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Serena Williams is cultivating a new generation of Nike designers

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The supreme athlete discusses the launch of the inaugural Serena Williams Design Crew collection, her upcoming biopic, and what she’s wearing to the Met Ball

It’s 8:30am in Florida and Serena Williams wants to crawl back into bed. “I’m not really a morning person,” she confesses, despite having already crossed off an intensive “200 degree heat” training session. “If I don’t get it early, it just gets too much. You know?” As she packs up courtside, she sounds as if she’s resigned to the fact she won’t ever be able to dissapear beneath the sheets – at least not for the next year or so, anyway. In a few weeks time, Williams will make her return to the US Open – where she holds a record number of wins – before a Warner Bros biopic of her life gets its worldwide release in November. She’s also just started work on a docuseries with Amazon Studios whilst juggling a fashion line, a VC investment firm, and motherhood. Today, however, she is calling about the launch of her latest initiative with Nike: the Serena Williams Design Crew.

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That perhaps the greatest athlete in American history should partner with Nike comes as little surprise. The label first cosied up to the tennis champ in 2003 with an alleged $50 million dollar sponsorship deal, which, two decades later, has given rise to countless co-branded capsule collections, including a collaboration with Louis Vuitton’s artistic director, Virgil Abloh. Williams is quick to stress that the Serena Williams Design Crew is different, because “it’s a project which is really close to my heart”. Established in 2019, the SWDC constitutes a six month Project Runway-style apprenticeship, which tasks fledgling designers with creating a boundary-pushing collection alongside Williams and Nike’s in-house team – the first of which is unveiled today.

Based at Nike’s headquarters in Oregon, this fellowship “directly responds to different opportunities to increase diversity across the design industry,” Williams says, having plucked her first cohort from the fringes of New York’s fashion scene, and the second, who were inaugurated in May, from Chicago. “I wanted to see emerging designers that looked like and represented me. From all walks of life.” Under Nike’s infrastructure, this blossomed into an annual scheme aimed at “bringing different innovations into sport, while supporting all types of people who are designing with impact”. And though the idea originally came from Williams, she notes how “Nike was on the same page” from the offset. “It was a real joint effort,” she says.

Seven of the original ten apprentices from Williams’ class of 2020 went on to become full time Nike employees. It’s about “leading with opportunity”. That being said, Williams does admit that it has not always been plain sailing – especially given the cataclysmic effects of the past year. “You know what? It’s definitely been different. We’ve had a lot of Zoom calls and the world has learnt how to work differently, and be just as, if not more, efficient,” she says. While Williams was able to spend time, in-person, with her first batch of apprentices (“a wonderful experience”) she has been no less hands-on with this year’s group. “I said ‘step up’ and they definitely stepped up, producing some incredible designs.”

Today’s debut SWDC collection is smaller than anticipated, but nonetheless “mind blowing,” as Williams puts it. Technical dungarees, distended jersey dresses, chin-high bodysuits, and West African, kente-derived prints are swept up in brassy shades of tangerine, olive, and teal. Given that almost every detail has been designed with its mentor in mind, this is a collection deserving of molecular analysis – be it the asymmetric colour blocking and aerodynamic cut-outs, which careen across the wearer’s right shoulder, in homage to Williams’ serving arm, or the voluminous, off-kilter silhouettes, which reflect back all the nostalgia of her teenage years. “Every time I looked at a presentation, I was more impressed than the last time. Everything is pretty cool but it would be remiss if I didn’t mention the shoes,” she interjects. “And honestly? I wasn’t expecting that.”

“I’m looking for things that are out of the box. I want innovation. I want something so different that it almost looks abnormal.” – Serena Williams

Williams then backtracks: “I don’t wanna show favouritism. They’re all my apprentices.” Only, there is one particular piece which has seemingly struck a chord. “I’m a sucker for a jumpsuit. You know I love bold patterns and bold designs. So I really love that one.” Sure enough, Williams’ bolshy, and at times controversial, ad court looks, have become synonymous with her wide-reaching appeal. Cheek-skimming denim skirts, strappy, latticed jerseys, lingerie-indebted mini dresses, and one “Wakanda-inspired” catsuit, which was banned from the French Open, have all redefined how female athletes present themselves in competition. The ricochets of which can be read on the glittery acrylics of Sha’Carri Richardson, or Naomi Osaka’s candy red braids. “I’m looking for things that are out of the box. I want innovation. I want something so different that it almost looks abnormal.”

But before she can continue, another voice appears on the call: “Ew, that’s weird!” Then suddenly, six tiny footsteps come thudding into Williams’ office. Olympia, three years old, is trying to wrangle the family’s rescue dog. “Stay!,” she says, “doggy…stay!” Williams laughs, shooting her daughter the kind of look that can be felt even over the phone. “You want me to close the door?,” asks Olympia, wide-eyed, before hurriedly ordering the dog outside.

“We know that the best ideas come from unexpected places,” Williams snaps back into the chat. “Our individual differences bring new perspectives and that always breeds new innovations. We’re empowering a more diverse and global community”. Although seemingly unrelated, I wonder whether Williams sees any link between her upcoming film, and the SDWC. After all, both speak to the journeys and obstacles that young people face in committing to their craft. “You know what’s so interesting? Life is all about timing,” she says. “We definitely didn’t put the film and the Serena Williams Design Crew out at the same time on purpose, or even with the same mind. So I have to tell you that’s a coincidence. It is interesting, though, I never really thought about my legacy in that way. I just grew up playing tennis and everything else just came with it. I never really thought about anything else. I’ve loved what’s happened in my life and I love that my story could bring new meaning to new people.”

Before the Williams biopic lands in cinemas, though, comes the 2021 Met Ball and its accompanying all-American theme. Would it not make perfect sense, then, for Williams to arrive wearing Nike, the nation’s most recognisable fashion brand? “Oh,” she hesitates. “You know what? I’ll be talking to Nike about that. I was just gonna wear one of the dresses I didn’t get to wear last year because of COVID, but that would be kind of fun.” Cue some encouraging, but awkward laughter. “A little late! But a little fun.” She doesn’t wait for the next question and instead politely reiterates the motivation behind the Serena Williams Design Crew. “We’re designing for tomorrow, and the change I’m hoping to create comes from a place of authenticity. There’s so much incredible talent out there. I just hope the next generation sees this program and is inspired to get involved.”

Collection number one from the Serena Williams Design Crew will be available to shop from September 1. In the meantime, check out the gallery above to see what’s in store.