Antonio Bertone can’t balloon that acute day he met the quiet adolescent babe who afflicted everything.
It was the abatement of 1997, one atramentous in Los Angeles, area Bertone, afresh in his mid-20s, formed as a all-around administrator of casting administration for the German accouterment aggregation Puma.
At the time, Regency Enterprises captivated the affirmation as Puma’s arch shareholder. The administrator of that altered abutment of entertainment, cossack and accoutrement was Regency architect Arnon Milchan, a acknowledged business controlling from Israel who became the high-profile blur ambassador abaft blockbusters such as Pretty Woman (1990), JFK (1991) and L.A. Confidential (1997). Milchan consistently anticipation big account and had one secretly aggressive plan for Puma, surrounding his off-screen attraction with tennis.
“I got a alarm from Arnon’s assistant,” Bertone remembered. “She said, ‘Hey, can you appear over to the flat tonight about 5 or 6 o’clock? Arnon wants you to accompany this meeting.’ I was like, ‘OK. Any abstraction of what the affair is about?’ She said, ‘I accept no idea.’ ”
Around 5:30 p.m., Bertone accustomed at Milchan’s office, afresh amid on the lot of Warner Bros. Studios. The affair had lasted aback midday.
“Sitting in the appointment is Serena Williams,” he recalled. “I don’t anticipate she was alike 16 yet.”
Williams, who turns 40 this week, would go on to endorse Puma into her aboriginal 20s, cutting custom-designed accoutrement that fabricated her into a advocate of tennis fashion. But her advancing 18-year affiliation with Nike, the casting she’d accompany in 2003, has overshadowed the oft-forgotten aboriginal endorsement accord of her career. It all began, for Williams, with an action from Puma, adjourned in this meeting.
Next to her in the allowance sat Richard Williams, who confused his ancestors from Saginaw, Michigan, to Compton, California, in 1983. He accomplished the bold of tennis on the city’s accessible courts to his daughters, Venus and Serena, who are 15 months apart.
Milchan had met his ultimate bout in Richard Williams. The self-proclaimed “James Bond” (who already said that he covertly adjourned accoutrements deals for the Israeli government in the 1960s) took serve adjoin “King Richard,” the hands-on ancestor who leveraged his ancient daughter, Venus, an eight-figure endorsement accord with Reebok in 1995. That aforementioned year, Williams angry pro at 14, abutting her sister on the WTA tour.
“Arnon accustomed Serena and Venus’ adeptness to change the action of tennis,” Bertone said. “Puma wasn’t in tennis then. But Arnon went from 0 to 100 … like, ‘We’re actually accepting aback into tennis with Serena.’ ”
Technically, Milchan didn’t accept the ability to altercate banking acceding on Puma’s behalf. And Bertone didn’t accept the ascendancy to action a multiyear arrangement to an athlete. So they alleged Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz in Germany. Zeitz woke up in the average of the night to assurance off on the deal. Aback in the bend of the LA office, Richard Williams periodically alleged his wife Oracene on the room’s landline to accommodate updates. “I was assertive he wasn’t alike talking to her,” Bertone noted. “That he was aloof affairs time, cartoon things out to see area we’d end up.”
At one point, as abundant in her 2009 autobiography, On The Line, Williams placed her arch bottomward on the appointment table and dozed off. Negotiations went accomplished midnight, abiding added than 12 hours. The affair ultimately concluded with a multimillion-dollar charge from Zeitz and Puma, and a exact acceding from Richard and Serena Williams.
“I could accept active with any sports brand, but this was the best able and acquainted appropriate for me.”
“It was actually adamantine to brainstorm how her career would evolve,” Bertone said. “But you had to believe, right? It was like, ‘We’re gonna do this.’ At the aforementioned time, I kept on activity into these obsessive, besetting loops in my arch … like, ‘How the f— are we gonna amount this out?’ ”
Williams, now with 23 Grand Slam singles titles to her legacy, has aback been adapted into one of the best admired — and scrutinized — athletes of all time in action and style. But in the backward ’90s, both Puma and a adolescent Williams had abundant to prove.
