While Naomi Osaka is best known for her prodigious talent on the tennis court, earning her the world number-one spot at the age of just 21 – plus, of course, her unforgettable victory at the 2018 US Open against Serena Williams – the Japanese American athlete’s approach to style has proven equally impressive. Known in the tennis world for her unaffected personality, she talks in characteristically modest terms about her burgeoning interest in fashion, which saw her work with designer Hanako Maeda on a capsule collection for her label ADEAM back in February.
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“I’ve always really loved clothes,” Naomi says over the phone from Los Angeles, where she is currently training for this year’s US Open under lockdown. “When me and Mari [Naomi’s older sister] were younger, we used to have really long car rides to tournaments, and to pass the time, she would always draw. I just looked at her drawing and thought, ‘Oh, that looks really fun,’ so I started to copy her – which I guess is what I did in tennis as well. But that’s what started everything.”
With the seismic global impact of the Covid-19 crisis, both Naomi and Mari decided that they wanted to harness these creative instincts to make a difference. “The idea came from Naomi at the beginning. I just kind of helped her with the design,” Mari explains, from her separate quarantine bolthole in Florida. “I was seeing everyone in the US wearing the same medical mask, and I remember in Japan even before this whole situation happened, everyone was wearing masks and they were quite fashionable,” Naomi continues. “So I wanted to release a mask that wasn’t just for protection, but could also be used as a fashion statement.”
A few phone calls later and they were in touch with UNICEF Japan to donate all profits to their programs supporting disadvantaged Japanese youth. Meanwhile, the design itself – available from Naomi’s official website – evolved from the sisters’ shared love of cartoons, consisting of a stylised pair of animal eyes. “Why wouldn’t you want a little animal on your thing so people can really understand how cute you truly are inside?” Naomi asks. On this, Mari agrees. “I’m not sure why it’s now becoming a political thing to not wear the mask – we should all be wearing them, and so it might as well be fashionable and cute.”
It isn’t just the causes being supported that speak to the Osaka sisters’ close ties to their mother’s homeland (their father is Haitian, but the sisters grew up largely between Long Island and Tokyo), but also the fashion they find most inspiring. “I remember when I was little when we would play tournaments in Tokyo, and every time we would go to Harajuku or Ginza or Shibuya. It was so cool to walk around and see everyone in so many different outfits that you wouldn’t necessarily see in America,” says Naomi, who cites Rei Kawakubo as a figure she admires. (Not just because Comme des Garçons fitted her out in a custom look for her official photographs after winning the US Open championship trophy.) “There would always be that one person dressed head to toe in the craziest outfit that you think of, and whenever we saw that, it was like, Okay we’re here, we’re in Japan,” adds Mari, laughing.
When it comes to talking about the relationship between fashion and tennis, the pair perk up – it’s clearly a subject they both feel passionate about. “I think there’s definitely a lot of room to grow,” says Naomi. On the subject of the different standards to which men and women are held in terms of clothing on the court, as well as the biases that still stand against the fashion choices made by athletes of colour, they are impressively forthright. “I think it’s still really restricted what female players can wear,” Mari says.
“For example, there’s a player I know, and I’m not sure if she lost sponsors or not, but she shaved half her head, and there was certainly outrage,” Mari continues. “If you get a bad tattoo or something, you’re pretty much done sometimes. I think it’s a mixture of outdated ideas plus who’s actually wearing it, because there’s a difference between Serena Williams wearing something crazy and Maria Sharapova wearing something crazy. It’s about how people look at the players, you know?”
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For both Naomi and Mari, however, their objectives aren’t to discredit those who have gone before them, but instead to forge a new, more inclusive – and, of course, fashion-forward – future for women’s tennis. “I feel like we’re both really passionate about both tennis and fashion,” Naomi concludes. “With tennis, we train really hard for it, and even though we take fashion very seriously as well, for me it feels like a whole different aspect of life, and I think about it in a different way. It’s relaxing not to have to go into fashion in such a super-serious way, and to feel really creative and free.”
This article was originally published on Vogue.com.
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