The fashion rebirth of Venus Williams
When fashion photographer Koto Bolofo spotted tennis star Venus Williams in a London street, he saw in her a grace and elegance that none had captured before. The result: a book of revelatory images of the world’s most iconic female tennis player
To most people, Venus Williams is the Amazonian tennis player, who has won Wimbledon four times, with a whomping serve and muscle-bound limbs that go on for ever. Yet, as a new book of photographs shows, she also has an astonishing elegance and beauty.
The book, Venus Williams, is a collaboration between the tennis player and South African-born photographer Koto Bolofo. The two first met four years ago when he spotted her walking down the street in London.
“I turned a corner in Covent Garden and there was this tall, beautiful black woman,” remembers Bolofo, “and I thought, ‘I fancy her!’ I’d never seen such a graceful woman. She was wearing a bright fluorescent pink raincoat and stood out like a sore thumb.” Bolofo contacted her agent, suggesting the project. He had wanted to photograph her ever since he watched her win Wimbledon on the TV. “There was such a strength of woman in her,” he says. “I had never seen anyone like this. She was like a gazelle, so pure. But I wanted to photograph her my way – not as a sports star with lots of muscles, but as a woman.”
“He wanted to work with me, a lowly tennis player!” is Williams’s self-mocking take on the matter. “He saw something in me that no one else has ever seen, the side that’s classic tennis player, with elegance and grace.”
The two became friends and did a few magazine shoots together, including one for Italian Vogue. But Bolofo wanted more: he wanted to do a book. He had “a vision”, Williams says, of doing a chronicle of her life.
“I thought the photographs I’d seen of Venus were missing the point,” he says. “I wanted to say, ‘This is a woman, not a sports machine.’ I wanted to make an art book of a beautiful woman, not just someone who whacked a ball around.”
Over the next three years, while Williams, now 27, toured the world, Bolofo tailed her, popping up in London, Istanbul, Paris and New York with photographic suggestions, a small team of helpers and a rack of clothes. He took inspiration from the Jacques Henri Lartigue photographs of junior tennis champion Suzanne Lenglen in 1915: the shot of Williams dancing round the court in a ball dress was one of the first they collaborated on. “Lartigue captured that sense of social class with a spontaneity and energy,” says Bolofo. “That was the foundation of the book.”
Then there are the Josephine Baker-inspired shots, taken in Paris when she was playing in the French Open. “I remember seeing clips of Josephine Baker doing the funky chicken sort of dance,” says Bolofo. “The shots of Venus in the beret and with the dumbbells are a modern interpretation of that.” Williams herself sums up the dumbbells shot by saying, “Surreal. I like that a lot.”
Sometimes it was just Williams in jeans and a vest, strolling round Paris with Bolofo, doing her own hair and make-up, taking photographs wherever they fancied; other shots were more staged. Williams is an ardent fan of fashion, and the book itself is being launched with a swanky party hosted by Ralph Lauren, which is the official outfitter to Wimbledon and is clearly delighted to support a stylish celebration of a sporting icon. However, she was content to let Bolofo direct her. “I respect him so much. I just couldn’t wait to find out what his next ideas were. It was just easy,” she says of the process. “It was go with the flow, laid back.” During the sessions they would talk about everything – photography, tennis, Africa, children. And is Bolofo a tennis fan? “He is now,” she jokes.
But Williams finds that away from the camera she no longer enjoys the rigmarole of red-carpet events, such as the recent Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She says she spends most of her time wearing her own clothing line, EleVen (named after a childhood home address), which is brightly coloured sports/casualwear. “Event” dressing is no longer the fun it used to be. “I can hardly sit still long enough for all the hair and make-up,” she says. “There are so many things I have to do that there doesn’t seem to be enough time to get it all done.”
As for tennis, she’ll be defending her Wimbledon title this year. “I love playing there. I love winning there,” she says. But is she going to win? She laughs raucously. “That’s always the plan.”
Venus Williams by Koto Bolofo, published by Steidl, is available exclusively from Ralph Lauren, New Bond Street, London W1, from June 19. Williams will be writing exclusively for The Times Sport during Wimbledon