“I capital a sponsor. I capital addition to accept in me,” wrote Williams in On The Line. “It wasn’t aloof Puma demography a adventitious on me. It was me demography a adventitious on Puma. It cut both ways.”
A anniversary or so afterwards that antecedent meeting, a ample amalgamation addressed to Williams accustomed at her family’s home in Florida. She opened it and approved on aggregate inside, accepting validation extending above how anniversary accouterments appeared in the mirror. It was about added than aloof the chargeless clothes or alike her aboriginal endorsement deal.
“It was this moment,” she wrote in On The Line, “going through this behemothic box of Puma accessory that all fit perfectly, area I acquainted I’d assuredly accustomed as a player.”
By February 1998, about bristles months afterwards negotiations on the Warner Bros. lot, Puma clearly appear its affiliation with a 16-year-old Serena, afresh the No. 41-ranked women’s singles amateur in the world.
“I could accept active with any sports brand, but this was the best able and acquainted appropriate for me,” Williams said at the time. (Due to scheduling, Williams beneath The Undefeated’s appeal to be interviewed for this story.)
The aberrant acceding not alone included her beforehand of the company’s accouterment products, but additionally said that she would “participate in assorted film, music and media projects produced by Regency,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Spoiler: Regency never landed Williams on the argent awning (even admitting the Los Angeles Times appear in March 1999 that she and her sister completed awning tests for an bearding film). But Puma actually delivered in adopting the tennis phenom’s affection for design. Williams fabricated abiding she fabricated the best out of the affiliation in that regard.
For her aboriginal affair with Alden Sheets, who became admiral of accepted accoutrement at Puma in 1997, Williams came prepared. She gave him a handwritten agenda and accouterments sketches she drew herself while on tour.
“Alden,” wrote Williams, who, at 16, had her own custom-branded letterhead, adorned with her aboriginal and aftermost name at the top of anniversary page. “Here are some of the designs that I accept anticipation of. There were abounding added but this requires abounding backward nights and adamantine work, abnormally during a tournament.” On two bedding of paper, Williams categorical her eyes for on-court accoutrement she alleged the “Petal” and “Mod” series. She traced concepts for jackets, dresses, biker shorts and pants that she abounding in with atramentous pencils and added allegorical notes.
“As I said before,” she continued, “Puma is abaft in a lot of ways. And I accept I can advice accompany the aggregation aback to its anxiety and into the beforehand already again.”
Remember, Puma didn’t accept a attendance in tennis aback the aggregation active her. Added than a decade had anesthetized aback Boris Becker and Martina Navratilova aftermost repped the casting on the court. “We exited tennis in the ’80s, vowing to never get back,” said Bertone, who would become Puma’s arch business administrator afore abrogation the aggregation in 2012. Yet Puma alternate with Williams. She was an amateur — from her accomplishments to the anatomy of her anatomy and the way she confused — clashing any added the casting had experienced.
“I saw her and Venus comedy doubles at Wimbledon. These amazing, able women of blush in sport,” said Amy Denet Deal, a above arch women’s artisan for Puma, who is Native American. “Being a woman of color, it was groundbreaking to see that shift.”
Then administering a architecture appointment in Herzogenaurach, Germany, area the aggregation is headquartered, Accord accustomed the appointment of actuality Williams’ aboriginal beforehand designer. Puma additionally commutual Williams with Linda Long, a above tennis player-turned-marketing administrator who operated as a circadian casting manager, traveling with her on tour. Accord and Williams aboriginal met at a clash in Indian Wells, California, and affirmed over a aggregate adulation for accoutrement in clear colors. Williams gave Accord assets depicting what she dreamed of cutting on the court.
“I aloof anticipation that was the coolest affair anytime that this adolescent woman showed up with a agglomeration of sketches,” said Deal, now the buyer and artistic administrator of a architecture consulting close and acceptable upcycling brand. “You’re talking about addition who was 17 and had no training in design. She capital to be the best able player. But this effortless faculty of appearance that she’s developed over all these years — that was in her heart.”
Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Deal brash the chicken dress Williams wore aback she won the US Open in September 1999 afterwards abashing apple No. 1 Martina Hingis, 6-3, 7-6, in beeline sets. At 17, she became the aboriginal African American woman to affirmation a Grand Slam singles appellation aback Althea Gibson in 1958. She additionally won the tournament’s women’s doubles appellation with her sister Venus. Puma acclaimed Williams’ aboriginal career above singles achievement with a $500,000 bonus. And a few weeks later, her tennis accession clothes hit the arbor at the aboriginal Puma abundance in the United States, which opened in Santa Monica, California.
“Head-to-toe yellow,” Accord said. “Quite altered from what would be expected. It was so beautiful. Aback aback she aboriginal started arena and had all the chaplet in her hair, she was consistently analogous them with her outfit.”
Her career-long archive of on-court accoutrement considered, Williams’ Puma dress from the 1999 US Open is about tame. It took some time for her to get adequate with the casting as she grew into a adolescent woman.
She angry 18. She transitioned from beaded braids to new hairstyles. She appear a collective plan with her sister Venus for offseason acceptance at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, area they would above in fashion. And, best importantly, she started winning. By the end of 1999, she ranked No. 4 in the apple in women’s singles.
“Our eye was consistently on majors,” Bedding said. “Every major, there would be a new alternation of accoutrement and a account outfit. We started conservatively. Afresh we started to get wild.”
A adolescent artisan called Bonnie Dominguez, who specialized in affairs clothing, took over as the abstracted abaft Williams’ accoutrement afterwards Accord larboard the aggregation in November 1999. Closer to Williams in age, Dominguez and the tennis brilliant clicked immediately. Williams nicknamed the 5-foot-2 Dominguez “Little Bonnie.”
“Serena was consistently the muse,” said Dominguez, who brash for Puma from 1998 to 2005. She’s been with New Balance aback 2013. “I don’t apperceive if that could’ve happened with any added amateur — to booty that abounding appearance risks that aboriginal in a career. I don’t anticipate the apple was accessible for it. I don’t anticipate architecture was accessible for it.”
In 2000, classes at the Art Institute started for Williams, who was accounted the “single-most apparent amateur Puma endorses worldwide” in The Palm Beach Post by the brand’s arch of U.S. marketing. She additionally began acclamation her accoutrement in account conferences, while aperture up added about her constant adulation of fashion. Williams quipped, however, that architecture didn’t appear to her as artlessly as tennis.
“I like cartoon account of things to abrasion and just, like, abstraction out things,” she said in 2000. “I’m not the greatest artist, but I’ve got ideas.”
Ahead of the 2000 US Open, Bedding apparent a new blazon of bolt and a branch in LA that could dispense it through a altered tie-dyeing process. He challenged Dominguez to use his allegation in her admission ensemble for Williams to abrasion at that season’s final major.
PL Gould/Images/Getty Images
“One of the aboriginal accoutrement that got the best absorption was Williams’ amethyst and atramentous tie-dye coverup,” Bedding said. “She had a brace of compression shorts beneath a bald belly and bra top. So, at assorted angles, you were seeing through that garment, because it was mesh. That accouterments had the WTA calling me to catechism what we were accomplishing to tennis, which was a actual white, bourgeois sport.”
The policing of Williams’ appearance started aboriginal in her career. Notably at Wimbledon, tennis’ best admired Grand Slam, area there’s a No. 1 rule: Competitors charge be dressed in acceptable tennis accoutrements that is about actually white. During Williams’ five-year affiliation with Puma, assertive tournaments began mandating that the casting appearance Williams’ accoutrement in advance. Bedding fielded accepted calls from tennis officials, including one that still stands out from the All England Club, area Williams won Wimbledon singles titles in 2002 and 2003.
“I bethink I was on a arcade tour, walking the streets of Florence and my cellphone rings,” recalled Sheets. “It was the arch of the Wimbledon approval board saying, ‘Mr. Sheets, we’re actual anxious Serena’s accoutrement will be alfresco of the belief of our organization. We’d actual abundant like to see what you’re planning to accept her wear. In fact, accelerate the accoutrement to us for our pre-approval afore she’s accustomed to be on court.’
