Head in the Game: A Look Into How Sports Influences Luxury Fashion

Sports-inspired fashion pieces have become checkmates in the chessboard of luxury fashion.
Photo Courtesy of Gucci

Jannik Sinner made headlines at Wimbledon in 2023, not for his Centre Court performance or winning the Grand Slam, but for his bag. After seeking several rounds of approval, the Italian player entered the historical-filled court with a custom-made Gucci monogrammed duffel bag. The 22-year-old broke the all-white uniform requirement the game has long been known for, making him the first person to bring a high-end fashion piece onto the court.

The incident evokes memories of the eighties when Michael Jordan entered the NBAs with his Air Jordan 1 sneakers. It was a direct violation of the rules, but Nike willingly paid the exorbitant fines every season, turning it into a marketing opportunity instead. It’s no surprise that luxury fashion brands want a piece of this cake too, especially since buying power among the masses has grown exponentially compared to two decades ago. Ultimately, the overarching theme for both realms is branding—from Prada dressing the Chinese women’s soccer team for the 2023 Women’s World Cup to the recent announcement of the Fondation Louis Vuitton as one of the stops on the Olympic torch relay.

Tapping professional athletes became a game changer, helping the brand to reach new markets and audiences when fashion icons or pop stars aren’t as well-versed in the sport—from footballer Son Heung Min who fronted fashion campaigns and became a Burberry ambassador to F1 racer Lewis Hamilton who co-designed a capsule collection for Tommy Hilfiger. At the Menswear Spring/Summer 2024, Lefty revealed that 44 fashion houses have athletes on their guestlists, generating US$8.2 million in earned media value (EMV). There is no end in sight to this marriage—in fact, at a time when the scene is saturated with fashion content creators, extending the invitation to the athletes is a quantum
leap for both sides.

The amalgamation between both industries parallels the horizontal expansion many leading fashion houses have been dipping into in recent years: lifestyle. Wellness has been growing steadily as a million-dollar slab for businesses, leading to an increased demand for sports gear with promised quality—off and on the courts. It’s only a matter of time before fashion brands discover the secret garden—luxury sportswear. The golden child Nike for example, had several collaborations with fashion giants and designers like Jacquemus (2022), Louis Vuitton (2022), Comme des Garcons (2020), Givenchy (2017), Sacai (2015) and more, most of which are targeted at flourishing sneakers market—valued at US$84,420 million in 2024.

These collaborations are mutually beneficial; while luxury fashion is known for its exclusivity in its high price tag, sportswear and activewear have higher visibility among the masses, usually featuring more practical pieces that consumers would invest in considering the price per use. Putting their names on the maps for collaborations to test the waters is the first step for luxury players like Armani, Prada, and Valentino before foraying into sportswear. The merging of both realms is not without friction. High-end brands only got their entry ticket into the sports world when activewear became a norm among mass consumers from the late ‘90s to the 2000s.

Wealth Whispers

prada linea rossa, sports in luxury fashion
Prada Linea Rossa for Red Bull athlete Ryōyū Kobayashi. Photo Courtesy of Prada.

Spending time on sports was once a leisure activity that only the elites and the wealthy could afford, let alone looking suave in well-tailored gear for different sports. Jersey— the most common fabric used for sportswear—was once deemed cheap as it was mostly used for men’s undergarments before Gabrielle Chanel utilised and popularised the fabric among female wearers. Using jerseys for garment-making encouraged freedom of movement, eventually altering the way women dressed in the late 1910s. The pullover—though technically not sports attire—allowed wearers to throw it on without unbuttoning or untangling laces, a great innovation later adopted by sportswear design.

In 1921, French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen became the first professional athlete to be seen donning high fashion attire at Wimbledon: a knee-length skirt and an arm-baring cardigan designed by couturier Jean Patou, well-known for revolutionising women’s fashion. The fashion house later revealed that making the tennis champion his muse leads to an increase in revenue by thirtyfold. In the same decade, skiing and snowboarding became popular sports played among the affluent groups, ushering more luxury fashion houses like Hermes and Schiaparelli to create designs that look soigné even on the slopes.

Cultural Touchstones

sports in luxury fashion, sports in luxury fashion 2024, fenty x puma
Fenty x Puma collaboration. Photo Courtesy of Puma.

The 1980s was the golden age of television and Bruce Lee changed the take on athletic fashion with his tracksuits paired with yellow Onitsuka Tiger kicks. The pop culture phenomenon also became a hit among fashion enthusiasts in the mid-80s, and the once underground sneakerhead subculture gradually made its way into the mainstream lens too. Some luxury brands spotted the opportunity and began diverting their marketing direction to the masses instead.

