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When you hear the name Venus Williams, what do you think about? If you’re like most of us, the answer is tennis. And you wouldn’t be wrong: Williams is a world-class athlete, a four-time gold medalist currently competing in the Summer Olympics in Rio, and the sister of fellow tennis champ, Serena.
But she’s also a designer. And while we’ve all had our fill of halfhearted celebrity clothing lines, her pursuits in that arena are nothing to brush off — she’s been running her activewear brand EleVen by Venus Williams since 2007, which is basically a lifetime compared to most celeb lines.
Williams has collaborated with Ralph Lauren and Diane von Furstenberg, and also has a design company, V Starr Interiors. Racked caught up with the tennis-star-turned-fashion-boss to learn more about how style has impacted her life.
How did you get started in the fashion business?
I got a letter in the mail when I was 18 saying, "Come to design school." By that time, I had already been pro for four years — I thought it was a great idea. [Venus studied fashion design at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.] And obviously after school, everyone dreams of having their own line. I was already an athlete, so activewear spoke to my soul. It’s what I did every day. But I wanted to bring a new voice to it, and combine fashion with performance.
How involved are you in the day-to-day happenings at EleVen?
Very. I was in the office yesterday and we’re working on fall ’17 now, so we’ve started the process of understanding what our color story is, what our prints are. From there, we start to work with the sales team. What do people really like? What do we want to bring back, and what are the new pieces? We look at colors and prints and actual fabrics. Then it gets refined and refined and refined. I also take my sketchbooks on the road and I’m constantly sketching.
You often wear EleVen on the court. What makes a good tennis outfit?
Something that’s flattering. And also something that’s fun to wear, something that motivates you to get moving.
Do you often see other athletes wearing your designs?
I do! Sometimes I’ll be practicing and it will be four courts down. I’ll be like, "Ooh, that looks like an EleVen skirt!" It’s always really flattering when someone believes in you enough or liked it enough to put it on. That keeps me motivated.
What if an opponent wears EleVen?
I’ve never played anyone who was wearing EleVen! I wonder what that would feel like. I’d probably have mixed emotions.
How does V Starr fit in with everything you’re doing at EleVen?
They’re side by side in the same office, right across from each other. [Both businesses are run out of West Palm Beach, Fla.] It’s pretty cool but when I walk in, I’m like, "Where do I start today?" We do commercial design, we do common areas of buildings, we’ve worked in athletic stadiums, condos…
We did the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, a place for at-risk children. They play tennis there and also get an education. Those are just wonderful projects for us.
Do you prefer one business to the other?
No, it’s really equal. I feel like a mom and I can’t have a favorite. They both stretch me in different ways.
Is it hard to get people to take you seriously as a designer when they only know you as a tennis player?
It’s interesting. Because people know your name, you can get pigeonholed into being perceived a certain way. And that’s OK. But more so for V Starr. People are like, "She’s a great athlete, but does it translate to design?" And actually, it does! They find out about me and the great team we have and you can see the light bulb go off.
We know Serena loves fashion, too. Is that fun for you?
Absolutely. She has the best purse and shoe closet. If you saw it, you would probably die. I was at her house the other day and had to shower, and I was like, Serena, just dress me. She makes me look good. But we definitely share inspiration [Serena also has her own clothing collection] and it’s great when she really likes the line. She’s always honest with me about it.
Would you have gone straight into fashion if it weren’t for tennis?
I always wonder what I would have done. I used to run track and I adored it, so maybe I would have pursued that. Or maybe I would have gone to business school. I’d still love the arts, though — fine arts, graphic design, industrial arts.
Given how much effort you put into your businesses, do you get frustrated with how many other celebrity brands there are?
I always say there’s room for everyone as long as you have something to say.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.