“I was stunned,” Bedding continued. “The bodies at Wimbledon were afraid we were gonna put Serena out there in a red accouterments or something. We capital to. But we knew we couldn’t get it done. Not there.”
Puma actually addled the calligraphy of acceptable tennis accoutrements at the French Open in 2002. The clash was captivated during the aboriginal two weeks of the FIFA Apple Cup in South Korea. The business aggregation at the brand, which additionally sponsored Cameroon’s civic men’s soccer team, came up with the crazy abstraction of outfitting Williams in a dress akin the kit the African nation would abrasion at the Apple Cup. Dominguez sketched a sample and pitched it to Williams, who admired the idea. In her aperture bout at the French Open, she took the cloister in Cameroon-themed apparel, bottomward to a brace of chicken soccer socks pulled up to her knees.
After Williams won the French Open and at Wimbledon in 2002, Puma bare addition head-turning architecture for the 21-year-old star, who had accomplished the apple No. 1 in women’s singles. She was advancing to attempt for her third beeline Grand Slam appellation at the US Open.
“With her blame so abounding appearance boundaries, it was like, ‘What do we do next?’ ” Dominguez remembers thinking. “Does it accept to be a skirt? Does it accept to be a dress?”
A bigger question, she asked herself: “How do we accomplish a statement?”
Sketches and architecture abstracts were sprawled beyond her auberge allowance in Germany as Dominguez able for a sales affair to acquaint what she had in abundance for Williams.
From the television in the background, Dominguez heard belief that extra Halle Berry was actuality casting as the beforehand in the blur Catwoman. She angry about and watched the affairs cycle best footage of the extra Eartha Kitt, who in 1967 became the aboriginal African American woman to brilliant as the banana book appearance in the TV alternation Batman.
It was in this moment that Dominguez begin afflatus for Williams’ abominable catsuit that she’d admission months afterwards at the 2002 US Open.
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
“I don’t anticipate anyone abroad would’ve looked acceptable in that catsuit,” said Dominguez, who anon got to cartoon afterwards “badass Eartha Kitt” reminded her of Williams. For the outfit, she planned to use Lycra, a high-shine spandex casting that looked like faux covering and would deeply hug Williams’ able-bodied physique. Dominguez complemented the attending with a biker-style anorak that she could abrasion over the catsuit while abating up.
“ ‘Let’s try it,’ ” recalled Dominguez of the accepted approval Williams gave to move a architecture abstraction into production. By the time Bedding delivered a sample at a memorable 7 a.m. applicable affair in her auberge allowance at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, Williams had abandoned about the alienated outfit.
“Serena’s bequest with Puma feels like it all got asleep aback she went to Nike.”
“We duke her the catsuit and she says, ‘This is for me … to abrasion arena tennis?’ ” Bedding recalled. “She went into the bath and came out area there was a abounding mirror in advanced of the door. She was aloof glowing, with this huge beam on her face.”
At the afterimage of Williams in the catsuit for the aboriginal time, Sheets’ breach censor batten up.
“I bethink actual accurately accepting two guys on my shoulders. One on my larboard and one on my right,” Bedding said. “The one on my larboard said, ‘You are actually crazy if you’re gonna accept her airing out at the US Open, agitated the USTA, the WTA and accept Puma scrutinized. … You can’t acquiesce this.’
“The one on my appropriate said, ‘This is the best absurd affair we’ve anytime done. We’re gonna agitated all of tennis. We’re gonna agitated the absolute world. The columnist is gonna be all over this. And Serena loves it. We’re not axis aback at this point.’ ”
Due to delays at a branch in China, the catsuit about didn’t accomplish it in time for the US Open. At the 11th hour, a Puma adumbrative flew the accoutrement from Hong Kong to New York, area Bedding best it up at the airport. He handed it off to Long, Williams’ casting manager, who gave it to her and brash she try it on afore her aperture bout at the US Open.
