Venus Williams

When Venus Williams isn’t working out seven hours a day or playing on the professional tennis circuit, she has a time-consuming sideline business: EleVen by Venus Williams, an ath-leisure and fitness brand she designs.

Williams, 37, participated in a conversation with Sophia Chabbott, digital director of WWD, about ath-leisure, tennis and the digital world.

Williams started EleVen in 2007. “That was a long time ago in terms of how quickly things change,” she said. Having earned an associate’s degree in fashion design, she started the company because she had a vision about athleticwear. (She also has her own interior design company, V*Starr, which works on residential projects throughout the U.S.)

“It’s about having your own vision. I always say there’s enough room for everyone as long as you have something to say. If you have nothing to say, there’s no room for you and you will not survive,” said Williams, who is ranked No. 5 in WTA singles.

Five years ago, she designed her first floral print in athleticwear and also did watercolors. “Since that time, people are getting more innovative with fabrics and style. At that time it was all nouveau. No one had seen it,” she said.

Williams discussed her own role at the firm and introduced several of the people with whom she works  in the audience. She said her day-to-day role is “obviously the vision.”

“My vision inspires the rest of the team and that’s what makes it authentic,” she said. “What makes it authentic is really when you have something to say and you have a point of view and something you want to achieve. That’s my chief role,” she said.

Williams enjoys marketing and design and said it’s important for her to understand other aspects of the business. “It makes me a better leader and more pro-active in other departments, such as the warehouse,” she said.

Digital touches every aspect of the business, whether it’s business-to-business and working with her wholesale partners that can fill their own orders on the company’s web site, or the sales team, web site and social media. She said social media is “super important.”

“My personal social media strategy is always being pushed by these people here,” said Williams, pointing to her team. She said she sweats first thing in the morning, and then sweats in the afternoon, then she goes into the office, and she apologizes for being stinky but tells them after she leaves there, she has to go back to the gym.

“This is not real,” she said, referring to her appearance. “And when I’m out there [on the court] that is not real either. When I play on the court, all I ever do is wear lots of eyeliner and all these earrings, and that’s not me either.” She said it’s hard for her to be on social media, “because I always look terrible.”

Venus Williams

Venus Williams  Patrick MacLeod

She doesn’t like using Twitter, “unless you want to get a beating.” However, she said her Instagram page is nice, “but there can be some haters out there….I have to protect myself personally, because as strong as I think that I am, negative energy is contagious….I’m too fragile. I do like to interact personally and engage with the fans. Everybody likes to be acknowledged. Social media is a relationship with the people who you touch.”

Williams enjoys store visits and meeting with customers, and recently visited a store in West Virginia. “They were so excited about the brand and were extremely friendly. In different areas of the world, they’re very different. It’s important not to hole yourself up in the castle and get out there,” she said.

Asked about her design process, she said, “My design process is very organic. Basically I just do what I want. I’m just talking big.” Unlike ready-to-wear, where one has to be super aware of the trends, she said in athleticwear one can start their own trends. “I like things to move quickly. I don’t want to have this huge process driven that you can’t get anything done. We are always on our toes and we’re able to move quickly and design quickly. I don’t want it to be so big that it’s not fun anymore.”

Williams enjoys the sketching process, and her biggest regret is there aren’t enough colors in the rainbow since she hates to repeat colors.  She spoke about her new floral brocade collection that was inspired by Frida Kahlo. It comes out Sept. 29. She wanted to do something artistic but something that people can wear. “There are a lot of body types you’re trying to fit. Especially for people moving their body, they need to be comfortable.”

Williams’ company has started expanding outside the U.S. EleVen will launch in China next month at Lane Crawford. “I love China personally. I love being there and am very excited about it. It’s going to be a good marriage,” she added. “China has its own social media landscape. WeChat is super important, and we’re doing Instagram Stories. We also designed some exclusive pieces for them. It’s understanding what they wanted and what they asked for,” she said.

As for other markets that interest her, Williams said, “All markets. World takeover.” Seriously, she added: “We have to be selective about it. We’re eyeing some bigger markets in Europe, especially the U.K., and Australia, which is very focused on activewear.”

Venus Williams

Venus Williams  Patrick MacLeod

Her goal for EleVen is to help people live healthier lives by moving their body and to find ways to make it fun. “Moving is not always fun. Eating well is not always fun. Doing the right thing is not always fun all the time. I try to figure out ways to help people live balanced lives. Ultimately, I see the brand as being very holistic across the board. Not everyone will be training six to seven hours a day like I do.” She would love her company to incorporate skin, wellness, vitamins, supplements and food.

An audience member asked Williams what she does specifically during her seven-hour workout.

“My life is one big workout. I wake up in the morning and go play tennis, I go to the gym. I work on two groups, legs and core, or arms and legs, always core, core is so important. It prevents a lot of injury. Then I do cardio, I’ll run or bike or biometrics, and once that’s over, I’ll head sweaty to the office, and give everyone a high-five.”

Another audience member asked whether she has a plan to add wearable technology to her clothing, and she responded that she doesn’t have an EleVen app at this point. “I don’t personally wear wearables, and I know a lot of people enjoy that to track their performance. For me tracking my performance is, ‘did I win the match?’”

As for whether it would be a goal of hers to have other professional tennis players wear EleVen in tournaments, she admitted, “We thought about that. As long as the return is there. At some point, especially as I phase out. But at this phase, I feel I’m the best ambassador for the brand in tennis.”

She said it’s important for her to be the face of the brand, but that’s not necessarily the case in all markets and categories. “Being the face of the brand is important sometimes. I’m not a person who likes to take photos. It’s important in tennis or I’m going to meet with a new retail partner. I want to be in that room. I’m so inflexible, I’ve tried and tried and can’t do it, I can’t be the face of yoga. I’ve got my limits. It’s understanding where I fit in the brand visually as well, and understanding where other faces would be stronger,” she said.

Williams’ priority is to have a men’s line, but she doesn’t have plans at this point for a children’s line. She would also love to add a footwear component. “I love shoes. If we design shoes, I may not ever come out. I’d love to add that to the collection and have a ton of ideas. I have boards for shoes.”