In New York on Monday, Serena Williams received the Fashion Icon Award from the American Council of Fashion Designers. During her tennis career, the multiple Grand Slam winner liked to profile herself as a style icon. With a silver-colored corset, a black catsuit, patent leather sneaker boots and pink leopard prints, she shattered the stylistic tennis codes. In that sense, the award is a meritorious reward for vestimentary daring. Williams, who has her own clothing label, is the first athlete to receive the prestigious fashion prize.
The interaction between fashion and sport is timeless, says ex-Olympian and designer Élodie Ouédraogo. ‘In the 80s and 90s there were athletes like Florence Griffith-Joyner, who had their own unique style on the track. Her sportswear was truly an extension of her personality and a way to express herself alongside her amazing achievements.”
Athlete becomes brand
Yet something has changed in the past decade. Individual expression is now also important off the field. The popularity of Instagram accounts such as Blitzfits, Slamkicks and Leaguefits suggests there is an audience for the style choices of sporting heroes. “With the rise of social media, athletes have become their own brand,” says professor of sports economics Wim Lagae (KU Leuven). “The way they establish their personal brand outside the arena is almost as important as their athletic performance. The more visible they are, the more attractive they become for commercial deals.’
Fashion and sports intersect at the intersection of consumerism and entertainment. Fans are no longer just interested in the achievements of their heroes. “Especially in popular sports such as football, basketball and tennis, athletes almost seem like rock stars,” says Lagae. ‘Their extravagant lifestyle appeals to the imagination of the general public. When footballer Charles De Ketelaere went shopping at Rolex in Milan, for example, it was in all the newspapers.’
Due to their increasing influence, athletes relate to brands differently. ‘Precisely because the athlete is gaining in importance as a public figure, both sports managers and brands are becoming more conscious of partnerships. It’s a matter of marketing. Both parties tell a story and those stories must match,” says Lagae.
This evolution has significantly changed the playing field, meaning that strongholds such as Nike and Adidas are flanked by luxury brands. Where athletes used to have one good sponsorship deal, they can now often fall back on multiple agreements, says Lagae. ‘Take Lionel Messi. In addition to his sporting deal with Adidas, the footballer has 18 private sponsors, including Louis Vuitton.’
The big earners among sports stars are themselves among the target audience of luxury brands. But classic European fashion houses owe their allure to their association with old capital, while sports icons build their relatively new fortunes on athletic performance. ‘Top athletes constantly surpass themselves. Their social and financial status is strongly linked to their exceptional physical efforts and values such as perseverance and competitiveness. In doing so, they give a different interpretation to the idea of success. That is exactly what makes them attractive ambassadors for luxury brands.’
For example, Serena Williams opened the Vogue World fashion show in London earlier this year. American football star Megan Rapinoe featured in a Loewe campaign. And after Italian tennis player Jannik Sinner entered the court with a Gucci bag, BBC commentator James Burridge promptly named him a style icon.
Belgian fashion designer Dirk Bikkembergs was way ahead of his time when he bought an Italian football team 20 years ago and sent the players onto the field in his designs. Since then, Armani has done the same for the Azzurri, the Italian national team. The new jerseys for the Jamaican national team were designed by Grace Wales Bonner. And when Messi signed with Inter Miami in July, the team’s pink shirts sold out quickly. Football jerseys are no longer the privilege of stadium fanatics, especially since it-girls like Julia Fox and Bella Hadid combine them with Adidas Samba shoes, another legacy of football.
Own clothing line
‘Sportswear has always had a place in our everyday outfits. Now take Converse. Nowadays we wear them with jeans, but those shoes originally come from basketball. Some of the sneakers we wear now have been in development for more than a decade. We don’t always think about it, but sport is a very innovative sector anyway,” says Ouédraogo.
Twenty years ago, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson spoke disparagingly about David Beckham’s ‘fashion stuff’. Nowadays, sports teams turn to designers to shape their brand identity. For example, in 2021, the New York Knicks basketball club hired Ronnie Fieg from streetwear brand Kith as creative director. And last week it was announced that Kim Kardashian will supply the American basketball competitions NBA and WNBA with underwear with her Skims.
‘Sports teams are brands in themselves, they want to be associated with trendy brands. It’s a win-win situation,” says Lagae. ‘Because they can expand their merchandising offering, while it is an opportunity for brands to diversify.’ They also understand this well at Louis Vuitton. The trophy for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar was delivered in a custom-made suitcase from the French luxury house. In addition, parent company LVMH is one of the largest sponsors for the 2024 Olympic Games with 150 million euros. It illustrates how fashion brands are trying to structurally anchor themselves in the sports world.
The reverse movement has also been initiated. Previously, athletes such as tennis player Stan Smith and basketball player Michael Jordan made money by attaching their names to shoes and clothing. The new generation of (former) athletes prefers to do it themselves. This is how American sprinter Allyson Felix started her own sneaker brand. In our own country there is Ouédraogo, the one with Olivia Borlée activewear designs under the Unrun label. It is striking that, like Felix, they remain in the background. ‘On the one hand, as an athlete you are the best ambassador. But if you are a well-known face, it quickly becomes a personality brand that makes people wonder whether they are paying for a good product or for status. We learned everything ourselves and are involved in every step of the process,” says Ouédraogo. ‘Unrun started with us, but our community has since grown so much.’