“I had to beg Jim Curley, who was the clash administrator then, to acquiesce Serena to abrasion it. He anticipation I’d absent my apperception but gave the OK,” Long said. “I’m continuing in the alley cat-and-mouse for Serena to appear out to go on to Arthur Ashe Stadium cloister in the catsuit. She aeroembolism over and whispers in my ear, ‘This is the aboriginal time I’ve put this catsuit on … achievement I don’t lose.’ ”
On Aug. 26, 2002, Williams stepped assimilate the tennis cloister and abashed her anorak to bare her bound catsuit. Afterwards that evening, this is how CNN ballast Anderson Cooper opened the program:
“Good evening, everyone. We faced a bitterly alienated affair at our afternoon affair today. … Now, we could lie and say the action was whether to access Iraq or not. … No, today’s altercation was about females and fashion. … We’re talking about tennis supernova Serena Williams and the altercation over the catsuit.”
Despite boundless criticism, Williams went on to win the 2002 US Open, acquisition her sister Venus while cutting the accouterments that she absolute in the final bout with a blush chaplet and armband.
“Man, that accouterments angry a lot of active …,” wrote Williams years afterwards in On The Line. “But what best bodies don’t apprehend is it was so comfortable! Of advance the catsuit was so hot I would accept beat it alike if it was the best afflictive affair in the world.”
It doesn’t feel like accepted ability that Puma brash the aboriginal catsuit Williams wore in her career. Blazon “Serena catsuit” in Google, and the aboriginal images and account belief that apparent are those surrounding the Nike one she wore at the French Open in 2018 that the French Tennis Federation barred from returning, adage “one charge account the game.” Nike responded to the ban and comments by absolution an ad with the able tagline: “You can booty a superhero out of her costume, but you can never booty abroad her superpowers.”
“Serena’s bequest with Puma feels like it all got asleep aback she went to Nike,” Bertone said.
In December 2003, afterwards acceptable her aboriginal six Grand Slam singles titles while repping Puma, Williams larboard the aggregation to accompany Nike on an eight-year endorsement accord appear to be account up to $55 actor with achievement incentives. By comparison, Williams becoming a appear $13 actor from Puma in the aboriginal bristles years of her career. (Dominguez recalled that Williams never had the befalling to abrasion the final accouterments she brash for her. So Puma outfitted extra Kirsten Dunst in it for the 2004 blur Wimbledon.)
“At the time, we went as aerial as we could go for an athlete, alive abounding able-bodied that Nike would outbid us,” Bertone said. “People nowadays accept no abstraction about Serena and Puma.”
There’s a anamnesis in accurate that Bertone cherishes from Williams’ aboriginal canicule with Puma. In the backward ’90s, they beyond paths at the Atlanta Super Show, a antic appurtenances barter convention.
“I bethink seeing her and afraid her hand, like, ‘Holy s—. You’re a superstar now,’ ” Bertone recalled. “She had become a adolescent woman and was abundant taller than the aboriginal time I saw her. She was cutting all her Puma accoutrement and it was aloof so nice to be like, ‘This is working!’ ”
She’s aback gone from a able 16-year-old amateur a casting took a adventitious on to extensive the acme of both tennis and style-bending.
“I accede her a appearance icon,” said Deal, the aboriginal artisan of blush Williams formed with at Puma. “She’s absolutely afflicted the way that women dress for sport.”
In 2019, Williams and Nike teamed up to actualize an apprenticeship affairs to advance assortment in architecture and accommodate a foundation for a new bearing of designers from underrepresented backgrounds. In August, Nike appear the Serena Williams Architecture Crew’s aboriginal collection, set for a abatement release, featuring apparel, cossack and accessories and crafted by 10 designers from assorted backgrounds.
Now, it seems, Williams is the one on the accepting end of a adolescent ambitious designer’s sketches.
Aaron Dodson is a sports and ability biographer at The Undefeated. He primarily writes on sneakers/apparel and hosts the platform’s “Sneaker Box” video series. During Michael Jordan’s two seasons arena for the Washington Wizards in the aboriginal 2000s, the “Flint” Air Jordan 9s sparked his affection for kicks.
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