With one hand on her hip and the other cradling her chin, Serena Williams, dressed in a nondescript white tee and black leggings, has come in from the humidity and is standing in a photo studio near her south Florida home.
She’s surveying a rack of black-and-white statement pieces from Tom Ford to Caroline Herrera for her ESSENCE cover shoot. Like her 122 mph serves, her eyes dart back and forth from one design to another. “Ohhh, who’s that by?” asks Williams, and then without missing a beat: “Do you have anything from our collection?” She offers a slight smile, buoyed by the self-assurance that has won her 23 Grand Slam titles (her goal is 25). She’s clearly happy knowing her designs stack up against some of the biggest fashion houses in the world, not only in style but in purpose.
After investing in start-up companies for five years through Serena Ventures, the tennis champion decided she’d invest in her passion for fashion, design and empowering women by launching an independent ready-to-wear line, S by Serena. She explains that her clothes “represent women everywhere—indomitable mothers, daughters and sisters; resilient businesswomen and entrepreneurs; outsiders and underdogs; little girls with crazy dreams and unflinching women of color.”
On September 10, Williams’s New York Fashion Week presentation will culminate in a 24-hour shopping party. In the midst of planning her show, the wife and mom spoke with ESSENCE to talk about how she defines style, what she looks for in a good investment and why she’ll always speak up for herself and others
ESSENCE: Let’s jump right into fashion. I’m curious about the pieces you were connecting with at the photoshoot—for example, the Monique Lhuiller cape. What’s the first thing you look for in a piece you’ll wear or that you’ll design for your S by Serena collection?
SERENA WILLIAMS: Wow. I love fashion, obviously. It has to connect to me, first of all. I like things that are unusual, but also a little classic. It depends: It could be a crazy pop of color, and it’ll totally get me excited. Or it could be something fresh I haven’t seen before. Honestly, I can go in any direction. Just depends on how I feel.
Freedom means standing up and not being afraid to say, ‘I’m here’ or ‘Hear my voice’ or ‘This isn’t what I agreed to’ or ‘This isn’t fair and that isn’t right.’ That’s freedom for me.
ESSENCE: Do you find your fashion has changed since you became a mom? I’ll be honest. After I had my daughter I had to tell myself to stop wearing yoga pants.
WILLIAMS: The thing is, during my pregnancy, I always made sure I was dressed up, or I wore heels and it would kill me. But I would just wear the heels and then I would take them off at the restaurant or wherever we would go. Then I’d put them back on. I had to be fabulous. There’s even a picture of the day before I had the baby. We went out to eat and I had on my blue outfit and I was like, I’m going to try to be stylish this whole pregnancy. I tried, but afterward, it was a little bit of a letdown, definitely more so than during. We deserve a letdown, but we also deserve an upgrade.
ESSENCE: I’ve read that when you were building your fashion company, you decided to invest in yourself as an entrepreneur. What has been the joy in doing that?
WILLIAMS: Knowing that you only fail if you fail to try. My biggest joy is that I know that I’m doing something that I’ve always wanted to do, that I always dreamed of doing. I went to fashion school back in the early 2000s. This didn’t just pop up for me. It’s something I’ve literally been doing and designing for my whole life. I’d never had an opportunity to have a meaningful partnership where I could be more creative and have a more global reach. But I decided that since I couldn’t find that partner, I just needed to do it on my own. Because when you invest in yourself, it helps your confidence, and you’ll know forever that whether you make it or not, you stepped up to the plate. And that’s what I’ve done my whole career. Not everyone believed in me in the beginning, but I stepped up to the plate, and it’s been working out. We have wonderful feedback, and we’re learning, and we’re growing. That’s key.
ESSENCE: You’ve already broken so many barriers in tennis—whether it’s earning your 23rd Grand Slam, winning the Australian Open while you were pregnant, coming back to the game and winning after a difficult childbirth. Also, you’re running a fashion brand; you’re an entrepreneur. You really represent freedom. But what does freedom mean to you?
WILLIAMS: Freedom means standing up and not being afraid to say, “I’m here” or “Hear my voice” or “This isn’t what I agreed to” or “This isn’t fair and that isn’t right.” That’s freedom for me. I’ve done it my whole career. It’s knowing where I’ve come from, knowing my history. In particular, the sport that I’m in. When I first started, there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me. So it was really important to always help other people feel as if this is something they could also be a part of. This is something they could be into. It’s about speaking up and just saying, “You know what? You belong here, too.” This is freedom.
For the full interview, pick up ESSENCE’s September Global Fashion Issue on newsstands August 16.
Cori Murray (@corimurray) is ESSENCE’s entertainment director.
Photography: Kwaku Alston (@kwakualston)
Styling: Marielle Bobo (@mariellebobo)
Visual Art: LÁOLÚ (@laolunyc)
Hair: Vernon François (@vernonfrancois) using Vernon François products/The Visionaries
Makeup: Natasha Gross (@natashagrossmakeupartist)/ natashagrossartistry.com
Manicure: Tina Le (@nailsbytinale)/Oxygenix Hair & Nail Spa
Production: HG Producers (@hgproducers)