Tennis superstar Serena Williams has been a Nike-sponsored athlete since 2003. But as she developed her latest fashion collection with the activewear giant, she wasn’t content to tap the company’s existing slate of designers. “I have been at Nike for many years and I want to see more people in design that look like me,” she tells Fast Company. “I wanted to cast our net further, to areas where Nike generally wouldn’t go.”
Two years ago, Williams proposed that Nike launch a design apprenticeship program—the Serena Williams Design Crew—to bring on young designers from communities of color to help design pieces for her collection. Williams helped pick 10 talented designers from New York who were invited to apprentice at Nike for six months starting in January 2020. This cohort worked closely with Nike designers to create Williams’s newest collection, which launches this fall. It’s inspired by ’90s looks that influenced Williams’s aesthetic sensibilities and reflects her own history and personality. From its colorful jumpsuits to asymmetrical body suits, this bold collection is just the first to acknowledge that inclusivity has to start with who’s actually designing the pieces—not just who they’re being designed for.
An exclusionary industry
The fashion industry is notoriously exclusionary toward Black designers: Fewer than 10% of fashion designers at New York Fashion Week are Black, and fewer than 5% of members on the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a prestigious trade group, are Black. Over the past three years, the fashion media has documented the racial disparities in the fashion world, but change has been slow to come.
While Williams is best known for her athletic achievements, she has always had a keen interest in fashion design. From 2000 to 2003, while still maintaining her tennis career, she attended the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale to study fashion design. And in 2018, she launched her own fashion line, called S by Serena. Throughout these experiences, she saw firsthand how hard it is for aspiring Black designers to break into the fashion industry.
“This program responds to the opportunity to increase diversity across the design industry,” Williams says. “Can you imagine what it means for a young designer to work within Nike’s world-renowned design organization? For me as a designer, it would be legit the best place to work.” (Williams says she snuck her own design portfolio into the pile of applications. “I didn’t get picked,” she says with a laugh. “We had really 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 elevate the Black Lives Matter movement, such as former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. But it has also faced allegations of racism from within its own ranks. Last year, current and former Nike employees started an Instagram account called Black at Nike for sharing their experiences with racial discrimination within the organization.
A program such as 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 that it could help attract new generations of consumers from a wide range of backgrounds. “For a lot of companies, the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, sparked a whole new approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Jarvis Sam, Nike’s VP of global diversity and inclusion, says. “For us, it was really a catalyst or an accelerator. We believe that by having diverse teams, it will have very positive downstream implications not only in how our consumers see our commitment to diversity, but how our employees see it.”
The Design Crew’s Inaugural Class
For the Design Crew, Williams thought that it would be best to conduct a search one city at a time, rather than doing a national search, because it would allow Nike to delve deep into the talent pool there. Sam helped Williams build out the program and says that Nike partnered with organizations like Harlem’s Fashion Row, explored local community colleges in the New York area, and even looked at Nike’s retail stores in the city to solicit applications.
Williams stayed involved throughout the process and helped select the final candidates. “They can bring parts of that city to the design and that’s something you don’t really get to see that often,” Williams says. “We’re talking about doing this program for a very long time and going to different cities, so we really want to build something sustainable that will have a lot of longevity to it.” Williams has already helped pick the next round of 11 candidates, this time from Chicago, who began their apprenticeships at Nike in May 2021.
Once the apprentices were selected, each had an onboarding buddy, a mentor, and a people manager to give them the tools they needed to succeed. They went through a three-week training course with Pensole Design Academy, a footwear and activewear program developed by Nike alum D’Wayne Edwards.
Among the candidates was Toussaint King, who was working at a marketing company but had dreams of becoming a sneaker designer. He was selected to be in the first cohort of the Design Crew and go to work on some dream projects. During his six-month apprenticeship, he worked on Williams’ Australian Open 2021 footwear, as well as the Air Max Koko sandal and the Air Force 1 that will launch in October. King is among seven of ten members of the Design Crew to land a full-time job; he is now a footwear designer for the Jordan Kids brand. “I’ve always been fascinated with creating something that doesn’t exist,” he says. “But as a self-taught designer in a highly competitive industry, I don’t think I would have ever gotten to work on a collection like this without this platform. One of the best parts has been working with people at Nike who are icons of design in my eyes—getting to talk with them, have lunch with them, just regular things. That’s been amazing.”
Emiko McCoy, another member of the inaugural cohort, had a background in fashion. She studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and worked at brands like Champion and Ralph Lauren. But her dream had been to work at Nike. “Seeing Serena Williams’s ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign on a billboard in Herald Square was a life-changing moment for me,” she says about the video that featured female athletes tracing their careers from their childhood dreams to global success. “To see the greatest athlete of all time—someone who looks like me and has brought so many young girls into 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 apparel items in Williams’ new collection, which are colorful and covered in patterns. The prints emblazoned on these pieces are designed to tell a story about Williams’ life. The double zero motif refers to ‘love’ in tennis as well as her daughter’s initials. Meanwhile, the geometric prints pay homage to West African Kente cloth, with “S” for Serena embedded in the design. Even the cutouts are strategically placed on the right shoulder, which is Williams’ serving arm. The apprenticeship led to a full-time job as a women’s apparel designer at Nike.
Nike has hundreds of designers on staff, but the new designers who came through the Design Crew believe they have an opportunity to shape the brand’s aesthetics. They can weave their culture and personal background into the pieces they create, which could resonate with the consumers they’re trying to reach. “My design is a microcosm of where I’m from and my real-life experiences,” King says.
The collection will be available in September.