Venus Williams talks new sportswear line

The tennis star put her fashion degree to use with the debut of her EleVen by Venus sportswear line. Meredith Jenks for ESPN The Magazine

When Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley tweeted about "the most original fashion performance art show in Fashion Week," you might think he was referencing one of haute couture's eccentric heavyweights. Instead he was big-upping the debut of Venus Williams' EleVen by Venus line. The four-time gold medalist and winner of seven Grand Slam titles put boxers, gymnasts and dancers on the runway in New York last month to unveil the sportswear line she's had in the works since graduating from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in 2007.

While she's had the degree and insider mentorship for a while, Williams' nascent designing career has often been sidetracked by her day gig. Before she sent her models out, Williams talked to Playbook about finally getting to show at Fashion Week.

Why is this second career and being in the fashion industry so important to you?

I've been in fashion forever; I went to school for it. It's a natural transition for me. It was my dream off the court, as well.

You have your own interior design company, too, and there are so many opportunities in the fashion industry. Why do a clothing line?

I got a letter in the mail one day, and it was for a fashion school, and it was all the way in Tampa, which is three hours away from where I live in West Palm Beach. My mom was like, "That's too far." So I found a school in Fort Lauderdale that was only 45 minutes away. At the time I guess I didn't know that I could make my own choice because I was 18. I ended up going to school and I loved every second of it. What I loved most was finding my own voice, and I think that's what makes EleVen stand out. If I had someone designing, I think the chance would be 100 percent that it would look like everybody else, with some ideas from me here and there. And that's why I think it's so unique and different in terms of style and styling because it really is me and my view of how I see things. I've found that I had to work and find who I was and bring it out in the design, so that there's a piece of me in every collection. Although every time I'm like, "Oh boy, I wonder what's going to happen." As you design, you never know how it's going to turn out and what's going to be the inspiration. It just keeps coming out more beautiful each time.

The line is so focused on your point of view. Who, in your mind, is the type of person you could see wearing EleVen?

People who want to express themselves in what they wear. Even if what they wear is conservative, they want to be able make that choice. EleVen is for people who care about style, who want to live well and be healthy and look good at the same time.

Are there any designers or celebrities whose style you admired or that really influenced you?

Diane Von Furstenberg and Ralph Lauren. It's crazy to me because I've worked with them before, and I enjoyed our collaborations. That was very exciting. When I was in school I studied Diane Von Furstenberg. Her wrap dress was an exam question! At the time I was like, "Wow, I'm working with her."

Any other mentors?

I'm really close with Andre Leon Talley. He's an amazing person. He was the one who told me that if I'm going to do this, then I really have to know the history of fashion, but at the same time he was very insistent that you have to use your voice and let who you are to tell the story. That was the most important advice he gave me.

How tough has it been to balance this work with the tennis career?

I had to find a balance. It's hard, though, because I have to say no to a lot of things. Like, no, no, no, I have to train in the morning so I can't take that meeting.

When you're on the road traveling to tournaments, do you ever pick up inspiration for the line?

Yes. I'll be walking by a window and think, I love that detail. I have to grab my phone to take a photo or immediately try to jot it down. A lot of times though when I'm at a tournament I try to keep my mind clear and just focus on tennis. When I'm designing, that's when I have the most ideas. I literally have to write them down at night so that I can remember in the morning.

What are your favorite pieces in the collection?

Of course, for me, it's the watercolor because that was the inspiration for the spring collection. Also the pieces that have chambray. I've always dreamed of doing watercolor, and it reminded me of visiting

Giverny [in northern France]. Chambray is a wonderful texture and feel, but it also performs.