Arthur Ashe was an amazing tennis player. He won three Grand Slam titles during his 11-year professional career (1969-1980). A former world number one, Ashe was also the first black player selected to the United States national team and the only black man to win the singles titles at Wimbledonthe U.S. Open or the australian open. By all accounts, he’s an all-time great.
But he was more than a tennis player. He was a dedicated AIDS educator – he publicly announced his diagnosis in 1992 and died in 1993 – and a civil rights activist. He was arrested in several public demonstrations and he was posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton.
There is also a stadium named after him inside Corona Park in Queens, New York. Arthur Ashe Stadium, and it hosts more than 23,000 fans and a few dozen players for the US Open each year, making it the largest freestanding tennis stadium in the world. It’s a beautiful facility with its own history now, but the guardians of its domain want its name to be more than just a landmark. They want Arthur Ashe to be remembered for what he did – but also how he looked like he did it.
“People know the stadium, and I think a lot of young people know the name Ashe just because of that,” said Karl Blanchard, brand director at Arthur Ashe, a new clothing line inspired by Ashe’s style. ‘Ashe on and off the field. “But it’s a different way to share his name and his story with people around the world.”
Alongside the brand’s creative director (and Rowing Blazers founder) Jack Carlson, Blanchard worked directly with Ashe’s estate to create replicas of clothes Ashe actually wore and spin-offs he would surely have approved of. And a percentage of all profits is shared between the UCLA Arthur Ashe Legacy Fund and the United Social Change Fund, two organizations the estate still supports today. A charitable component was something Ashe’s wife, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, emphasized, Carlson says.
“The same way brands do 1% for the planet or a brand like Patagonia has the idea of giving back to environmental causes in its DNA, it’s part of the DNA of the Arthur Ashe brand,” says- he. “And that was part of the discussion with Jeanne from the start.”
Carlson says his connection to Moutoussamy-Ashe and the Ashe estate stems from a friendship with Donald Dell, a former professional tennis player who was at one time Ashe’s teammate and then her agent.
“Donald and Arthur were close friends and Davis Cup teammates, and later Donald was Arthur’s agent and continues to be involved in his estate. ‘Arthur Ashe for a long time,’ Carlson said. “The idea of creating a brand dedicated to his heritage – similar to Lacoste or Fred Perry – was incredibly exciting. We had many conversations with Donald and Jeanne and really grew the brand together, with Karl joining us since kith.”
It’s an impressive and comprehensive debut for a… well, let’s call it a legacy brand, even though it didn’t exist less than a month ago. There are printed polo shirts and sweaters, tracksuits and sweat bands, shorts and plenty of socks. Clothes that you could wear to play tennis or to lunch, because the preppy and sporty clothes that tennis players normally wear are quite trendy at the moment.
“Arthur Ashe had an impeccable style, [an] attention to detail and [a] sense of color. His career spanned the ’60s, when his look was very clean and collegiate, and the ’70s, when he had a bit more flash and flare,” Carlson says. “In the collection, we try to capture all of this. We didn’t just want to replicate Ashe’s wardrobe, but rather create something for today that reflects her style. We do, however, riff on some key pieces: the American warm-up he wore to the Wimbledon awards ceremony after shocking the world by beating Jimmy Connors in 1975; and the black and white mesh tennis shirt he wore frequently in the 70s.”
For new things designed to “reflect her style,” Carlson studied the star and asked those close to her for advice and rarely told stories. This is, however, part of his usual design sessions, which begin “with a very in-depth study of the past”.
“In this case,” says Carlson, “it was a lot of reading, playing games, interviews, photos and talking with Jeanne, Donald and others.”
For tennis fans, this is a stylish new brand to support, with traditions built in from a bygone era. But it’s more than a one-time license agreement, if you will. There’s real potential here, from the clever brand and logo work to the Supreme-like patterns. Maybe one day Arthur Ashe will sponsor a professional player. Could the brand be integrated somewhere in Arthur Ashe Stadium? At the very least, it’s about raising money for worthy causes.
“This brand launch signifies the continuation of something great that Arthur Ashe started a long time ago,” Blanchard said. By establishing a relationship with the estate, he says, they “hope to continue to build on Ashe’s vision, legacy and inspiration.”
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