsorship and partnerships. Indeed, well-known British brands Burberry and Stella McCartney are involved in the BFC/Wimbledon project, making dresses for Serena Williams and world number one Caroline Wozniacki (the latter is the face of Adidas by Stella McCartney) respectively. However, newer designers, such as Richard Nicoll and David Koma, are also taking part, not to mention those considered “daring” or “experimental”, such as Giles Deacon, Mary Katrantzou and Hussein Chalayan, hardly the usual red-carpet suspects for sports stars.

“It’s an opportunity for players to make introductions that will hopefully last, so that when they’re going to events they will think of new designers,” says Caroline Rush of the BFC. The red carpet is also a chance to dress up without prioritising practicality. Former world number one Ana Ivanovic, who will be wearing a Matthew Williamson dress for the party, says: “I love to dress up because I don’t get the opportunity very often. I spend most of the time in sports wear.”

It’s a view shared by other players taking part, who seem to regard red-carpet dressing as a pleasure rather than a pressure. Wozniacki says: “Fashion interests me so I like to take a bit of a risk and wear something different.” Allaster believes that the collaboration will showcase a traditional sport in a different way to what she calls its conventional “quiet, please” manner.

The benefits to designers are also clear. Just as sports stars are making money from moving into fashion – Maria Sharapova has brand extensions with Cole Haan and a line for Nike; Venus and Serena Williams have clothing lines, Björn Borg has a line of men’s underwear – smaller labels can gain global exposure by working with sports stars. Deacon has created a dress for Chinese player Li Na and he must have been thrilled when she won the French Open last week. Dressing a champion with a potential fanbase of 1.3bn is the marketing equivalent of an ace.

Dress for Vera Zvonareva by Hussein Chalayan

THE DRESSES

Hussein Chalayan

Dress for Vera Zvonareva

Chalayan is known for innovative, avant-garde designs, (as well as being the creative director of Puma) and while a tennis net that turned into a dress or a gown spelling out scores in LED lights would have been impressive, he’s chosen something a bit sleeker from his autumn/winter collection. It’s monochrome and one-strap, the better to frame powerful shoulders.

. . .

Dress for Andrea Petkovic by Richard Nicoll

Richard Nicoll

Dress for Andrea Petkovic

British designer Nicoll describes his dress, adapted from the resort collection, as “feminine without being overly saccharine, and progressive”. It updates a classic godet style using bandage jersey in a pale putty colour with cerise seams. The shape, which bears some resemblance to a traditional tennis dress, is romantic yet modern. But putty is pretty challenging to the complexion, so let’s hope Petkovic got some sort of tan at the French Open.

. . .

Dress for Jelena Jankovic by Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood

Dress for Jelena Jankovic

Westwood’s favoured hourglass shape harks back to the corsetry of the 18th century and Jankovic’s dress, which is still being made, will be a version of the “ball tie dress” pictured, probably in a vibrant pink, purple or red shade. Jankovic says: “I like being extravagant, as you might know from some of the colours I wear on court, so Vivienne Westwood suits me well. I love the idea of always looking different and catching people’s eye.”

. . .

David Koma

Dress for Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

Dress for Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova by David Koma

London Fashion Week designer Koma’s designs are usually sculptural and futuristic. However, like Richard Nicoll’s creation, this design is unashamedly reminiscent of a classic tennis dress, with its short white skirt and fitted bodice.

Adapted from Koma’s spring/summer collection, it was inspired by the Mariinsky theatre in St Petersburg, where Koma grew up, and the ballet Swan Lake.

As the designer says: “Even though the ballet is art, a lot of it is based on very physical activities.”

. . .

Giles Deacon

Dress for Li Na

The image of Lady Jane Grey on the bodice suggests that, for players at least, Wimbledon isn’t quite the Pimm’s-sipping paradise that it is for the spectators. It’s blood, sweat and tears, sacrifice and potential public humiliation – and the possibility of a short reign as the queen of the circuit.

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Giles Deacon and his dress for Li Na

Giles Deacon and his dress for Li Na

Giles Deacon on Li Na’s dress

Li Na

I’m making Li Na a dress from my autumn/winter collection. It’s just below the knee, super-chic, and I thought that would be the most appropriate for her to navigate the red carpet with maximum ease. This dress is a style that we knew would work and she was bang up for it. It’s a pretty classic cut, very flattering for her, and it’s not anything particularly difficult from a construction level but I think the print is, while not really challenging, not exactly floral either.

The image on the dress is “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey” by Paul Delaroche. I’ve always been fascinated by the picture – it’s got a kind of beautiful intensity to it – and it’s been one of the most popular paintings in London’s National Gallery for years.

I play tennis, although really badly. In terms of my outfit, I used to stay with a friend who had a court and we’d play in our pyjamas. I’ve never really dressed sportswomen and that interested me. I thought it would be interesting to see what makes them tick. All the players are super-svelte and fit but I’m also intrigued by their strength of character.

Obviously, Li Na being the number one player in China is also a bonus. I’ve been doing quite a lot of business trips to Asia over the past couple of months and, for an independent company like us, we’ve been getting some quite interesting press there. I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to maximise on all of that. Maybe the dress could be a bestseller in Beijing and Shanghai.

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