This year is such a bittersweet moment for the legendary Serena Williams. In a cover story for Vogue magazine, she announced that she would be stepping away from her first love, tennis, after this year’s U.S. Open Tournament. The game of tennis has opened an innumerable number of doors for the 40-year-old superstar — with the most notable being fashion and a major cultural influencer. Williams decided to announce her exit in the most famous fashion magazine in the world, and that alone speaks volumes about who she is and her impact. Plus, she recently walked the Vogue runway in Balenciaga. And, she was honored by Adweek as a Brand Visionary, described as “a multitalented trailblazer who has transcended surface-level stardom and made their mark on the world in a meaningful way.”
So, how far does her legacy go and what exactly has she done for the culture, fashion, and society as a whole?
Serena’s Impact Begins with Representation
Serena, and her older sister Venus, stepped onto the scene as two tennis prodigies. It wasn’t until Serena’s 1999 Grand Slam win against Martina Hingis that we all realized who she was and what that moment meant.
Serena’s legacy has permeated everything from fashion to fine arts and there’s proof everywhere. She partnered with big name brands like Gatorade, Audemars Piguet, JP Morgan, Aston Martin, and so many more. Additionally, she’s been mentioned in countless songs and even appeared in blockbuster films. Her personal brand stands for greatness.
She was a young Black teen with beads and braids who had just won against one of the top-ranked female tennis players in the world. Williams didn’t look like anyone else she played with and that alone propelled her to stardom. She dominated the sport and became a major inspiration for the young Black girls at home who were often criticized for wearing braids and beads. It was a win not just for Serena but for young Black girls across the nation.
Moving into her later years, Serena faced backlash about her body. She was an athlete with a physique that many were not accustomed to, and some noisy critics made their grievances known to the world. Critics painted Serena as “masculine” in comparison to her competitors, which sent a biased message to all of those who looked up to her.
Williams used these criticisms to overcome stereotypes and what could be termed senseless racism. Rising above the fray, she fueled her passion for fashion. In addition to her long-standing partnership with Nike, she launched S by Serena, an apparel brand that celebrated body positivity for all women. Axios reports that “Williams understood the power of image, and her wardrobe was as carefully honed and considered a part of her long game as any serve or forehand, according to Vanessa Friedman, The New York Times’s fashion critic. It began when she and her sister Venus took to the court in their beads and braids, and continued through denim and studs, snakeskin and mesh, and a black catsuit at the 2018 French Open. She smashed barriers of race, age and background and she smashed the old dress codes of tennis,” adds Friedman.
It’s safe to say we’ve never seen a more versatile athlete in this half of the century. She’s the only athlete to dominate and win titles consistently for over 25 years. There is no comparison. And as stated, she transcends the arenas and stands for the values and goals young women of all backgrounds can aspire to.
And she may not be out of the tennis picture yet. The 23-time Grand Slam winner, said in she will likely be “evolving away” from tennis after this year’s U.S. Open, but stopped short of saying she would retire. When asked if she would consider coming back to the sport, she said, “I don’t think so, but you never know.”
Her Legacy Raises the Bar
Serena’s legacy has permeated everything from fashion to fine arts and there’s proof everywhere. She partnered with big name brands like Gatorade, Audemars Piguet, JP Morgan, Aston Martin, and so many more. Additionally, she’s been mentioned in countless songs and even appeared in blockbuster films. Her personal brand stands for greatness. The Spring 2021 Footsteps to Follow campaign for Stuart Weitzman perfectly encapsulated what Serena’s legacy represents,
“The campaign reflects the multi-faceted aspects of womanhood in the modern landscape — a delicate balance of family, parenting, career and community, as well as a feat of confidence and inner strength — all of which are embodied by the mother, superstar athlete, philanthropist and entrepreneur,” states Stuart Weitzman.
With the future in mind, her next move is to build Serena Ventures which raised $111 million to invest in minority owned businesses, which may be her most significant, long-lasting legacy. The firm currently manages over 60 angel investments with the most distinguished being Tonal, Masterclass, and Daily Harvest, and Noom.
What Retailers Can Learn from Serena Williams
As a walking, talking, living brand, Serena has executed her marketing messaging without fluff and gimmicks. She owns who she is and doesn’t compromise that for anyone or any collaboration. Her approach can be summed up into three words—longevity, dominance, and diversity. Any retailer should hope to celebrate role models like Serena and the North Star she follows. She embodies the combination of body positivity, personal style, and authenticity.
Showing up without bias and celebrating inclusivity. This is the recipe for success that can be applied across many retail industries. Dick’s is moving in the right direction and Nike pretty much remains the gold standard for positive role modeling, but more brands are catching wind of the formula.
Walmart and Levi Strauss & Co. have organically balanced their diversity numbers across the board. These companies have created programs, like the Walmart Foundation, into their corporate ecosystem that create more diverse opportunities for more people. That’s something consumers are motivated to support long term.
What She Stands For
Serena Williams began with tennis and over time her story has evolved into one of the greatest living legacies of all time. Williams represents the past, present, and future blueprint for all who aspire to contribute to something much bigger than themselves. Fans and retailers alike can learn and apply her strategy to not only gain influence but to radically change the world we live in today.