Arthur Ashe was an incredible tennis player. During his 11-year professional career (1969-1980) he won three Grand Slam titles. 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 ever win the singles title Wimbledonthe US Open or the Australian Open. Either way, he’s an all-time great.
But he was more than a tennis player. He was a dedicated AIDS advocate – he publicly announced his diagnosis in 1992 and died in 1993 – and a civil rights activist. He was arrested at several public protests and posthumously received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President Bill Clinton.
There is also a stadium named after him in 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 standalone tennis stadium in the world. It’s now a beautiful establishment with a history of its own, but the caretakers of his estate want his name to be more than just a landmark. They want Arthur Ashe to be remembered for what he did – but also for how he looked when he did it.
“People know the stadium and I think a lot of younger people know Ashe’s name just because of that,” said Karl Blanchard, brand director at Arthur Ashe, a new line of clothing inspired by Ashe’s style on and off court. “But this is a different way of sharing his name and story with people around the world.”
Alongside Jack Carlson, the brand’s creative director (and the founder of rowing blazer), Blanchard worked directly with Ashe’s estate to create replicas of garments Ashe actually wore and spin-offs he would certainly have approved of. And a percentage of all proceeds are split between the UCLA’s Arthur Ashe Legacy Fund and the Social Change Fund United, two organizations that the estate supports to this day. A charitable component is something Ashe’s wife Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe emphasized, says Carlson.
“Like brands do 1% for the planet, or a brand like Patagonia has the idea of giving back to the environment, that’s part of the Arthur Ashe brand’s DNA,” he says. “And that was part of the discussion with Jeanne from the start.”
Carlson says his connection to the Moutoussamy-Ashe and Ashe estate stems from a friendship with Donald Dell, a former pro tennis player who was once Ashe’s teammate and then his agent.
“Donald and Arthur were close friends and Davis Cup teammates, and later Donald was Arthur’s agent and remains involved in his estate. I was excited because I’ve been a huge Arthur Ashe fan for a long time,” says Carlson. “The idea of creating a brand dedicated to his legacy – similar to Lacoste or Fred Perry – was incredibly exciting. We had a lot of conversations with Donald and Jeanne and really developed the brand together with Karl who came to us Kith.”
It’s an impressive, all-encompassing debut for a… well, let’s call it an old brand, albeit one that didn’t exist less than a month ago. There are printed polos and sweaters, sweatsuits and sweatbands, shorts and plenty of socks. Stuff to wear to a game of tennis or to lunch because the neat, sporty clothes that tennis players usually wear are quite the trend these days.
“Arthur Ashe had impeccable style, [an] attention to detail and [a] sense of color. His career spanned from the ’60s, when his look was very clean and collegiate, to the ’70s, when he had a bit more glitz and flair,” says Carlson. “In the collection we try to capture all of that. We didn’t just want to replicate Ashe’s wardrobe, but create something for today that reflects his style. However, we did censure certain key pieces: the USA warm-up he wore to the Wimbledon awards show after shocking the world in 1975 by beating Jimmy Connors; and the black and white grid pattern mesh tennis shirt he wore a lot in the ’70s.”
For the new things meant to “reflect his style,” Carlson studied the star and tapped those close to him for tips and rarely repeated stories. However, this is all part of his usual design sessions, which begin “with a very careful study of the past”.
“In this case,” explains Carlson, “it was a lot of reading, watching games, watching interviews, looking at photos, and talking to Jeanne, Donald, and others.”
For tennis fans, this is a stylish new brand to support, with built-in lore from a bygone era. But it’s more than a one-time license agreement, if you will. There is real potential here, from clever branding and logo work to Highest-similar patterns. Perhaps 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 charity.
“This launch marks the continuation of something great that Arthur Ashe started a long time ago,” says Blanchard. By building a relationship with the estate, he says, “they hope to continue to build on Ashe’s vision, legacy and inspiration.”