In a seventh floor studio that sits a short lob from New York City's famed Fashion Avenue, Venus Williams' vision of Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and a pink python that sprang from her mind are on display.
Silver garment racks and a pair of models display the Fall 2013 collection of Williams' EleVen activewear line. Working with design director and New Jersey native Barbara Clarke-Ruiz, who previously designed for adidas, Williams has crafted a varied collection ranging from the traditional—a striking white Wimbledon dress with "power mesh" insert panel on the back—to the dramatic—a black U.S. Open dress popping with a bright floral print—to the playful pink python print dress she'll wear during the summer U.S. Open Series.
Most pieces in the collection are a poly-spandex blend and feature primary themes, including the bold floral print and pink python print, which are incorporated in tanks, skirts, skorts, shorts and jackets. The new EleVen Fall collection ships on July 15 and will be available through major on-line retailers Tennis Express, Tennis Warehouse, and Midwest Sports, in boutiques and country clubs, and at EleVenByVenus.com.
From her audacious U.S. Open debut in 1997, when you could hear the red, white, and blue beads popping against her neck as she pounded down another percussive serve in reaching the final (as the world No. 66), Venus has always been a powerful presence on court. Early in her career, Williams scaled back her Fall tournament schedule to attend design school, and says her studies beyond the lines have made her a more complete person.
"Serena and I were brought up with a different mentality and we were taught to be complete people and explore who we were outside the court and to have that entrepreneurial spirit," Venus said. "For me, it's really been a dream come true as a person who went to school to learn design."
On the same day she returned to the Top 20 and her former opponent in that '97 Open final, Martina Hingis, was officially announced as a 2013 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, we caught up with Venus for a sneak preview of her new collection and her thoughts on design.
TENNIS.com: What was the inspiration behind your fall collection, and what specifically inspired you to create the floral print U.S. Open dress?
Venus Williams: The inspiration was continuing our motif of prints and patterns. I try to find inspiration inside myself. I felt the florals on dark background would be interesting. More importantly is the mesh, which occurs throughout the collection and I think really brings it back to the court. It also gives the ability to mix and match it with other core pieces. For the U.S. Open dress, we said, 'Let's really make it sporty and performance driven.'
TENNIS.com: Movement is such a big part of your game. How do you accommodate movement in your designs and what are the factors you're thinking about when you design?
Venus Williams: It's always about performance meeting style. The performance is never forgotten. Because you've got to be able to do your best, push yourself your hardest, whether you're on the tennis court, or you're in training or you're on the Olympic team. The clothes have to be able to meet the challenge as well. The performance aspect is always very important.
TENNIS.com: I was told you were on a tight deadline for the collection, even texting ideas and revisions during a changeover on court at one point?
Venus Williams: That was an exhibition match in Belgium. We had a deadline for print and I'm looking at my phone, like 'I have to get this done.' Obviously, in a tournament competition, I would never be able to do that; it's probably against the rules to even look at your phone (laughs). But in any case, whatever it takes. Part of the design process is answering and exchanging ideas—that's me and Barbara, that's the design team.
TENNIS.com: How has your own aesthetic evolved over the years, going back to the early days when you wore Reebok through the start of EleVen to now?
Venus Williams: It's become more of defining what EleVen is really about. It's about bringing your personal best. It's about style meeting performance. It's about challenging the status quo of active wear. It's about making clothes for people living fulfilled lives that involve movement and fitness. I think about all of those things. I try to figure out: How do I put all of that into the clothes? How can I help people to feel their best? I hope we're getting closer and closer to that perfect EleVen with this collection.
TENNIS.com: How do you feel about your game and your health and how does it feel to be back in the Top 20 today?
Venus Williams: Top 20 feels amazing after unfortunately being out of the sport for a while and dropping way outside the Top 100. It's taken a while to get back, but it's been a wonderful journey. You learn from it. Life isn't always easy, but that doesn't mean if you keep working hard you can't overcome all barriers.
TENNIS.com: You came back in Miami last year and beat Petra Kvitova right out of the box. What did the tournament do for you and how do you approach the game after a long layoff?
Venus Williams: I definitely know how to play tennis. The more you play—a lot of the times—the better you get and more confidence you gain. I knew going into Miami I really needed to get to the Olympics and I wasn't anywhere close to qualifying (laughs). So it was like the ultimate rat race, but it was an important tournament and one of the best times for me.
TENNIS: Does the character or color scheme of each Grand Slam—the red clay of Roland Garros or the blue of the U.S. Open—play into your designs?
Venus Williams: In the past, I used to design kind of by the feeling I had for that [Grand Slam tournament's] city. But now I don't. I design by what I feel inside and my vision of the design and what I think will be comfortable on people. It's about designing for every woman. It's considering the woman who's more comfortable in sleeves, the woman who likes to take risk and every woman in between and as the range grows there are even more possibilities.