They Need to Get in the Game

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

Something about the current Wimbledon has me scratching my head — and it’s not both Williams sisters losing in the third round despite their power groundstrokes, or Li Na and Caroline Wozniacki falling to Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova, who is ranked 43rd. It’s not, in fact, anything to do with playing style at all. Rather, it has to do with players’ style.

To be specific: Given the amount of excitement fashion is professing about that great new maybe-huge market known as “activewear;” given that designers including Tory Burch and Cynthia Rowley have all announced current or imminent activewear collections; given that Chanel sent every single exit down the runway last couture paired with elaborately embroidered ... sneakers; given that as a result Net-a-porter, the ur-etailer, is introducing “net-a-sporter” as a discrete part of its offering starting next week — given all that, why is Stella McCartney currently the only catwalk designer represented on Centre Court?

After all, the players are the stars of summer, and the stadium is their red carpet. If in doubt, just grab a copy of Vogue, which recently had the Wimbledon quarterfinalist Eugenie Bouchard modeling in its “Steal of the Month” pages. And as we all know, stars sells clothes.

If a brand wanted to demonstrate its seriousness about the sporting sector, hooking up with a tennis player would seem an obvious step. Especially since there is precedent here: in 1920 Suzanne Lenglen wore the couturier Jean Patou for her win at the Antwerp Olympic Games; just over a decade later, Lilí Álvarez wore a Schiaparelli trouser skirt at Wimbledon. Lacoste even used tennis as a springboard onto the catwalk, hosting its first runway show in 2003, 70 years after its debut on the court. They are called tennis “dresses” after all.

Yet in the many discussions of fashion before and during the current Wimbledon tournament, equivalent design names are notably absent — from the court at least. They’re in the stands, thanks to fans like Alexa Chung, and they are in the umpire seat and on the sidelines, thanks to the uniforms created by Ralph Lauren as the official outfitter. But on the grass itself? Nope.

This discrepancy does not exist only in tennis. It is also the case in soccer, where brands like Giorgio Armani, Paul Smith and Lanvin have long-standing deals with clubs to create their off-field looks, but are absent from competition. Yet Dolce & Gabbana (who similarly dress the Italian national team off the field) are responsible for both the shorts and robes of the Italian boxing team, and Ralph Lauren dresses the golf pros Luke Donald and Tom Watson on the green.

And it’s not that athletes themselves are uninterested in style: Simply see the numerous self-designed collections exploding on the tennis court: Maria Sharapova’s collaboration with Nike, Venus Williams’ EleVen.

Indeed, the latter trend has produced some interesting results: Remember Williams’ black lace corset dress at the 2010 French Open? Bethanie Mattek-Sands’ leopard print shorts and tank combo at the 2007 U.S. Open? How about Sharapova’s sheer tuxedo bib-cum-shorts-suit in 2008?

Seen in retrospect these sartorial experiments are reminiscent of nothing so much as the Academy Award errors that occurred before stylists got ahold of celebrities and started connecting them to designers (see: Demi Moore’s 1989 self-designed bike shorts-'n'-gown look; Geena Davis’ 1992 cancan moment). While people complain that since those good old days the red carpet has become boring, there’s no question the dressing choices have become more sophisticated.

So what’s stopping the same thing happening with tennis? It seems like such an obvious next step, for both sides of the equation.

When I asked, the Ralph Lauren team said it simply wasn’t a priority, as they had a strong court presence already. Stella McCartney, whose long-term relationship with Adidas (she brings an aesthetic edge and they bring performance cred) is the exception that proves the rule, suggested it had to do with commitment: While fashion often dabbles in performance gear collaborations, including Adidas and Rick Owens and Adidas and Opening Ceremony, Nike and Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy and Nike and Jun Takahashi of Undercover, the lines are often limited in product or nature.

Unlike similar collaborations between high street brands and high end names (H&M and Lanvin; Target and Missoni), where the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t aspect of the line adds to its appeal, when it comes to true athletic wear, longevity and reliability is of greater value than rarity. Yet both sides have, largely, seemed unwilling to enter into a significant commitment over time — this despite the fact that, for example, the luxury group Kering, which owns Balenciaga, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, also owns Puma.

Still, I think there’s a third factor that comes into play (pun intended), and it has to do with popular perception.

In the same way that politicians are not supposed to think too much about their clothing (or perhaps more accurately, are not supposed to be seen to be thinking too much about their clothing) because that suggests they are not thinking about more important issues like Iraq, athletes are not supposed to be seen to think too much about their clothing because they are supposed to be thinking about pregame conditioning and racket angles and doing things no player has ever done before. There is a superficial taint to fashion that suggests a lack of seriousness of purpose, and an elitism that elite athletes are nevertheless supposed to avoid (the theory being that they got where they are through natural talent and hard work, as opposed to privilege).

They can be fashion-y, in other words, but not too fashion-y. As much as we want our athletes to look polished, we also want to cling to the illusion that their focus is on the functionality of their body, not its use as a potential brand.