How Modern Brands are Disrupting Convention on the Tennis Court
How Modern Brands are Disrupting Convention on the Tennis Court
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date July 11, 2018
Fashion has always had a tightly woven relationship with sport. The aesthetics associated with skateboarding and soccer have influenced the modes of high fashion and streetwear alike for years, with both reaching their respective pinnacles in recent seasons. Basketball, too, has had a lasting impact on the way we dress, with the sport and its athletes at the root of sneaker culture; contemporaneously, the players that make up the NBA have become billboards for designer and streetwear labels, in addition to signature sneakers.
Tennis, on the other hand, has always had a more complicated relationship with fashion; one which we at Dry Clean Only shed some light on in the past. Lacoste and Fred Perry were brands born from tennis, while players like Björn Borg, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi helped pioneer a style that contrasted the stuffy country club preconceptions that people held. That being said, tennis has, traditionally, been fashionable on court, with little in the way of off-court cross-over outside of the aforementioned brands. Fred Perry and fellow Euro tennis brands Diadora, Sergio Tacchini and Ellesse were actually co-opted by football culture in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and their ties to tennis grew more obscure.
Nike has, traditionally, reigned supreme when it comes to tennis apparel and footwear. The game’s biggest players—Agassi, McEnroe, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal—have sported the Swoosh over the years and while other brands’ ambassadors bounce around—Andy Murray has worn adidas, Fred Perry and Under Armour—Nike’s athletes (at least in tennis) tend to stick with the brand through thick and thin. With a reliable cast of characters on its roster, Nike pioneered the cultural crossover in recent years, at least relative to the world of tennis. Agassi’s Air Tech Challenge 2 has arguably had the most impact of any modern tennis shoe, ever, but Roger Federer’s on-court kicks have sported iconic Air Max 95 and Air Jordan colorways, in a bid to draw sneaker aficionados to the sport.
Now, though, that Swoosh-led hegemony is being challenged with adidas and Uniqlo—one a familiar foe and the other a new one—placing a renewed emphasis on tennis, both in terms of money and marketing. While adidas’ latest collaboration with London-based skate brand Palace may be the one that has grabbed headlines (we’ll get to that in a minute) it isn’t the first time that adidas has attempted to merge tennis and pop culture. During last year’s US Open, the fourth and final Grand Slam of the season, adidas gave us a big hint that tennis was in the company’s plans with a performance-based collaboration with Pharrell Williams that referenced the colorful styles of tennis players in the ‘70s. That coincided with Pharrell reimagining the Stan Smith, named for the great American tennis player, through his PW Tennis HU, a contemporary, streamlined version of the classic white leather sneaker.
Pharrell’s playful designs were quite à propos for Flushing Meadows, where matches are played until late in the night in front of raucous fans, but how much impact they had on adidas’ tennis business is tough to quantify. The collection was stocked by pinnacle lifestyle retailers, as well as adidas’ direct-to-consumer webstore, but the emphasis was on making on-court attire fashionable, rather than on creating off-court fashion inspired by the on-court look. In a sense, adidas was setting the table for this season’s collaboration with London-based skate brand Palace, which has invaded the always-proper All-England Club for the duration of Wimbledon. While still meant to be worn on-court, and despite the all-white palette per Wimbledon rules, the adidas x Palace collection has more off-court appeal than last year’s Pharrell collaboration. That owes largely to Palace’s cult following; much like the comparisons between Pharrell and Kanye West’s impact on adidas’ business, the former offered more broad exposure, while the Palace collection has been heralded by influencers and industry insiders.
adidas’ approach isn’t necessarily new, though. For one, it draws from Nike’s anti-establishment approach in tennis with players like McEnroe and Agassi; coverage for the collaboration has appeared with headlines like “Rebel Streetwear Brand Palace Has Crashed Wimbledon" and, really, despite playing by Wimbledon’s strict all-white rules, there’s no better place to challenge the status quo than the All-England club’s grass courts. Secondly, the brand is tapping into ‘cool’ people’s passive interest in tennis, much like the brand has done with soccer fandom. i-D raised a good point, arguing that tennis style is at its worst when it tries to be fashionable; the strength of the Palace collection is that the brand is presenting traditional tennis style to its fans, without changing much. It’s an endorsement of the aesthetic rather than trying to force an aesthetic upon the sport’s athletes.
So far, adidas’ foray seems to be drawing mixed reactions. Industry heads seem to be loving it and it’s almost surreal to see players like Alexander Zverev and Garbine Muguruza bouncing around the court in Palace strips, while casual fans are decrying this as the death knell for Palace as a “skate brand”. However, if soccer is the blueprint that adidas is following, time should look kindly upon merging tennis with culture.
adidas’ emphasis on leaving tennis fashions intact and merely presenting it to new segments represents a break with how Nike has made its mark on tennis, which is all the more important given Uniqlo’s massive investment in the sport at the expense of the Swoosh. Much of Nike’s cultural capital in the tennis world has been derived from Roger Federer, the ageless wonder who’s effortless playing style and understated cool have allowed him to pull off crossover endeavours like the aforementioned Zoom Vapor AJ3. Federer probably should have gotten a lifetime deal from Nike, but with him now skipping the clay court season and approaching his 40s, the brand balked at matching the $300 million offer that Uniqlo offered him.
Uniqlo is not in this to compete with Nike, adidas or other sportswear brands from a performance standpoint, nor is trying to turn Japan into a tennis-crazed nation that will mindlessly buy anything that Federer endorses. At least not according to Bloomberg, which points out that Uniqlo is facing stagnating sales in Japan and is thus eager to grow its business abroad. What better way to do that than with Federer, one of the most recognizable athletes across the world who competes in a sport synonymous will disposable income and casualwear. Again, Uniqlo is not trying to do anything new with tennis; much like adidas, Uniqlo is simply trying to translate on-court style into off-court sales rather than the reverse.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether that’s feasible. Perhaps Nike’s strategy of bringing cool to tennis has run its course and the sport is cool enough on its own for a country club-esque aesthetic to take root in streetwear and fashion. It’s not hard to imagine that as a sort of younger and more luxurious normcore. adidas and Palace are likely to resist the sport in upcoming seasons, at least if the brands’ soccer-centric partnership is any indication. Uniqlo will be banking on tennis for the next decade too—as the Federer news is indicating. Other brands, like Lacoste, Fred Perry, Ellesse, Diadora and Sergio Tacchini—which all enjoyed nice boosts with the soccer and terrace wear craze of the last 18 months—will surely be looking to capitalize on two heavy-hitters putting tennis at the fore.
Tennis will, undoubtedly, factor into the collective aesthetic in the coming years, but the extent to which it becomes ingrained in fashion culture—like soccer and skateboarding—which periodically come and go, is up to the masses.