When a perfect 10 isn't enough, there’s EleVen. That's the name of tennis pro and sports style icon Venus Williams' new "tennis lifestyle brand," with its dresses, tops and bottoms designed to be worn on and off the court.
Williams, 32, is the winner of 21 Grand Slam titles and three Olympic gold medals and has been ranked No 1 in the world several times since she entered pro tennis in 1994 at age 14.
This summer, she's headed back to the Olympics in London, where no doubt her outfits, as well as her game, will make headlines.
Black crinoline skirts, corset lacing and puffy sleeves have characterised some of Williams' memorable fashion moments on the court. But her designs for EleVen are more understated. "I had a lot of fun doing designs on the court which were unprecedented for sports," Williams said recently from London, where she is training and preparing to play Wimbledon, which started on Monday. "But I wanted to do something that will be available to everyone that's my vision of sportswear."
The "Oh and Oh" tennis dress ($96) could take you to the mall as well as the court, with gray-and-white colour-blocked sections (one with an abstract handwriting print) and pale pink grosgrain ribbon trim. The "BFF" tank top ($58) has feminine-looking ruching at the bust line and double crisscross spaghetti straps with a single rose gold charm attached. The "Geo Star" capri leggings ($49) come in a gray-and-white geometric print inspired by Williams' love of Hollywood Regency-style interior design. (Williams also owns the V Starr Interiors design firm, located in Jupiter, Fla.)
Williams said fashion, like tennis, is her "heart and sweat and pride and joy." She earned a degree in fashion design at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in 2007, and she first launched EleVen for the apparel chain Steve & Barry's, which went into bankruptcy in 2008. She went on to design some tennis pieces for Ralph Lauren and Gilt.com.
Williams, who has homes in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and Los Angeles, is producing the line with an LA-based design team and manufacturing partner. She sketches her designs and transfers them onto a computer so they can be interpreted by the design team. After the samples are made, she tries on every piece.
EleVen should fit right into the growing fashion fitness category, sitting alongside such lines as Lululemon and Stella McCartney for Adidas.
"My inspiration isn't from sports; it's more from ready-to-wear," Williams said. Indeed, she's been known to take in a fashion show or two and calls Vogue magazine editor at large Andre Leon Talley a mentor. Her website features a trends section that notes what's happening on the runway and how it relates to her designs. She name-checks Tommy Hilfiger, Marc Jacobs and Derek Lam. With Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open coming up, this summer is the perfect time to relaunch her brand, she said. The collection is available now at ElevenbyVenus.com and in pro shops.
Some pieces incorporate handwritten inspirational messages from Williams, such as "Oh & Oh," "Beat 'Em" and "Bring It." "It's lifestyle pieces you can mix and match," she said. "The 'Oh and Oh' shirt, I wear with a black blazer and heels and jeans. 'Oh and Oh' is a tennis term.... It's a nice way of saying you took your opponent to pieces."
Williams' first book, Come to Win (2010), is filled with wisdom about how competitive spirit can help people master their professions. But her philosophy isn't all about winning. "It's about what you learn from the experience," Williams said. "Winning, we don't grow. But losing opens our eyes up to what we can be," she said. "Everything in my life came from tough losses, and not only in tennis."
Williams had to withdraw from the US Open in 2011 shortly before her second-round match, when she said her limbs were so swollen she couldn't lift her arm above her head. She announced that she'd been diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease caused when white blood cells, the body's natural defenders against foreign invaders, start attacking the body's moisture-producing glands as well. The rare disease affects the entire body, including the mouth, eyes, lungs and kidneys, as well as causing joint pain and swelling. She started a raw vegan diet and stress management to try to minimise the effects of the condition, which is incurable. Because of the disease, she's played only a handful of tournaments this year, most recently losing in the second round at the French open in May. She's fallen to No 55 in the Women's Tennis Association rankings, and for the first time since her Wimbledon debut in 1997, she'll enter the tournament where she's won five singles championships unseeded. So right now she is more focused on her game than on fashion. "I'm only seeing tennis balls these days," Williams said. "And maybe the occasional fashion sketch."
She's especially excited about the red, white and blue dress, inspired by her favourite superhero, that she has designed to wear at the Olympics. "Since I started playing at the Olympics in 2000, I have always wanted to do a dress based on Wonder Woman. It should be interesting to wear. And hopefully, it will get me a gold medal."
Williams will produce a limited-edition Olympics capsule collection for EleVen, based on the dress, which will go on sale on her website next month. Since her sister Serena is under contract, she'll wear Nike at the Olympics, not EleVen. (However, the colours of the sisters' dresses will match when they play doubles). But in the future, Williams does want to dress other tennis players. "We have a lot of people interested in wearing the line because it's fun and it stands for something. And it's a nice change from the usual labels."