Athletes Are Luxury’s Latest Muse of Choice
Today’s young, social media savvy athletes are connecting with more fans than ever, transforming into a new kind of super-celebrity. We discuss how the image of the athlete has changed in the era of mass media, catapulting this new generation of athletes into luxury’s limelight.
Well over 200,000 fans flocked to the Singapore Grand Prix last weekend to witness the anticipated Round 16 of the 2023 FIA Formula One World Championships. Tensions were high as spectators watched on wondering if Max Verstappen could reel in his 11th win in a row for a spotless season so far for team Red Bull. Alas, Verstappen was pushed out of the top ten in the qualifiers to come in fifth overall while Ferrari’s “smooth operator”, Carlos Sainz, put up a crowd-awing show to bag first place with Maclaren’s Lando Noriss in second and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in third.
While Verstappen, now joined by Sainz, have been taking up the headlines in much of Formula One (F1) news this year, Hamilton has been busy making headlines of a different sort himself. Rimowa released their latest campaign for their “Never Still” series, tapping on none other than Hamilton along with K-Pop megastar Rosé and French football captain Kylian Mbappé. The campaign saw the seven-time F1 champion in a poignant car ride montage musing about life on the road and passing goodness forward, an allusion to Mission 44, the non-profit subsidiary of his own fashion label, +44. Hamilton’s own 35 million follower Instagram page (Sainz has eight while Verstappen, 10) puts a spotlight on his fashion endeavours rather than the latest F1 happenings, the first three posts on his feed dedicated to his label and Rimowa campaign rather than his latest race at the time of writing.
Of course, one could scarcely tell the difference. Hamilton’s picture of choice for his post on the Dutch Grand Prix in late August looked more Paris Fashion Week than F1, a candid of Hamilton steelily walking down the track draped in a luxurious black satin shirt baring his stylishly tattooed chest, complimented by a thick silver chain on his neck and goggle-like blackout shades to boot. Hamilton finished sixth in Zandvoort, but the post alone garnered almost a million likes. Hamilton may be around a decade older than Sainz and Verstappen, but the numbers show that he seems fresher and more relevant than ever, both in the F1 world and pop culture beyond.
Luxury’s Latest Muses
Hamilton’s status as a fashion icon is no doubt owing to his personal style and rockstar personality in the circuit; he surely set the precedent for what the intersection of luxury fashion and professional sport could look like — a new kind of super-celebrity — and the biggest names in luxury have already been catching on to his unique formula for fame. Today, Hamilton is but one of a new generation of athletes who have become luxury fashion’s latest muses of choice.
Luxury has historically reserved their billboards and campaigns for the traditional celebrity — Hollywood actors and international pop artists. Think Marilyn Monroe and the stilettos Salvatore Ferragamo made for her both on and off the silver screen, or Richard Gere dressed in Armani from head to toe for his breakout role as the American Gigolo; more recently, Taylor Swift’s record-breaking The Eras Tour for which Christian Louboutin has exclusively designed Swift’s costumes as well as Simon Jacquemus who spares no excess in boasting his beloved friendship with Dua Lipa on social media, itself an exclusive form of marketing for his eponymous label.
These traditional celebrities with their music videos, films, global tours and red carpet appearances have long been the ideal muse for luxury fashion owing to the sheer visibility they enjoy in pop culture, their bodies virtually ubiquitous in a sleepless world driven by mass media. Yet, a new stage for brokering luxury’s 24/7 visibility has emerged in recent years — the stage of professional sport. Consider rising stars in tennis like world No. 7 Jannik Sinner who made history this year by carrying into Wimbledon a logo-emblazoned custom Gucci duffel onto court. The 22 year-old Italian player’s power move required special approval from the presiding authorities of the sport which has long obsessively regulated its players attire. Meanwhile, over at Louis Vuitton, world No. 2. Carlos Alcaraz launched in late August the house’s 2024 Spring/ Summer formalwear campaign, filled with dynamic poses of the 20 year-old Spanaird leaping into the air as if to smash yet another winning forehand stroke.