For many, the Air Jordan 1 was deemed the catalyst of mainstream sneaker culture. Michael Jordan first wore the shoes in 1984, but they were only released to the masses in late 1985. Many would be surprised to know that Gucci entered the scene even earlier in 1984 when the fashion house launched a pair of tennis shoes. It became a breakthrough design that eventually became a mainstay for the brand, featuring signature red and green stripes on the heel and “Gucci” emblazoned on the tongue. Prada followed suit with the Prada PS0906, marking the start of the Linea Rossa line that later became a linchpin for the fashion house. Designed for the Luna Rose Sailing team, the sneakers were made for yachting, affectionately known among sneakers collectors as “America’s Cup”. It was believed to be one of the first designer sneakers that prioritised style over athleticism, opening a new pool for fashion brands to cash in.

Fashion, sports, and pop culture came to a cross junction when hip-hop music dominated pop culture and rappers became the bellwether sporting garments like baseball caps or basketball jerseys—pieces associated with the genre of music. Sports attire was no longer restricted to only the fields; it became a defining style of the era.

Wildcats Walking

While a handful of luxury fashion brands were one foot in the uncharted waters, the majority of the upscale fashion audience remained seated across the bleachers, perceiving sports fashion as more of a street or sub-culture rather than a runway guest—something Karl Lagerfeld crossed swords with.

View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Stephanie Bernstein Shulman (@gr8magz)

When Lagerfeld took the wheels at Chanel, the French designer revolutionised fashion shows. Not only were they extravagant in scale and stage designs, but the pieces showcased were also considered “avant-garde” at the time, successfully reviving the near-dead couture house. While Chanel has always been known for its elegance, Lagerfeld introduced an approach taken from the streets and retailored Chanel for modern cosmopolitan women who were always on the go. Linda Evangelista strutting down the Spring/Summer 1991 runway in biker shorts, clutching onto a Chanel-stamped surfing board, for example, lived on as an exemplary take on infusing sports into high fashion.

The Zodiac collection by Lagerfeld for Fendi Spring 1993 also steeped high fashion into sports, specifically swimwear: one-pieces and separates printed with different zodiac signs spelt in both English and Italian. Even though the designs were not as groundbreaking, it was an impactful milestone for a luxury fashion runway in retrospect, redefining luxury sports fashion. It has proven its relevancy and timelessness two decades later, when Kim Jones revisited and relaunched a capsule collection in 2023, paying homage to his predecessor.

Featuring athletic elements on the fashion grounds was a snowballing trend in the 90s, especially with consecutive sports-inspired shows like the red leather boxing gear for Chanel Fall/Winter 1993 or when models skated the runway in rollerblades for Spring/Summer 1994. The same year, Anna Sui unveiled her Spring 1994 that was, in her words, “A mix of thrift shop, army surplus, and active sportswear.” Sui melded her grunge fashion with a hint of sportswear, making this one of her most talked-about shows as many regarded it as an out-and-out depiction of the youth at the time. Later in 1995, Rifat Ozbek sent shockwaves through the industry as he presented headwear that took after the shape of a fencing head mask along with garments made with Aertex material—stretchy fabric more commonly used for sportswear—on the runway. The Turkish designer took a step further than just adopting the aesthetical elements from sportswear.

@hesacouturewh0re Alexander McQueen’s “It’s Only a Game” SS2005@. #alexandermcqueen #springsummer #fashion #runway ♬ son original – FYP 🤍🇲🇺

The 2000s marked the peak of normalising sports-inspired high fashion, with designers like Alexander McQueen and Thom Browne, to just name a few. McQueen’s intricately crafted helmet and shoulder pads for its Spring/Summer 2005 were adorned with lacing details and vivid colours. Named “It’s Only A Game”, the designer staged a game of chess between Japan and America, with pawns dressed in American footballer lookalike attire. Browne too, is a regular in taking inspiration from football—gigantic shoulder pads and helmet—for the American fashion house’s menswear shows.

Sportswear is moving away from the fields and into the spotlight of upmarket fashion or even haute couture. Donatella Versace named her Atelier Couture the “Athletic Couture”, featuring racerback sports bras, compression shirts and more back in 2016. Some prolific fashion maisons like Gucci, Comme des Garcons, Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga, and Yohji Yamamoto had also started collaborating with sports giants either for a runway or capsule collection. The latter even has an ongoing experimental project, Y3, with sports giants house Adidas since 2003. The appeal of sportswear in fashion has translated into sales, and it is reflected in Lyst’s 2024 Q1 report where Miu Miu’s collaboration sneakers with New Balance topped the list as the most searched fashion item, along with the brand’s swim briefs and polo shirts that were once largely limited to the country club. Sportswear has come a long way since being considered undeserving of couture.