From glossy magazine covers to generation-defining on-court styles, Serena Williams bowed out at the US Open on Friday, having rewritten the fashion manual for female athletes while building her own empire.
The 23-time Grand Slam winner took to women’s fashion bible, Vogue, to announce that she was “getting away from tennis”. before taking to the court in her dazzling Nike sneakers at the US Open this week under the watchful eyes of the magazine’s leading lady, Anna Wintour.
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The fiercely competitive queen of Queens put up a gritty performance in what is expected to be her final tournament, losing in the third round 7-5 6-7(4) 6-1 to Ajla Tomljanovic with her legacy as a cultural icon . in place.
“Style and sport have always been closely linked, but not athlete embraced the power of fashion like Serena Williams,” Footwear News editor Katie Abel told Reuters.
“She’s never been shy about looking at looks that cross the line, on or off the pitch, and always knows how to send a message, even if it’s controversial.”
She competed at Flushing Meadows in a denim skirt in 2004 and ruffled feathers at Roland Garros in 2018, when she wore a black jumpsuit to maintain her circulation after developing blood clots in the days following the childbirth.
After organizers said they would ban the combination from their clay courts, Williams supporters cried foul. Williams joked to The Associated Press, “When it comes to fashion, you don’t want to be a repeat offender.”
The moment was an instant classic and showed she could harness fashion to disrupt the status quo, said Katie Lebel, a gender equity in sport researcher and assistant professor at the University of Guelph.
“Sexism has been pretty pervasive when it comes to women’s clothing…Expectations of what female athletes should look like have been particularly steeped in that,” she said.
“Enter Serena and she’s pushed all that back. I think she’s really rethought (the) uniform standards for women in tennis.
Serena and her sister Venus brought black style to the predominantly white sport when they first stepped onto the court as professionals in the 1990s, facing criticism for wearing beaded braids in competition.
Williams wore the style when she won her first Grand Slam in New York. Photos of her daughter Olympia sporting identical braids in the stands at Flushing Meadows this year caused an instant sensation.
“From the moment Serena and her sister Venus stepped onto the court with their signature braids…they have been role models for black women and aspiring female athletes around the world,” Abel said.
Williams’ friendship with late Louis Vuitton creative director Virgil Abloh resulted in one of her most memorable US Open ensembles, a ballerina-inspired Nike kit in 2018, when she was on course for a record 24th major title, but fell short in the final.
While her US Open run is over, her work in New York has just begun, with a ‘Glam Slam’ preview of her S by Serena brand’s new looks set for September 12 to coincide with New York Fashion Week.
And her retirement from competitive sport is expected to have little to no impact on her brand value – with Nike planning to continue its partnership with the 40-year-old.
“Williams may be retiring from tennis, but I guess her influence on fashion is just beginning. If not for her grueling training schedule, I think she would have even more time and energy to focus on this category,” said Nora Milch, fashion director of W magazine.
A true fashion mogul off the court, Serena was named to the board of shopping app Poshmark in 2019, opening her own closet alongside pieces from Olympia to customers in the fashion market.
Manish Chandra, founder and CEO of Poshmark, said Williams has inspired several other female entrepreneurs to sell on the app with her unique voice and perspective.
“As a female empowerment champion, Serena always leads with love and helps ensure that our Poshmark community is at the center of everything we do,” Chandra told Reuters.
“Her accomplishments and vision in the worlds of business, fashion and entrepreneurship have made her the perfect candidate for our Board of Directors…She leads with humility, kindness and authenticity.”
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