By  on August 23, 2007

NEW YORK — Since bursting onto the tennis scene a decade ago, Venus Williams has been a style and athletic trailblazer. Now she is leaping into the fashion business with EleVen, a clothing collection created exclusively for Steve & Barry's.

The name carries much symbolism. "Eleven is a good number," said Williams, who has won 14 Grand Slam titles, including her fourth Wimbledon singles championship this year. "It was part of my address growing up in Compton [Calif.]. It also represents the top of the top, because people always say, one out of 10, but it's an 11. You can be more than your best in EleVen."

Williams is the newest star designer for the 200-plus-store retail chain, which has generated buzz with exclusive celebrity lines by Sarah Jessica Parker, Amanda Bynes and the New York Knicks' Stephon Marbury.

The tennis champ is no stranger to design. She has her own Jupiter, Fla.-based interior design firm, V Starr Interiors, and is working toward a degree in fashion design at the Art Institute of Florida. Williams, 27, who will seek her third U.S. Open singles title when the tournament starts here Monday, said the line was "a dream come true."

"I have always been into fashion," she said. "There are a lot of celebrities who are into fashion, but I actually go to school for it.

I am going to graduate as soon as I finish my portfolio. I am living the fashion student's dream, which is to have your own line."

EleVen's launch collection comes with more than 120 pieces, and covers a wide spectrum, from performance apparel to loungewear, accessories and footwear. Looks include cool sneakers for a variety of active fields, velour tracksuits, pleated tennis skirts, fleece jackets, graphic T-shirts and even sports socks and bras. Sneaker styles are named after tennis terms such as Ace, Deuce and Swing. Many of the items are versatile in nature and can be worn to work out or go out in.

Asked for her design philosophy, Williams said, "It's all about having a fashionable fate, whether you're at the gym, or you're going shopping in your EleVen clothes."Like Steve & Barry's other lines, every piece is priced at $19.98 or less, and Williams is expected to wear much of it during the U.S. Open, including the sleek Court sneakers, which sell for $14.98.

Williams has been particularly impressed by the quality of the Steve & Barry's merchandise at such low price points. "Everything keeps coming into the house," she said, laughing. "Serena [her tennis star sister] looks at everything and says, 'This is the ultimate style, wow, look at the quality.' We are both excited and she wants to wear it all."

Williams knows exactly whom she envisions wearing the clothes.

"Obviously, the first on my list is Serena," she said. "And I would love to dress Janet Jackson. I think she is great, and the picture of ultimate fitness. I would also love Jennifer Lopez, because I think she has a great figure, and I think it's a figure that women aspire to."

Howard Schacter, chief partnership officer of the Port Washington, N.Y.-based retail chain, said the line is part of a long-term strategy.

"Venus is an ideal partner for us," he said. "Not only is she a global superstar athlete, but she also has a real passion and education in design and is applying it to the line."

Schacter, who declined to disclose sales projections, said bringing in celebrities has had a major impact on the Steve & Barry's business.

"The lines we have launched to date have been enormously successful for us in generating unprecedented awareness, and attracting millions of new shoppers who might not have had us on their radar," Schacter said. "They allowed us to tell the bigger story of why Steve & Barry's exists, which is to make high-quality merchandise accessible to people."

EleVen is slated to hit Steve & Barry's 200-plus stores in November. Those who are unable to wait until November can get a taste of EleVen on Friday — if they're quick, that is. To celebrate the launch of the line, Steve & Barry's is making 100 pairs of Court shoes available in its Manhattan Mall store on a first-come, first-serve basis.

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