TENNIS, LUXURY’S FIRST ALLY

Virgil Abloh’s latest work for Nike and Serena Williams at Roland Garros reopens the debate around the connection between sports, fashion and luxury, worlds that are apparently compartmentalised but, in reality, they have a long history of collaborations and common life experiences. Perhaps the place where the line between sports and luxury has been blurred the most is tennis.

A relationship that started at the tennis courts, when tennis player René Lacoste started his long list of innovations with piqué polo shirts. Designed as sporting equipment, it would later hold a place in more informal kinds of wardrobes. An example that was followed by Fred Perry, another tennis player whose name has become a brand.

A lesser known name is Ted Tinling, a player turned designer who created the uniforms of many of the best female players between the decades of the forties and the eighties and who knew how to surround himself with just the right amount of scandals to become a legend. He did so, for example, in 1948, when he placed coloured-lace in Betty Hilton’s dress, causing a change in the regulations of the All England Lawn Tennis Club to make it compulsory to play completely in white. Before that date, there were no rules about the colour of the players’ uniforms, because nobody had ever thought of playing in any other colour than white. As he wasn’t allowed to play with colours, in 1949 he dressed Gussie Moran in such a short skirt that could reveal her lace underwear. The rules got stricter, forcing Tinling to resort to new ideas to keep shocking people. During the next four decades, he kept designing for starts of the male circuit and above all the female one, with Rosie Casals, Maria Bueno or Billie Jean King.

Tinling paved the way for other designers. During the fifties, the only person who dared follow his steps was Pierre Balmain , but everything changed by the end of the sixties, with the professionalisation of the sport. From the so-called Open Era onwards, professional tennis players were allowed to participate in the most traditional of championships, instead of facing each other in closed circuits. Until that moment, getting paid for playing tennis was seen as something shameful that should stay away from the most historic tournaments. Once paying tennis players for their performance was widely accepted, brands starting seeing them as walking advertisements.

If until that time this was the sport that was considered as the trend-creator, the streets started to follow, from that moment on fashion started introducing itself into the sport. During the next few decades, we saw the arrival of brands like Cerruti 1881 or Bally that tried to enter tennis and others like Gucci which appropriated the tennis style but stayed away from the performance aspect. The Gucci Tennis from 1984 is one of the sneakers that can most be associated with tennis, even though they weren’t really seen in the courts. It was also the, at the time, unknown start of collaborations between sports brands and designers, like Yonex’s collection with Issey Miyake in 1980 or Jean-Charles de Castelbajac’s incorporations to the creative teams of Ellesse and Le Coq Sportif.

In the last few years, Diane Von Furstenberg (with Reebok) Pharrell Williams, Stella McCartney and Yohji Yamamoto (with adidas) or Virgil Abloh (with Nike) have managed to keep the link between luxury and sport through tennis. Some of them have created scandals related to the colour of the cuts used, like the catsuit that was created for Serena Williams. Exactly the same scandals that were created by Ted Tinling a few decades prior.