Byline: Leonard McCants

NEW YORK — Venus Williams has a new doubles partner.
The 20-year-old tennis star and retailer Wilsons Leather are serving up the Venus Collection to bow at Wilsons stores and on its Web site for fall retailing.
Williams, who is also a fashion design student at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, is designing the all-leather line with the help of Al Minniti, women’s designer at Wilsons Leather. The 10-piece core collection, which fits into the retailer’s contemporary classification, features black lambskin leather blazers and skirts, as well as metallic suede camisoles, Minniti said.
“She’s totally ahead of the trend curve,” he said. “You can’t design in a vacuum, even when you’re designing your own collection. I could tell she had done her research. She really does keep her eyes open and anticipate the next trend.”
While exact prices have not been set, the camisole should retail for less than $100 and the blazer should be no more than $300, said Joel Waller, chairman and chief executive officer. Waller said a mutual friend suggested the idea to the two, but Waller admitted that, before he met Williams, he had some initial hesitations.
“My first inclination was that this was a celebrity who wanted to put her name on something and we’d give her a percentage,” he said between takes for an accompanying ad campaign featuring the Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion shot by Matthew Rolston.
Waller’s concerns faded after a breakfast meeting with Williams, last fall in Minneapolis, when he looked at her designs and talked to her further.
“One of the things she said to me that made me more interested is that she wants to make things that sell,” he said.
Making products for her entire fan base is important, not just for the few who can afford designer-priced clothing, Williams said in a phone interview a couple of days after the shoot.
“I do want people to wear my clothes and I want them to feel good in them,” she said.
With Williams’ popularity on and off the court as a determined player with a clean demeanor and wholesome outlook, Waller said “I think we’re going to do a lot of business.” He predicts sales volume between $5 million and $10 million the first year.
To help introduce the collection, Wilsons has plans for a “high impact” campaign featuring Williams wearing her collection, according to David Skinner, director of marketing.
Skinner said the media plan has not been finalized, but may include print and television advertising, in addition to in-store displays and large posters in store windows.
Williams said she will also help with promotion, wearing her clothing as much as possible while making the rounds of late-night television shows before the U.S. Open this summer. She will also try to convince her younger sister, Serena, to wear the Venus Collection on her late-night show tour.
“I’ll ask her,” Venus said. “Hopefully she won’t ask to get paid.”