Words by Elliot Jay Stocks | Published 12.07.18

Let’s be honest: there’s no shortage of celebrity endorsements in the fashion world, with big names plastered on big brands to sell products for big prices. And that’s exactly is why it’s so liberating to see Serena Williams step up to break that mould. Here’s an accomplished and world-famous athlete who also just happens to be a bona fide fashion professional. Designing. Sewing. Pattern-cutting. No endorsements here — Serena is what you’d call The Real Deal.

“I’ve always done fashion,” Serena explains. “When I was a kid, my mom taught me how to sew and I used to make clothes for my dolls.” As she grew up, this love for fashion spurred Serena to study the trade at college and hone her craft. Of course, there was that small matter of tennis — specifically, that Serena happened to be rather good at that, too. And so she took the difficult decision to press pause on her fashion career and focus on winning Grand Slams. (She now has 23, by the way.)

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Still, being such a highly regarded athlete has at least allowed Serena to collaborate with some incredible sports-focused fashion labels, and she’s been able to lend her talents to lines from brands such as Nike, so life wasn’t entirely devoid of fashion-related pursuits. However, Serena explains, “I loved it, but I wanted to do what I went to school for, and to be fully involved in the construction of a garment. So I started my own brand.” Now, let’s be absolutely clear here: this is a lady who, on the day before we opened Neighborhood Goods to the public, was here hanging clothes on rails alongside her staff. “At the coal face” doesn’t even begin to describe Serena’s commitment.

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With a hands-on approach and a small, agile team, the creative process behind Serena’s garments and accessories can be surprisingly spontaneous. “Sometimes, I just get an idea,” she explains. “This happened to me two months ago: we had a team call, I was inspired, and I just got my sketch books and I sketched for two days. I sketched out our whole collection for next year.” After that flurry of drawing, Serena headed to New York, where her design team are based, and they then conducted a trend report that would help inform their choice of materials for the designs.

I FELT LIKE ‘PLUS’ ISN’T A WORD I’D USE TO DESCRIBE A LOT OF WOMEN. THE PEOPLE THAT I KNOW WHO ARE A BIT CURVIER… HOW DO I THINK OF THEM? WELL, I’M INSPIRED BY THEM. THEY’RE GREAT. SO THAT’S THE WORD: ‘GREAT’.

This process has also led to something of an antidote to the usual pace of fashion schedules. “I wanted to reinvent that,” Serena says. “That’s why we do our drops a little differently. I call it mid-fashion. It’s not fast fashion, not slow fashion, but right in the middle.”

But Serena’s not done with going against industry norms just yet: she says she wanted to reinvent the term “plus”, too. “I’ve never been thin, even as an athlete,” she explains. “I’ve always been curvier, or larger. But I felt like ‘plus’ isn’t a word I’d use to describe a lot of women. The people that I know who are a bit curvier… how do I think of them? Well, I’m inspired by them. They’re great. So that’s it— that’s the word: ‘great’.” Serena’s motivation is for her customers to feel confident in themselves and, while she admits that the term might take a little time to catch on, she believes that a shirt with the word “great” on it is far more empowering than one that says “plus”.

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This bold, confident attitude is such an integral part of her brand’s identity; if you’re in any doubt, just take a look at the “Be Seen Be Heard” or “Be Greater” slogans emblazoned on several of Serena’s outfits. It’s her own attitude — and her desire to break from conventions — manifested in the form of fashion. “It’s competitive,” she says. “You want to be out there and create the best designs, and hold your own. But with us as a new company, and me coming from such a different background…” She pauses, reflecting on the challenges she faced in bringing this idea to fruition. “…but I want people to see that this is serious for me; that this is something I’m good at.”

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Despite such confidence, Serena is astonishingly humble, and, over the course of our chat, repeatedly sings the praises of her colleagues. “I have a wonderful team who put up with me disappearing for two weeks for a Grand Slam,” she says. “It’s important to surround yourself with a good team — to build a foundation.”

Serena’s journey from sports icon to sports-icon-who’s-also-a-fashion-icon has been well documented in the press that accompanied her brand’s launch. In an open letter written to coincide with the label’s public unveiling in May, Serena described the uphill battle she faced and her decision to persevere nonetheless: “Here I was, a spokeswoman for women, telling them to never give up and believe in themselves when no one else does. I needed to take a moment to look in the mirror, encourage myself, and invest in myself for once.” Just months later, it’s clear to see that such determination has paid off. Serena Williams has proven that it’s possible to have two all-encompassing passions in life, and, as it happens, be pretty damn successful at both. “It’s challenging,” she says, “but it’s something I enjoy “from the bottom of my heart.”