Serena Williams has hired various designers for her new Nike collection
Tennis superstar Serena Williams has been a Nike-sponsored athlete since 2003. But as she developed her latest fashion collection with the sportswear giant, she didn’t just tap into the existing roster of company designers. “I’ve been at Nike for many years and I want to see more people in design who look like me,” she said. Fast company. “I wanted to cast our net further, into areas where Nike wouldn’t usually go.”
Two years ago, Williams proposed that Nike launch a design apprenticeship program – the Serena Williams Design Crew – to bring in young designers from communities of color to help design pieces for its collection. Williams helped select 10 talented New York designers who were invited to apprentice at Nike for six months starting in January 2020. This cohort worked closely with Nike designers to create Williams’ new collection, which will be launched this fall. It draws inspiration from ’90s looks that influenced Williams’ aesthetic sensibilities and reflect her own history and personality. From its colorful jumpsuits to its asymmetrical combinations, this bold collection is just the first to recognize that inclusivity should start with who actually designs the pieces, not just who they’re designed for.
An exclusive industry
The fashion industry is notoriously exclusive of black designers: less than 10% of fashion designers at New York Fashion Week are black, and less than 5% of members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a trade group prestigious, are black. Over the past three years, the fashion media have documented racial disparities in the world of fashion, but change is slow in coming.
Although Williams is best known for her sporting achievements, she has always had a keen interest in fashion design. From 2000 to 2003, while pursuing her tennis career, she attended the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale to study fashion design. And in 2018, she launches it own fashion line, called S by Serena. Throughout these experiences, she has seen how difficult it is for aspiring black designers to break into the fashion industry.
“This program responds to the opportunity to increase diversity in the design industry,” says Williams. “Can you imagine what it means for a young designer to work within Nike’s world renowned design organization? For me, as a designer, this would legitimately be the best place to work. (Williams says she slipped her own design portfolio into the pile of applications. “I didn’t get picked,” she laughs. “We had very high standards.”)
Nike, for its part, has been criticized for its treatment of workers of color. The company has actively supported athletes who have used their platform to uplift the Black Lives Matter movement, like former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. But he has also faced allegations of racism within his own ranks. Last year, current and former Nike employees created an Instagram account called Black at Nike for sharing their experiences with racial discrimination within the organization.
A program like the Serena Williams Design Crew could help Nike bolster its image as a company that hires diverse talent and supports black employees. And ultimately, Nike hopes it could help attract new generations of consumers from a wide variety of backgrounds. “For many companies, the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 sparked a whole new approach to diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Jarvis Sam, vice president of diversity and global inclusions of Nike. “For us, it was really a catalyst or an accelerator. We believe that having diverse teams will have very positive downstream implications, not only on how our consumers see our commitment to diversity, but also how our employees see it.
Inaugural class of the Design Crew
For the design team, Williams thought it would be best to search one city at a time, rather than doing a national search, as it would allow Nike to tap deep into the talent pool there. Sam helped Williams develop the program and says Nike partnered with organizations like Harlem’s Fashion Row, explored local New York-area community colleges, and even scouted Nike retail stores around the city for solicit nominations.
Williams remained involved throughout the process and helped select the final candidates. “They can bring parts of this city to the design and that’s something you don’t really see often,” Williams says. “We’re talking about doing this program for a really long time and going to different cities, so we really want to build something that’s durable that will have a lot of longevity.” Williams has already helped pick the next round of 11 candidates, this time from Chicago, who began their apprenticeship at Nike in May 2021.
Once the apprentices were selected, each had an onboarding buddy, mentor and personnel manager to give them the tools they needed to succeed. They underwent a three-week training course with Pensole Design Academy, an athletic footwear and apparel program developed by former Nike D’Wayne Edwards.
Among the candidates was Toussaint King, who worked at a marketing company but dreamed of becoming a sneaker designer. He was selected to be part of the first cohort of the Design Crew and go to work on dream projects. During his six-month apprenticeship, he worked on Williams’ Australian Open 2021 shoes, as well as the Air Max Koko sandal and the Air Force 1 which will launch in October. King is one of seven of ten members of the design team to land full-time employment; today he is a shoe designer for the Jordan Kids brand. “I’ve always been fascinated by creating something that doesn’t exist,” he says. “But as a self-taught designer in a highly competitive industry, I don’t think I could have worked on a collection like this without this platform. One of the best parts was working with people at Nike who are design icons to me – being able to talk with them, have lunch with them, just ordinary stuff. It was amazing.
Emiko McCoy, another member of the inaugural cohort, had a fashion background. She studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and worked for brands like Champion and Ralph Lauren. But his dream was to work at Nike. “Seeing Serena Williams’ ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign on a billboard in Herald Square was a life-changing moment for me,” she says of the video which featured female athletes recounting their careers, their childhood dreams of global success. “Seeing the greatest athlete of all time – someone who looks like me and brought so many young girls into the sport – inspired me to finally pursue my own crazy dream of becoming a Nike designer.”
As a member of the Design Crew, McCoy worked on performance clothing in Williams’ new collection, which is colorful and covered in patterns. Prints featuring these pieces are designed to tell a story about Williams’ life. The double zero design refers to “love” in tennis as well as her daughter’s initials. Meanwhile, geometric prints pay homage to West African Kente fabric, with “S” for Serena integrated into the design. Even the cutouts are strategically placed on the right shoulder, which is Williams’ service arm. The apprenticeship led to full-time employment as a womenswear designer at Nike.
Nike has hundreds of designers on its staff, but new designers who have come through the Design Crew believe they have the opportunity to shape the brand’s aesthetic. They can incorporate their culture and personal background into the pieces they create, which might resonate with the consumers they are trying to reach. “My design is a microcosm of where I come from and my real life experiences,” says King.
The collection will be available in September.