How pickleball, America’s ‘fastest
In this week’s newsletter: So long athleisure, luxury brands are fashioning ‘racket-wear’ that you can whack things in … and then wear to lunch
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Forget athleisure: 2023 has been dominated by what is known as “racket-wear” – as in, clothes to hit balls in, usually using some sort of bat.
In the last three years, the “racket equipment market” – tennis, ping pong, padel tennis and so on – has grown by six times in the US. Leading the charge? The newish sport of pickleball, a cross between tennis, badminton and ping pong, which has opened up a space for different ways of dressing on court.
“People really push the limit compared to other court sports,” says Sydney Steinaker, a US-based pickleball player who regularly posts her “pickleball fits” to her 50k+ followers on TikTok. “There’s always lots of neon colours and I’ve even seen players wear tutu skirts with knee-high socks on the court.” Steinaker says she has met everyone from students to lawyers to chefs to retirees playing.
Pickleball has become one of the fastest-growing sports in the US in recent years – and now it’s finding traction in the UK. There are more than 200 venues spread across the country and Pickleball England is aiming to have 25,000 members by 2025.
“Pickle doesn’t have the same heritage as tennis so there aren’t so many spoken and unspoken rules,” says Lara Mead, co-founder of the London-based label Varley, which launched its new Club Collection featuring pleated court dresses, “skorts” and knitwear with a pickleball tournament for influencers and friends of the brand. “But it’s fun and social, and you can see that in the way people dress when they play.”
Luxury brands, heritage sporting labels and emerging start-ups are quickly pivoting, creating dedicated pickleball attire or curated edits in an attempt to tap into this burgeoning sporting category. It is a lucrative one, too: just four months after launching, it has become one of Mead’s biggest revenue drivers.
While old-school brands including Nike and Fila focus on attire purely for the court, the newer brands prefer to blur the lines between working out and kicking back (of course some of the more storied racket tournaments have stricter dress codes, most notably Wimbledon and its all-white rule). So what exactly do pickleball fans wear – and why is it different to other racket sports? Brands trying to appeal to this wide cohort of players tend to fall into two distinct style camps. On one side of the net, there are labels such as Varley and Staud, whose capsule collections riff on preppy culture with a more traditional and nostalgic feel.
Varley’s Downing Court dress comes with a pleated skirt and contrasting navy trim while a sleeveless tank top features chunky buttons and contrasting collar. Staud’s limited edition “Court” collection spans everything from quarter-zip jumpers to retro-inspired trainers and socks.
On the opposing side are a plethora of brands that celebrate clashing colours and bold and bright prints. Alice & Olivia’s tropical floral-printed set regularly sells out while brands such as Rad, Nettie and Recess specialise in fluoro-coloured racquets.
It’s a sport about movement, too, which means clingy over loose. Norma Kamali, a designer best known for her Y2K-inspired clingy club (that’s night, not tennis) dresses has even released a line of Pickledresses in her signature stretchjersey fabric including a one-shoulder and a strapless style. The only difference between them and her main line is that the Pickledress includes a built-in bodysuit.
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“Pickle is highly energetic so all the materials we use are sweat-wicking,” says Mead. “Most of the skirts and dresses have built-in shorts as you bend over a lot and the bras are highly supportive as you run and jump. But it’s not just about what happens on the court – people like to go for lunch after a game. They wear our pieces throughout the whole day.”
But things might be changing. While the official US and UK pickleball rulebooks stipulate that players may be required to change out of “inappropriate” garments and that any graphics or slogans on apparel “must be in good taste”, pickleball players tend to take a more pick-and-mix approach to court looks.
As the sport continues to grow in popularity, Steinaker thinks we may see a shift in on-court looks. Professional players taking part in the recent PPA Masters tournament were required to wear all white (the rule wasn’t enforced for amateurs) while some teams have begun to implement their own jerseys and uniforms.
“If more rules come in there will be a lot of pushback from the pickleball community though,” says Steinaker. “Pickleball is for everyone. It’s unique, so the clothing is always going to be unique, too.”
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