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Looks Good on Court, but Will It Sell?

Serena Williams struck out at the U.S. Open on two counts: she was beaten by Jennifer Capriati and her funky outfits aren’t too popular with retailers.

NEW YORK — Serena Williams struck out at the U.S. Open on two counts — not only was she knocked out of the tournament by Jennifer Capriati, but retailers don’t expect her outfits to have much impact with tennis-playing consumers either.

Nike plans to bring the Serena pieces to retail this spring, offering a sharp departure from tennis looks of the past, which have traditionally focused on conservative designs and low-key styling. The problem is, low-key styling, albeit with fashion twists such as color and performance fabrics, appears to be exactly what tennis players want — and what many country clubs continue to require.

“I don’t see anyone wearing the Serena line,” was the blunt reaction from Mark Mason, owner of Mason’s Tennis Mart in Manhattan, one of the city’s largest tennis stores. “We often find that people come in wanting to buy what people wear on the court during the Open but that hasn’t happened with these looks.”

Mindy Grossman, vice president of global apparel at Nike, told WWD recently that the line is designed to appeal to younger customers who want more fashionable tennis looks. While some department stores sell a selection of tennis apparel, most of the sport’s attire is sold in pro shops and sports stores, many of whom shy away from anything too racy or tight-fitting.

“There are a lot of restrictions at courts as to what people can wear,” said Ilya Minkin, a manager at Princeton Ski Shops here, which has a large selection of tennis offerings. “That is why many looks tend to be on the conservative side.”

Nonetheless, some observers said the looks worn by Williams and other players are giving the sport a much-needed dose of energy.

“It’s great for tennis,” said designer Bumi Sirotka, who makes tennis apparel under her namesake label. “It’s giving the sport a lot of attention and making it more popular, which is good for all of us.”

While no one has gone quite as extreme as Williams, players at the Open this year have sported attention-grabbing hues, fitted dresses and fashion-forward looks. Maria Sharapova’s silver metallic dress as well as her bright red skirt and top solidified her fashionista status, while Capriati, Amelie Mauresmo, Elena Dementieva and Nadia Petrova have all worn bold colors on the court. Andy Roddick has also made a fashion statement with graphic printed T-shirts and trucker hats from Reebok, product that is already available at stores including Macy’s and Paragon.

This story first appeared in the September 10, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

While there was no specific sales information available for tennis apparel sales, manufacturers’ sales of tennis equipment and balls declined for the third year in a row in 2003 to about $220 million, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association. Over the past five years, the number of players has remained steady at about 16 million. Tennis apparel sales have been relatively flat in recent years, according to Mason and others, and if nothing else, Williams’ rock-star looks have gotten people talking about the sport, at least for the moment.

Linda Mulcair, who buys tennis apparel at Paragon Sports in New York, said she plans to test a few of the items from the Serena collection this spring, even though she concedes, “I don’t see a lot of people wanting to look like motorcycle queens on the court.

“We are a fashion-forward store and there is more room now for fashion in tennis apparel,” she noted. “There may be some things that filter down from this, such as a resurgence in denim.”

Mason observed that looks worn by Serena and Venus Williams have not always translated well at retail. “The Puma catsuit Serena wore a few years ago is not something that we would ever sell,” he noted. Poor sales of looks worn by Venus Williams may be one reason (along with her decline in the ranks) why Reebok ended its multimillion dollar contract with her earlier this year.

While it’s likely Serena’s looks will not translate into significant retail sales, other players may have more success, Mason said.

“Sharapova looks like a model and whatever she wears she looks great in,” noted Mason. “In fact, she has already helped us sell more dresses. Dress sales have tailed off in the last few years but have been selling again lately because she has been wearing them.”

The trend toward skimpy fashions at the Open reflect a larger trend among female athletes lately. From women Olympic contenders posing in Playboy, to itsy-bitsy bikinis worn by the U.S. beach volleyball team in Athens, elite female athletes have been baring plenty of skin these days. Some observers said it’s because female athletes have now moved beyond the point where they need to prove their athletic abilities, and can focus on fashion and style. In fact, at an event with Nike prior to the Open, Williams told the crowd she doesn’t even feel the need to be be comfortable on the court. “I love fashion and I want to make a fashion statement,” she said.

Now there are only a few venues left where professional female tennis players must wear conservative looks as they compete. At Wimbledon, for example, players must still dress in white. According to the rule book: “Since 1963, Wimbledon [has] laid down that, except for a cardigan pullover or headwear, competitors must be dressed predominantly in white throughout. In 1995, this condition was clarified to mean ‘almost entirely white.’” A spokeswoman for Wimbledon said she does not foresee any changes to the dress code in the near future.

And other sport companies say they’re not going to incorporate racy looks into their new offerings, despite the buzz Nike has received from the Serena styles.

Don’t expect to see any denim miniskirts from Fila, which offered slightly more fashionable offerings this year in its retro-inspired looks, said Jim Reilly, the company’s senior vice president of global apparel.

“Many of the endorsement deals now, such as the one between Serena and Nike, don’t produce much volume,” he noted. “The new endorsement strategies don’t have anything to do with the actual sport. It doesn’t matter what Serena does with the product. It doesn’t really translate into sales.”

In fact, Reilly said he sees Fila moving away from too much fashion-forward product. “I see Fila getting back to more traditional looks,” he said

Sirotka said, “I wouldn’t want my line associated with stretch denim and combat shoes. I think there has to be limits on design and rules. While I describe my line as lifestyle and there are some fashion twists, it is always rooted in classic tennis looks.”