Here’s the thing: I’ve watched literally thousands of tennis matches. From Tim Henman’s near misses at Wimbledon in the late ’90s to the breakthrough of Andy Murray and the Big Four’s golden era. At Uni, I’d often turn up for class like a zombie, having set my alarm to catch a US or Australian Open match in the middle of the night. On occasions, desperate for a fix, I recall succumbing to square-eye syndrome; squinting at the near-imperceptible lime ball on a grainy illegal stream for five sets will do that.
Despite this devotion, I can count the number of times I’ve actually played tennis on one hand. As is the case for a lot of people, there’s always been too many barriers to the sport, be it a lack of facilities, cost, or even confidence. The thought of pulling up at some highfalutin country club venue to take on experienced types can be a daunting thought, even for those who have mastered a solid enough backhand.
Enter David Lieske, who not only wants to democratize tennis, but make it chic again. A self-confessed obsessive of the game, the German artist has been working alongisde a club out of Berlin that welcomes newbies picking up a racket for the first time. The idea dovetails neatly with DL Courtwear, his apparel project that is more suited to the runways of Paris than the courts of SW19. You won't see Novak Djokovic playing in opulent gear like this.
Set to launch on SSENSE next year, I caught up with Lieske to find out more about the label and the wider game.
Let's go back to the beginning. How did the brand come about?
I've been playing tennis quite actively for the past decade, but it was not until my NYC gallery project MATHEW ended that I found the time to fully immerse myself in the sport. After playing tennis almost daily and basically living in tennis clothes full time, I got frustrated with the garment offerings that were available in the market.
What was available seemed to be of a quite dramatically lower quality than the ready-to-wear clothes I would usually pick up for my daily use. One of the reasons for that is probably that the sport of tennis itself has changed quite a bit since it’s more elegant and garment-wise, more appealing times.
Today’s professional tennis matches are longer, harder, and faster than ever before, which calls for a certain type of wardrobe that is rooted in fitness and endurance-optimized textiles like Dri-FIT. Large tennis outfitters are producing garments to match the contemporary conditions of the professional game, and a large portion of amateur players are emulating those Pros in their garment choices.
Not everyone is having weekend matches like it's Federer vs. Nadal...
There is a large group of club players who practice the sport differently. I met more and more people that were like myself; looking for something to wear on court that was, in terms of quality, more similar to their day-to-day wardrobe, but they could not find anything suitable. That's how I set out to close that gap.
My first steps towards starting my own line of luxury courtwear was a small capsule collection that I got invited to create for a newly instigated sportswear line by the Berlin/Paris-based experimental clothing brand BLESS under the name BLESSEQUIPE.
Now I have just finished and presented the first season for my own label Dl Courtwear that will be available exclusively through SSENSE from Spring 2022.
What kind of fabrics and materials were you looking for?
I wanted to step away from anything not 100% natural and started to look into high-end cotton jerseys, canvases, twills, and heavy pique fabrics. My main drive was to find fabrics that are just as good, maybe even better than my regular wardrobe. Anything worthy of a Loro Piana or Hermès tag could enter my swatch-board.
I wrote a piece on tennis fashion history a couple of years ago and loved seeing the likes of Fred Perry and Rene Lacoste in their old gear. Who inspired you?
For me, it was the great Gottfried von Cramm. Winner of the French Open in 1937 – the same year as he was ranked number one in the world. A man of exceptional aura and taste, full of ambivalences and contradictions, who was jailed by the Nazi regime [who failed in trying to make him a figurehead of their atrocious ideology] for homosexuality and the financial aid of a Jew [his partner, the actor Menasse Herbst] and later got married to Barbara Hutton [the richest woman in the world]. In his later days, he became involved in the textile industry as well.
The styling is amazing. You see the polo shirt tucked into the long pants — and they've got the wooden racket still!
Exactly. The polo is a good topic because I personally really love the tucked-in polo look and feel.
Nowadays, polos are just cut way too long to do that. For my collection, I completely changed the pattern and the silhouette of the traditional polo and T-shirts. They now resemble Italian cashmere sweaters with an extra-wide waistband, perfectly sculpted to tuck in without bulking up your shorts. Oh, and of course I also added a pair of long pleated pants that I can’t wait to try out on the court.
Let’s dive into the collection. Can you pick out some highlights?
My highlights are the new polo and T-shirt silhouettes, and also the tailored court shorts in their different iterations and lengths.
I think it was the great Karl Lagerfeld who criticized a certain tracksuit-ism taking over ready-to-wear fashion, and I must agree with him that flexibility and comfort aren't everything.
In my personal experience, a more fitted and tailored garment helps with posture, provides a certain confidence, and sharper intent, assets very relevant to a successful appearance at any tennis court.
Is there a lot of overlap between tennis as a hobby and your "real job" working in the art world, or do you like to keep it separate?
Everything I do is part of my artistic practice. Even just devoting large parts of my time to perfecting the sport of tennis is an aesthetic and political gesture that is mirrored in my exhibitions and other activities, like my writing or the work that I do with my partner Rob Kulisek [who also shot the campaign and lookbook for DL] on our magazine 299 792 458 m/s.
Beyond that, tennis offers a space for socializing, and even business to a certain extent, that other sports may not inspire, maybe with the exception of golf. Even more important, to finally offer an appropriate wardrobe that works on court as well as in the clubhouse after.
Tennis in the UK has always been seen as a middle-class vocation. Is it the same in Germany? For most outsiders, it begins and ends with Boris Becker and Steffi Graf.
The tennis hype in Germany was out of control when those two were winning everything. Everyone wanted to play tennis back then, and every single parent thought, "Oh, is my kid going to be the next Steffi Graf or the next Boris Becker?"
It was good for the sport as a moment where tennis was really opening up and starting to diversify. It lost a certain classist undercurrent, with exceptions of course. We have a beautiful Vereins structure in Germany that is quite unique.
I'm sure our readers would love to know more about the 'Verein'.
The literal translation for Verein is "club." But a Verein is literally the opposite of a country club; it is not a business first of all.
Vereine are communities that are financed by their members and are operated as not-for-profit organizations, with a basic democratic organizational structure and board that is elected every year. Most of them have programs to support and nurture young talents and keep the sport accessible to everyone. It is also possible to get involved with teams (representing your Verein) that will play competitively in different leagues.
One problem with the Vereine in Germany is that they are very German, which makes it hard to really understand how they work or how to enter one for people who don't speak the language.
I am working with a wonderful organization called World Club Tennis to bridge that gap and help people find an entrance by offering weekly open playgroups.
Do you serve Pimms at it?
We don't do that, no. But you won't find any clothing restrictions, either. You can wear anything you like, but proper tennis shoes are a must, so as not to damage the courts.
What are your future plans for the label?
I would really love to sponsor one or two young talents in the future that would like to wear my clothes (or versions of them) at international tournaments (Brandon Nakashima?bI am here for you!) Of course, I would love to do a few collaborations with other brands as well (Falke and Van Laak if you are following, slide into my DMs).
A big project for next year is expanding the line to tennis bags and backpacks, another field of very limited choices for the more sophisticated player. For the summer I am planning a little trunk show-tour with the collection and special items through several Kunstvereins and galleries in Germany, Belgium, the UK, and France. And maybe I’ll start my own tennis club in Berlin one day, with an art gallery, library, boutique and lovely restaurant attached of course!