With their chiselled bodies and boyish good looks, new-gen athletes like Sinner and Alcaraz seem to make perfect sense as luxury’s latest muses. Their faces and bodies take on a special sort of larger-than-life quality imbued in them by the dramatic wrestling of dominance from the old guard of their sports while their comparatively greater social media presence and fan-engagement levels bring the sport ever closer to the masses, in turn giving the luxury houses they represent more exposure than ever.
Further, more and more of these athletes are now traversing across both the realms of sport and luxury fashion, taking a greater stake in global fashion events such as the big four fashion weeks. These events often see them seated between other celebrities from the spheres of cinema and music, quite materially solidifying their celebrity status and bringing the realm of sport so close to luxury fashion’s that they have now become adjacent. It’s official — luxury fashion has become a core element of a successful athlete’s image.
High vs Low Sport and The Advent of Live Streaming
Athletes however have not always been so closely related to luxury. This must be in part due to the historical disparity between high and low sport. While sports like tennis and car-racing have historically been spectator sports for society’s elites with no shortage of luxury sponsors, not all sports have been so charmed. In fact, historically low sports such as football continues to be marred by ongoing football hooliganism, making it even dangerous at times to attend matches in the flesh. One need only attend a single match from both a professional tennis and football league to understand the disparity: where spectators are hushed during a tennis match save for the occasional applause when a point is won, football fans are chanting from start to end of the match, often launching slurs and derogatory quips at the opposing team.
Yet, the European football industry of this so-called “low sport” is going strong as a nearly USD30 billion dollar industry with its fair share of moments in luxury’s limelight, c.f. the viral Louis Vuitton campaign featuring Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi playing a game of chess atop a Louis Vuitton suitcase ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. After all, we perhaps can expect no less from what has been touted as the world’s largest sporting event for which the namesake LVMH fashion house has partnered with for four consecutive iterations. Louis Vuitton rode the waves from their 2022 campaign and went on to feature the winning team captain, Messi, for a summer travel campaign just this April.
It could be said that luxury simply goes where money goes, but LVMH’s recent announcement of their official partnership with the 2024 Paris Olympics points to something greater underlying the allure of sport as a receptacle for luxury — the universal reach of live streaming. There is just no denying how the entertainment industry reaches all levels of society, everyone is watching something at every second. This effect of forever-watching is compounded for global events like the World Cup and the Olympics where people from every corner in the world have a personal stake and vested interest in watching them live.
It is perhaps this commodification of sport for the global mass market audience that luxury is so interested in. Sports, both high and low, have suddenly become ultra accessible for all, transforming the industry into one that is not only lucrative but also has incredible reach. Even F1 spent most of its first seven decades as a niche event with a mostly European fan base until American mass media group, Liberty Media Corporation, bought out the circuit and transformed it into the international spectacle it is today through streaming deals with mainstream sports network giants. US viewership grew by 28 percent year-on-year for 2022’s season, recording one million viewers on average per race according to international sports channel, ESPN.
Luxury’s Great Mass Market Shift
Luxury and mass market yet seems antithetical. After all, luxury is that which is aspirational, coveted and idealised while mass market is simply what is trending, popular and affordable. What catalysed luxury’s mass market shift? It is perhaps the only next logical step for the increasingly corporatised fashion world to take. With most fashion houses today having been acquired by one luxury mega-conglomerate or the other, upwards trends for revenue and scale are the only way to go — profit, is what defines success for privatised luxury fashion.
Partnerships with sporting events and athletes are just one part of a larger mass market push towards consumer trends including the likes of influencer marketing and ESG, a push to recognise who luxury’s consumer can be rather than who they ought to be. In this vein, the super-celebrity athlete becomes quite the fit for the job. Sport has always been a powerful common denominator bridging vastly different social milieux while their aspirations in becoming sporting champions run parallel to that of luxury fashion’s in defining what truly makes couture.
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