Underwear and sport have a long and fruitful association: think David Beckham and those Armani briefs, or Didier Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo in vacuum-packed Calvin Kleins on that Vanity Fair cover. Most recently, there is Venus Williams, five-time Wimbledon women’s singles champion and, as of last month’s French Open, controversial purveyor of the flesh-coloured hot pant.
Whether or not she will dare repeat her fashion statement as the Wimbledon gates swing open on Monday is yet to be seen – “Wimbledon is strict,” she admits. But what has been revealed is that the creative responsible for her on-court wardrobe is, in fact, Venus Williams herself.
In this she is but the most dedicated example of a current trend that has seen tennis seize the high ground back from fashion, which in recent years had been swinging its way handily on to centre court (Diane von Furstenberg, Ralph Lauren and Chanel have all created tennis lines). Now Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer have teamed up with Nike to produce eponymous sportswear collections, while Rafael Nadal is collaborating with watchmaker Richard Mille.
Williams senior, however, has gone one step further, ignoring lucrative sponsorship deals to design her own independent women’s sportswear range. Called EleVen – “it’s about being your best, being better than 10. When you are being your best, you look your best, and when you look good you feel good” – she’s her own best spokesperson. The line was launched in 2007 but when its sole stockist, US sports retailer Steve & Barry’s, folded in 2008, Williams was forced to suspend production. She will relaunch the range at the US Open in August. Although she models the pieces on court, they will not be on sale until later this year.
Williams insists that her mission is not about breaking sartorial boundaries. Instead, “I want to be me – unique – and represent myself in my game, in my attitude and in what I wear. It is all very appropriate; it all looks really good and colourful. Here is the brand, I am in control.” Thus, musing on the hot pant hoo-ha, she says, “At the Australian Open I wore a dress with the illusion of slits with nude shorts, and I thought ‘I want to do more with that illusion,’ so I wore lace with a whole new body suit attached to it [at the French Open]. It looks like it is skin underneath, so that way it is not taking away from the design.” As if oblivious to the media storm that ensued, she describes her own style as “definitely classic but fun, still reserved and still sexy”. Translation: canary yellow halter-neck at last year’s Australian Open; purple and blue psychedelic tie-die dress at last year’s Masters tournament in Rome; that lace dress at the French; and, she hints, a possible white lace dress at Wimbledon. All the designs boast the EleVen logo – a large V, not dissimilar to the garland logo on Fred Perry Tshirts. As for her equally fashion-loving sister: “Serena wears Nike [on court]. But perhaps, one day, EleVen will be able to afford her!”
Although it took her eight years to complete, Williams holds a degree in clothing design from the Fort Lauderdale School of Fashion and Design. “I started school at 19 and finished at 27 – it was a little slower after the Majors,” she says. “You learn to make patterns, to sew, to thread industrial machines, about fabrics, textiles, you learn about the whole industry.” If she could collaborate with any fashion house, she says, it would be Louis Vuitton, and she cites Dolce & Gabbana as one of her style inspirations. Her favourite shop is Barneys Co-Op in the US, “because there are so many different designers from off the beaten path”, while her favourite shoe designers are Giuseppe Zanotti and Sergio Rossi: “Lately they have really picked up.” Williams’ motto – even on court – is “accessorise, accessorise, accessorise!” She is also a sucker for cosmetics: “I had a beauty product addiction,” she says.
In other words, this is all about What Next. Williams acknowledges she is looking beyond the short shelf life of professional tennis. Alongside sportswoman and fashion designer, she also has her own interior design firm, V*Starr, and is launching a book, Come to Win, on “how sports can help you top your profession”, during the second week of Wimbledon.
“I really don’t want to travel the world constantly and I would like to have something that I am interested in,” says Williams. “I have goals to design hotels and you know ... slave away and obsess. Obviously, I am serious enough to go to design school and I want to continue what I love. I am absolutely crafting a post-tennis career.” It’s a career grand slam.
‘Come to Win’ by Venus Williams is published by Amistad (£15.29/$25.99)
Skin deep, a books essay on the philosophy of beauty
Full steam ahead
I am sitting in Easton Regal hair salon in central London and I am steaming. Literally. My head is covered by an enormous plastic helmet-come-halo and a fine mist is rising from the contraption, writes Libby Richardson.
This may not sound the usual way of achieving a picture-perfect mane of hair but that is what I am told will be mine after a Micro Mist, a Japanese invention which promises to use the power of steam to penetrate hair and lock in any treatment right down to the follicles. “We’re not fans of slapping on a treatment and calling it a service,” says my stylist Hannah. “We wanted to work with something we believed in.”
Hannah believes in Micro Mist so much she slaps on a rather astonishing three different kinds of Kevin Murphy conditioner to treat my limp, lacklustre hair with dry ends. Then, after applying an intensive mask to my hair, I am manoeuvred into position under the plastic halo.
I am left to steam there for eight minutes and, despite anxieties about the prospect of mascara dripping down my moist face, the warmth is strangely soothing. The treatment, which takes 45 minutes in all, finishes with a complimentary blow-dry.
Outside the salon, I face my first challenge: a humid Tube ride followed by a blustery walk to the office. The former is likely to make my hair wilt; the latter to wreak havoc with the blow-dry. Thanks, however, to Hannah, and three weeks’ worth of conditioner, I arrive at work with defiantly voluminous, silky hair. And my mascara still in place.
Micro Mist treatment and blow-dry, £30, www.eastonregal.com