New Spin On An Iconic Style
Retro days are here again: we chart the history of ellesse, the iconic brand that brought sportswear chic to the street
By Sophie Wilson
Style runs in ellesse’s DNA. Founder Leonardo Servadio was a tailor by trade and an avid ski enthusiast. So, in 1959, he set to task combining his two passions, bringing to life his dream of blending Italian flair with his eye for skiwear style. Sixty years later and ellesse is known as much for its fashion and streetwear credentials as it is for its game-changing sportswear and famous ambassadors.
Over the years, it’s been worn by everyone from Mick Jagger to Muhammed Ali. While the brand cut its teeth in tennis and skiwear, you couldn’t tell its history without referencing music and youth subcultures. From the UK rave scene to US hip hop, ellesse expresses the symbiotic relationship between sport, music and fashion. It champions emerging talent, drawing from the brand’s rich heritage to embrace the new. Not everyone knows that ellesse started out as a ski brand. Despite being immersed in many different sports, scenes and cultures globally, it all started on the slopes. That’s where Servadio created his ergonomically designed jet stripe pants in 1968, with padded knees and tapered legs that don’t need to be tucked into ski boots. This pivotal invention was included in a celebration of Italian design at the Pompidou Centre in 1979. And that isn’t the only way ellesse pioneered 20thcentury design. They were one of the first brands ever to put their logo on the outside of garments, predicting the trend for logo mania and introducing a motif used by every major sports brand to this day.
Recently, ellesse has returned to the slopes, putting a renewed focus on ski wear. Earlier this year, they partnered with music festival Tomorrowland for a raucous week-long celebration of snow sports and electronic music in the Alps. Launching their latest ski wear collection at the event, skiers and snowboarders donned colourful new pieces inspired by the brand’s heritage and skied and partied the week away. That skiing is often viewed as an elitist sport is a fact that’s not lost on ellesse. In fact, that was part of the appeal in tapping back into it today. “It’s where we were born so we felt the need to go back into skiwear, but to do it in a way that connects with our communities,” says Head of Brand, Ruth Mann. “We’re not looking at it through an elitist lens. No matter what background you come from, you should be able to access the mountains and access skiing.”
Democratisation is key. In appealing to music fans as well as snow sports enthusiasts, Tomorrowland aimed to introduce a new demographic to the sport, bringing “streetwear to the slopes and the technical capabilities from the ski slopes to the street.” It’s about breaking down barriers, economic or otherwise. An accessible price point and strong links to music and subculture place ellesse in the perfect position to even out the playing field when it comes to traditionally elitist sports. This was the thinking behind their latest foray into golf wear. A collaboration with pro-golfer Mel Reid hopes to inspire more women to get into the sport. “The sports we would like to go into are the ones where there’s an accessibility challenge,” says Ruth. “That’s how golf came about because golf is another one of those elitist sports both from a gender and an economic perspective. That’s why the partnership with Mel Reid was so well suited.” Other notable female ambassadors include former professional tennis players Chris Evert and Jo Konta. Ellesse sponsored Konta when she was coming back from an injury and other brands were not interested.
But taking a chance on the underdog had paid off before. The partnership with Boris Becker in the 1980s catapulted the brand into the spotlight. “We chose to go with Boris when no one else did,” Ruth explains.“He was a bit of a wild card at 16 and then, while he was with us, he went on to win Wimbledon.” The ’80s are often considered the golden age of ellesse. It was the decade when Boris Becker was smashing records on Centre Court clad head to toe in their tennis whites. They sponsored Ferrari’s Formula 1 team, the New York Marathon and the Italian football team when they won the World Cup in 1982. Their standout, colourful campaigns became instantly iconic, feeling as fresh today as they did at the time. Throughout the 80s and 90s the brand made waves in music as well as sport, becoming a cult classic on both sides of the Atlantic. Its bold functionality made it a firm favourite among the UK rave and Britpop scenes and was worn by teenagers all over the country. Meanwhile it was popular among hip hop artists in the US, solidifying its streetwear status. However, after riding the wave of multiple successes throughout the ’80s and early nineties, ellesse was surpassed by super brands like Nike and Adidas. Leonardo Servadio reportedly described Adidas’ business philosophy as being to “buy the entire world”.
But with the ’90s revival that hit its stride in the mid-2010s, ellesse was back. Students up and down the country flocked to vintage stores hoping to snatch up items of original 1990s sportswear brands like Fila, Champion, Kappa and, of course, ellesse. Once again, the brand was revived by music and subculture. Its popularity on the vintage market fuelled general interest in the brand and ellesse used social media to connect with the new generation of consumers sharing new campaigns alongside archival images. Now, they regularly look at what people are buying on Depop and eBay to see which classic elements to rework in new collections.
Familiar references often reappear in new ways. “From a design and aesthetic perspective, we have very strong brand codes and a brand identity,” says Ruth. “The jet stripe is an architecture we can use within design and so is the chevron. We return to these elements time and time again and modernise them. It’s about having respect for your past but always looking forward to innovate and move with the times.” Dress codes have shifted dramatically since the brand was born in 1959. There’s no longer a clear delineation between sportswear and fashion. When Leonardo Servadio first dreamed of a sports brand that would bring fashion sensibilities to the ski slopes, did he ever imagine just how transferrable street style and sportswear would be sixty years later? “We sometimes refer to Leonardo as the godfather of athleisure because he wanted to look good and feel good and still be able to perform,” says Ruth. “He didn’t think that there needed to be a compromise.”
Today, sportswear is embedded in our everyday lives. You can wear the same outfit to play tennis, have a pint at the pub, take a gym class or go to a festival. “Consumers are looking for something they can wear to do multiple sports in but also wear to hang out with friends,” says Ruth. “Even in the sports world, we have fashion flair, we have our style credentials. We always lead with that and that’s what people associate us with. That’s why it’s so important to tell those stories about where the brand actually came from.” While ellesse constantly draws from its heritage, it still maintains a futuristic frame of mind. They recently branched out into gaming and esports events, a timely investment given the current metaverse hype.
Partnerships with Misfits Gaming, Sidemen and esport events at tennis tournament Next Generation ATP signal ellesse’s next chapter. This new frontier could democratise sport even further, letting people engage with tennis and skiing even if they can’t make it to the court or the slopes. Despite dressing several sports champions, for ellesse, sport is about community rather than single-minded determination. It’s a thread that runs through everything they do, bringing people together through music and sport, two of the most uniting forces in the world. “It’s about a shared vision and sense of community,” concludes Ruth. “That sense of fun, of being able to go out there and be yourself and celebrate that. You can be bold and there shouldn’t be a barrier to achieving anything.”