When Varley co-founder Lara Mead was exploring ways to launch the London-based activewear brand’s new Club collection, she initially considered hosting a morning of tennis or a round of golf. She went to Salt Lake City in Utah to host a tournament of pickleball. This fast-paced tennis/badminton hybrid is played close to net and has been praised by fans as more friendly and accessible than the antecedents.
“What I love about pickleball is that you can actually run around, compete, get a sweat on and still have a conversation while playing,” says Mead, who first encountered the sport when she lived in Los Angeles in the late 2010s. “It’s quicker-paced and more sociable than tennis.”
The thwop thwop sound of plastic balls being tossed across the net during pickleball games is now the soundtrack for summer in the US. Pickleball was the fastest-growing sports in the US three years running. According to the 2023 report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, participation in the US nearly doubled from 2021 to 2022 to 8.9mn players. Internationally, the sport is also gaining popularity.
Tennis clothes lend themselves naturally to pickleball — both games are played on a court, across a net, and devotees often find their way to the latter via the former. In place of the crisp whites worn by tennis players, pickleballers have adopted a more wacky aesthetic, which can include animal prints, fluorescent colors and novelty graphics. Sometimes, they wear the same outfit.
The pickleball opportunity hasn’t escaped fashion and activewear brands. “So many friends began playing and there didn’t seem to be a uniform for it,” Alice + Olivia chief executive and creative director Stacey Bendet writes in an email. She created one in 2022. The capsule collection will be made up of sporty separates, including tees and mini skirts. Since then, periodic drops of the floral-print cropped tees and mini skirts have sold out “very quickly” from Alice + Olivia stores in the Hamptons, Miami and Mayfair.
Bendet, whose husband’s enthusiasm led the couple to build a pickleball court at their Hamptons house, understands the appeal: “It’s like party tennis! It’s less formal, more fun . . . Women want clothes that feel flirty and functional when they play.”
And not, perhaps, as though they’re strapping in for real exertion. Norma Kamali, a designer known for the swimwear and stretch-jersey dresses she’s made since the 1970s, found that her friends had become increasingly evangelical about pickleball. They urged her to design something stylish for the court, so she named a design from her spring/summer 2023 collection the “Sleeveless Pickleball Dress”. The dress comes with an integrated bodysuit and a very low hemline.
“They’re named pickleball dresses because they have an athletic spirit about them,” Kamali says. “However, they’ve been seen dancing at parties in heels as well.”
Pickleball paddles are also ripe to be customized. J Crew and the preppy ecommerce website Tuckernuck both collaborated on pickleball paddles and equipment with Recess. Cynthia Rowley released limited edition paddles. Moda Operandi also included a pickleball set and paddle in its Club Moda Summer capsule collection. (The luxury etailer’s “pickleball edit” also contains exclusive designs from The Frankie Shop, Leset and Sergio Hudson.)
Pickleball is a sport that has an absurd name but has gained a surprising following in the fashion industry. Designer Tory Burch has referred to the game as her “obsession”. (She doesn’t design clothes specifically for pickleball, but a spokesperson noted that the tennis dresses and skirts from her Tory Sport range would be at home on a pickleball court.) Both Heidi Klum, and Kate Upton are models who have invested in professional teams.
The players can wear whatever they want to the game. While tennis style is highly codified — Wimbledon specifies the amount of colour permitted on competitors’ outfits down to the centimetre — conventions around dressing for pickleball are permissive to the point of nonexistent. “At my tennis club in London, I think I have to wear 80 per cent white,” Mead says of the Roehampton Club. “The nice thing about pickle is that it’s a similar look, but you can be a little more playful, a bit more colourful. That’s great for anyone who enjoys fashion.”
There’s no dress code, though the official USA Pickleball rule book states that tournament players may be required to change out of “inappropriate” apparel, “including that which approximates the colour of the ball”.
“But who knows what colour ball you’re going to be playing with?” asks Karen Mitchell, chair and co-founding director of PickleballEngland, aghast at this whiff of restriction. “We’re a bit more relaxed here because we have so many different ball colours. We encourage people to wear clothes they can play comfortably in, and shoes with some ankle support, but that’s it,” she says.
While a preponderance of pickleball apparel still consists of T-shirts decorated with cartoonish pickles or insider puns about “kitchens” and “dinks”, there are sleeker options. In the US, “Pickleball Clothes” is one of the top categories on Lululemon’s US website, and Fila and Alo Yoga sponsor professional pickleball players.
Fila, who sponsors the top American pickleballer Anna Leigh Waters is the first major brand to create and develop a high-performance pickleball shoe. When the brand launched the Volley Zone court shoe in 2019, sales “definitely exceeded our expectations”, says Lauren Mallon, Fila’s senior director of marketing and strategic partnerships for tennis and pickleball.
While she declines to share sales figures, Mallon says brand executives find the sport’s cross-demographic appeal, the rise of pickleball-specific retailers and the opening of entertainment complexes combining courts, restaurants and retail in key markets promising.
“Pickleball is becoming such a part of lifestyle,” Mallon says. “The true market opportunity has yet to be realised in this space. There’s still so much potential and opportunity for growth in this category and sport.”
“It would be great to see brands start supporting pickleball players here the same way they do tennis players,” says Thaddea Lock, a former professional tennis player who found her way to pickleball after an illness and is now the UK’s number-one female player. “I think it’ll happen in the next couple of years.”
Lock wears outfits for pickleball that are “very similar” to what she wore for tennis — mostly Nike and Adidas tennis skirts and shirts from ProXR, her paddle sponsor. Still, she enjoys the “wacky” outfits that some players embrace, such as flamingo-print co-ords and cow-print tracksuit bottoms.
“People are more willing to have fun with their fashion and experiment with it in pickleball than in tennis,” she says. “Which makes sense. Pickleball is a social sport that’s easy to pick up and that anyone can play. Having fun comes with the territory.”
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