It’s not often that any tennis player can manage to upstage Serena Williams when it comes to fashion, but at Wimbledon Roger Federer did just that, provoking the kind of social media meltdown that is usually reserved for a cat suit on the court.
The reverberations of his decision to trade his Nike swoosh for a Uniqlo red square reached all the way to the gilded rooms of the Paris couture, where I was when it happened.
Ever since, as Mr. Federer has progressed through the tournament with his signature efficient grace, and eyes have adjusted to the new look, much has been written about the money involved ($300 million, reportedly); the length of the contract (10 years, ditto); and the other potential reasons for the change after more than two decades. (Mr. Federer will be the only big star on the Uniqlo roster, whereas at Nike he was one among many, including Ms. Williams and Rafael Nadal; Uniqlo needs him to boost its international expansion efforts.)
But as the grass has settled on center court, I have not been able to stop wondering about the real impact of this decision on the sports/fashion nexus — a synergistic relationship fast approaching the status and revenues of the Hollywood/fashion nexus.
Because in choosing Uniqlo, Mr. Federer is effectively creating a new paradigm for a post-technical sports brand adventure. Could he become the Jessica Simpson of men’s wear? Don’t laugh. Ms. Simpson is the most successful celebrity-with-an-accessible-fashion-line. It's not a bad model to follow.
Certainly, the length of the Uniqlo contract, which will take Mr. Federer well into his mid-40s, would suggest that he is thinking along such after-tennis lines. As would the fact that Uniqlo identifies itself in a somewhat different category than the usual brands that sponsor athletes.
The news release even laid it out: “Uniqlo enters the partnership inspired by the past accomplishments of Mr. Federer and his previous partners,” it read. But then: “While respectful of new standards they set together, Uniqlo is not a sports company. Uniqlo describes itself as a life company that creates LifeWear.”
Which may sound like a fancy synonym for “clothes” but reflects ambitions that go far beyond the casual — and, indeed, the usual branded sports star collaboration.
Let us now pause for a brief history of Mr. Federer’s off-court style:
He was voted GQ’s Most Stylish Man of 2016, beating out Tom Hiddleston, Jared Leto and Jaden Smith (among others). He attended the 2017 Met Gala in a Gucci tuxedo complete with a giant rhinestone cobra on the back. This is a man who went to the Oscars in 2016 in a Louis Vuitton tux. Who attended the Chanel show the same year in a suit and turtleneck.
Who, in fact, has attended a healthy number of shows, including Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen, with his famous BFF, Anna Wintour. A man who wore a gray morning suit complete with vest to the 2017 wedding of Pippa Middleton. Who announced, in an Esquire interview: “I grew up enjoying Prada and Dolce & Gabbana. I love Dior and Louis Vuitton. I also have a lot of Tom Ford’s suits, so that’s kind of how I got into it.”
Who, in other words, has never made any secret of his affinity for the capital-F side of fashion. (Though in insisting he will get his RF logo back from Nike, he clearly has not entirely learned the lessons of the industry, which is littered with designers who lost their names to the big groups that owned them, most notably John Galliano, whose name still belongs to LVMH.)
Even Mr. Federer’s endorsements outside of Nike have always had a whiff of the haute: Mercedes-Benz, Rolex, Moët & Chandon, Lindt chocolates and NetJets (among others). So while it is easy to believe he may not see his future in fashion as solely sports related, it is more surprising — and interesting — to learn he sees it as mass.
Because a mass brand is exactly what Uniqlo is, despite its sideline in sports, via its former relationship with Novak Djokovic, who switched brands last year (he now works with Lacoste). Uniqlo’s current ambassadorial lineup includes the tennis player Kei Nishikori, the wheelchair tennis star Shingo Kunieda and the golfer Adam Scott.
And despite its flirtation with fashion via collaborations with runway names like Christophe Lemaire, formerly of Hermès, now designer of a namesake line and artistic director of Uniqlo U; Tomas Maier, the recently deposed Bottega Veneta designer who just did a limited-edition resort collection for Uniqlo; and Jonathan Anderson, the conceptual Briton who is also creative director of Loewe, and who has done two special collections for Uniqlo.
Like Jil Sander, the first prominent designer to engage with the brand, all those designers are notably talented but famous largely among fashion insiders and obsessives.
Uniqlo, which is owned by the Japanese giant Fast Retailing (a self-explanatory name if there ever was one), has not been a brand that brought bells and whistles to its partnerships, or that inflated the ego by creating noisy marketing campaigns. It is a brand whose mission has been perfecting the basics: the things people wear not because they fantasize about being elite athletes, or because they fantasize about having the lifestyles of elite athletes, but because they fantasize about having functional clothes to wear every day that don’t cost a huge amount or call attention to themselves, but still look good.
Traditionally, however, being associated with such clothes — which bridge age, size and sectors — has not been the fantasy of elite athletes. So while he won’t hoist the Wimbledon trophy on Sunday (after his upset loss to Kevin Anderson in the quarterfinals on Wednesday), Mr. Federer may be about to change the game once again.
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