Venus Williams, fashion and interior designer

The 36-year-old balances a vibrant tennis career with her businesses

FLORIDA • Venus Williams' ability to get around a tennis court quickly is well known. She can get from one side to the other in a single side-step-leap-slide. Less known is her speed in taking meetings.

On Tuesday last week, Williams hit nearly every department of her fashion and interior design companies in about 1 1/2 hours.

It was a few days after she had returned from Rio de Janeiro, where she won a silver medal in mixed doubles tennis, and one day before she was to leave for New York for the US Open.

In the morning, she had practised for two hours in the sweltering summer sun of South Florida, run home for a shower and then come to the office with Harry, her nine-year-old Havanese, in tow.

Dressed in a hot pink tank-top, heather grey capri yoga pants and hot pink sneakers, she hovered over a couch on which a panoply of tennis clothes had been draped: short-skirted tennis dresses with a bright geometric pattern; skirts in the same pattern; blue tank tops; visors; headbands; a fuchsia hoodie.


If something happens... you have to be ready to work. And I'm ready.

VENUS WILLIAMS (above, in one of her creations)

"I have been waiting to wear this dress," she said as she decided on one of the graphic dresses, the flagship piece of the new Prism collection, which she debuted this week on a tennis court in Queens.

To all of her matches everywhere, Williams, 36, wears EleVen by Venus Williams, her fitness and athleisure clothing line. At the Olympics, she wore a Wonder Woman-inspired dress of her own design and had red strands woven into her braids ("my Olympic hair", she called it).

Williams became a professional tennis player in 1994, when she was 14 years old, and quickly emerged on the national tennis scene.

She has won seven Grand Slam singles events and 14 more in women's doubles, playing alongside her sister Serena, 34. Venus has won five Wimbledon singles titles. In 2002, she became the first African-American woman to earn the world's top ranking in tennis since the onset of the open era in the late 1960s.

By 2011, though, her tennis career had been slowed by illness and injury. She announced she was suffering from Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that results in joint pain and sometimes crushing fatigue.

But she has regained momentum. She reached the semi-finals in women's singles at Wimbledon earlier this year and won doubles with her sister. Venus is once again in the top 10, ranked sixth in the world (Serena is ranked No. 1).

"I never would have predicted that I would have played this long," she said with a laugh. "At some point it's got to end and it will be an extremely sad day."

About 10 years ago, she began to build a foundation for life off the tennis court by studying fashion and interior design as well as business. In deciding on an undergraduate programme focused on business administration, she contacted professor of management David Frantz from Indiana University East.

"When she called, I thought it was one of my friends playing a practical joke," said Prof Frantz, who became Williams' adviser. She graduated with a bachelor of science in business administration in August last year. She said she is studying for a master's in interior architecture.

All the coursework has fed into her two main businesses. EleVen, a four-year-old company, is undergoing a reboot since Williams hired two seasoned retail executives last year to help her centralise and take charge of operations.

With a focus on getting the tennis skirts, yoga pants and leisurewear into more boutiques and starting to leverage her international popularity, sales volume has increased by three times, said Ms Ilana Rosen, EleVen's chief operating officer. Also operating from the same space is Williams' V*Starr Interiors, a design firm with seven employees.

Mr Steven Schwartz, chief executive of the Midtown Athletic Club chain, has decided to carry the EleVen line as well as hire V*Starr to help design the tennis lounge and some hotel suites at its flagship club in Chicago.

"She wins Wimbledon doubles on Saturday afternoon and she comes to Chicago on Tuesday," he said. "We met her all afternoon. Athletic ability fades and she is smart enough to know this and she is humble enough to work with."

At the office, she showed easy camaraderie with her employees. Williams sketches the EleVen designs herself on vellum paper; she worked on her most recent batch in Paris, while playing in the French Open.

Even she realises that she is taking on a lot, but she seems happy, incapable of idleness.

"I need that pressure in my life," she said. She carries with her a mindset that tries to anticipate the next shot, the next point, the next set.

"I have always said that after sport, I want a life, I want an opportunity, I want to be able to do something," she said.

"And if something happens - the economy falls out or the dollar is worthless, anything could happen - you have to be ready to work. And I'm ready."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2016, with the headline 'Venus Williams, fashion and interior designer'. Subscribe