Diagnosed with a mysterious heart condition and yearning to get back to her artistic routes, Esther Wallace decided to get creative.
Wallace, a pro basketball player at the time, left the roster of her team, the Durham Wildcats, in northern England, found a day job, and started to think once again about the career path she once dreamt of as a child. Back then, her head was filled with thoughts of making power moves on Madison Avenue or concocting the next big fashion trend. Back in the states, in the evenings after work, Wallace began working on new clothing designs in her garage.
“I would design not just based on my experiences but also my interactions and relationships,” Wallace tells Dime, “just knowing a group of people so well and knowing what we’re missing in our wardrobe and what we would want to be wearing between games or when we’re hanging out.”
Life changed for Wallace about a year later when she landed on the design for a shirt with the phrase “Female Athlete,” which WNBA legend Candace Parker went on to wear on the set of TNT’s The Arena. Suddenly, Wallace’s pet project was something much bigger. Wallace officially launched her company, Playa Society, in January 2019, just before the U.S. Women’s National Team gold medal at the FIFA World Cup and the WNBA Bubble would create newfound excitement and momentum around women’s sports.
As women’s basketball continues to rise in popularity, television ratings, attendance and social media engagement have followed suit. So too has demand for team and league merchandise. While the orange WNBA hoodie has become synonymous with women’s hoops thanks to its distributor Fanatics, a big ESPN rollout last year, and the late Kobe Bryant, grassroots creatives like Wallace and Jasmine Baker have developed loyal followings online who are hungry to rock stylish clothing and gear to support their favorite players and teams.
“The fact that there’s such a demand for it, especially for a community that I have so much respect for and have so much fun with, it’s been overwhelming just to see stuff that I put out, it consistently sells out,” says Baker, who has put out collections with the New York Liberty and Atlanta Dream over the past year. “That means more too, the demand, more than anything.”
Like Wallace, Baker leaned on her lived experience as an athlete to keep her eyes and ears trained on the culture around the game. Baker played basketball and golf and ran track growing up, then got her start in sports media as a student at Texas A&M Commerce. Also like Wallace, it took one breakout moment to put Baker on fans’ and executives’ maps.
A viral image of WNBA star Liz Cambage filing her nails while sitting on the Dallas Wings bench during a game became instantly iconic, and Baker got to work. She put the photo on simple white and black t-shirts and saw an outpouring of excitement online. Though she couldn’t sell the shirt without having licensing rights from Cambage or the Wings, the moment distilled for Baker the possibilities of future designs — and the untapped interest among WNBA lovers.
Baker’s next moment of clarity came last fall when, like many of us, she started to get bored of the countless hours spent in loungewear and wanted to mix it up. In search of a way to mix WNBA nostalgia and at-home comfort, Baker logged onto New Jersey Sets, a customizable apparel outlet, to craft shorts with logos and images from the league’s history. After putting the finishing touches on something she thought would be just for herself, Baker got a message from the New Jersey Sets offices asking if she would be interested in collaboration.
The result was an “Origin Collection” of shorts, one for every team, that despite a relatively high price tag, sold like water in the desert. Baker hasn’t looked back.
A call from the Liberty a short while later led to a 25th anniversary #OwnTheCrown box set that was sent to influencers like broadcaster Maria Taylor and rapper Rapsody to hype up the Liberty’s first season playing at Barclays Center. This summer, Baker worked with the Atlanta Dream and its fresh front office on a “Stay Dreamin’” collection that sold online and at a pop-up shop in the city and sold out in a day.
As I head back to Texas I have to say thank you again to the soul of the South, Atlanta. This was the icing on my bday cake.
— jasmine baker ~ (she/her) (@WeGotGame2) September 14, 2021
Both women are filling a void left by the sports and apparel industries that, in an ideal world for hoops fans and women’s sports fans, would not exist. In most sports, the leagues and athletes themselves have enough partnerships and licensing deals that smaller creators are not as necessary and not met with as much excitement. In women’s sports and specifically the WNBA, that vacuum exists because the investment and organization has not been developed.
“I feel like the league is experimenting right now with merchandise and it’s one of those things that I don’t think the league was ever prepared for the amount of growth they experienced over the past three years alone,” says Baker. “I don’t think they were at any point prepared for that, and I don’t think they realized how much WNBA Twitter was going to be part of that.”
At the same time, a lot of the apparel that does exist for women is “bland,” as Baker says. Women’s sports fashion often does not feature inclusive sizing and caters toward a very specific type of femininity, with tight pink garments filling out the limited women’s section at team shops and retailers.
“For a long time, it was really the norm to think there’s just one way to be a woman,” says Wallace. “A lot of times, designs and aesthetics really reflected one path or one lane of what womanhood and femininity looked like. But things have evolved with women owning our style a lot more, and especially with streetwear, unisex apparel is much more predominant. Up-and-coming designers, we’re changing that.”
As bigger companies have been slow to react, these up-and-comers have stepped in to respond to a new generation of fans that wants inclusive, comfortable drip to match more traditional apparel.
“Women’s sports is different,” Baker says. “It’s marketed differently, the fans are different, the way fans consume it is different. You have to adjust accordingly, and I don’t know that that’s happened in the past, or even now.”
With the “Still Dreamin’” collection, Baker tried to move beyond simple team branding or mainstream basketball fashion and think local. She created the collection based upon the team’s namesake, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, and incorporated all four of the city’s area codes onto the clothing. All of the pieces were black, a low-key and unisex theme that blended nicely with the reds and whites of the team’s color scheme.
Like Wallace’s “Female Athlete,” the set took a simple element of fandom and basketball culture and packaged it in a way that the creators know people will actually want to wear.
“I look at a lot of apparel now and I feel like we’ve kind of seen it all,” says Baker. “To me, it’s just a combination of my personal taste, aesthetically what looks really dope, and going from there.”
While Baker takes a more top-down view of the industry, hoping to upend the way the league itself looks at merchandising and even its relationship with fans, Wallace approaches her craft with more granularity. Perhaps that balance is why the two have become the de facto culturalists in the women’s hoops space, a word that may not have existed before Baker created it. The two are supportive of one another publicly, plugging new releases and talking up new designs.
There is no opponent when the goal is to grow the game into something that matches the intensity in the culture and the fan base. With multiple generations of WNBA fans now looking for merchandise to celebrate their love of the league, the opportunity is there to create community through fashion. And through that community, the next batch of young folks who get the type of fulfilling fandom experience that Wallace and Baker wanted growing up.
Whenever she makes something, Wallace thinks of the same young girl. A girl who is just starting to form ideas about the world, form interests, form passions.
“She might even know what’s out there yet or know what’s possible, but through the designs that I create, she might see someone walking down the street in a WNBA sweatsuit and be inspired or curious,” Wallace says. “We’re really just exciting her curiosity or inspiring her interest and then fueling the fire from there.”