CORPORATE PROFILE: FILA – BORN IN TENNIS

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It’s one of the most iconic images in all of tennis: Bjorn Borg, with his golden locks, gracefully sprints around Wimbledon’s Centre Court wearing a snug cream-colored Fila shirt and a distinctive headband. Fila, the born-in-Italy shoe and apparel company, was at the heart of tennis’s boom years, and it’s still a vital player in the game. Inside Tennis decided to look at tennis through the lens of one company, and in March we sat down with Fila North America president Jon Epstein in a lux suite in Indian Wells.

Was Borg the perfect player at the perfect time?

You’ve said it just right. He was perfect for us because when you introduce something totally new, you have to do it in a way that’s credible. Borg was not only credible from a style perspective but he went on and won 11 Grand Slams. He was something different himself, in terms of the way he held himself, the way he played, and the way he looked.

There were some incredible Borg-going-nowhere stories. John Barrett said, “Oh, he’s a pleasant guy with good speed, but because of his strokes he’ll never do anything at Wimbledon.”

Our head of Global Tennis Marketing Marty Mulligan knew better.

Fila’s commitment to tennis goes way back. Talk a little bit about that.

Our commitment goes back to the early ’70s and even prior, when Fila as a textile company in Biella, Italy had a chairman who had a great zeal for sport and created on a tubular knitting machine the first polo [shirt]. When you look at old photos of Borg, he has a very clingy top, and that was actually created as a polo from machinery that made underwear. It was unconventional and tight-fitting.

Because the Italians were so creative, they introduced color to tennis. At the time the players were wearing all-white, so Fila broke the rules. They created what is today all the color of tennis. Fila not only had a commitment from the beginning to create top performance products, but they also had a sense of style that changed the game.

There were so many colorful athletes at that time, and many of them wore Fila. Not only Borg, but Vilas and Goolagong, and later Becker and Seles. That’s why these colors of white, navy and red were so iconic to Fila – our calling card, the Fila flag.

The brand was born in tennis. Ultimately we’ve been in many sports over the years, from motor sports to mountaineering to sailing to baseball, but none more significant. Today in the US, we have 850 accounts just for tennis, we have a fully dedicated sales force that sells only tennis, and we have head of Global Tennis Marketing Marty Mulligan, who’s been with the company for 40 years, scouting talent and helping us procure the right kinds of athletes to display our brand.

A lot of people have seen a lot of tennis over the years, like Oracene Williams and Mirka Federer, but no one has seen more tennis over the last 45 years than Marty Mulligan.

For sure. Marty’s trustworthy, and he’s got a tremendous eye for up and coming talent. His commitment to make sure that the athletes have the best products to compete and win in has always been top of the line. He’s rigorous when it comes to making sure that our products fit right, that the fabrics are made in line with the needs of the game. He works hard to make sure that our footwear works perfectly for every athlete, to the point where we have to custom-make many shoes in Italy.

He’s committed far beyond just finding athletes for us and developing relationships with them. He also guides the company in terms of product testing. He’s the heart and soul of our tennis initiative. If you can’t get it by Marty, it’s not going to market. He’s the ultimate authority, and well-respected. He played Laver in the final of Wimbledon. He was ranked No. 3 in the world at one point and played against some of the most iconic figures in tennis – Stan Smith, Laver, Emerson, Borg – as an athlete.

If you ever want to meet somebody in tennis, go for a walk with Marty Mulligan at any event. You can’t get 10 feet without somebody saying, “Hey Marty.” The athletes love and respect him because he’s more than just a guy from a brand. They all know that he was a player. He’s become a father figure to the brand and also to some of the athletes. We wouldn’t have had Kim Clijsters if it wasn’t for Marty. Marty knew Kim’s father [Leo] and it was his trust in Marty that helped us.

Fila’s ability to stay relevant in tennis is partly because of Marty. We’re famous because of our athletes and the products they wore, but it was Marty who helped pull all these things together for a little brand in Italy that didn’t know anything about the sport.

Fila’s brand extends from Borg to Jennifer Capriati to John Isner and Jelena Jankovic today.

It was Marty who brought Borg to Fila, and Borg introduced Fila to the world. Capriati’s was an amazing story, where someone’s life was challenged and she decided to come back. I recall when the USTA called and said, “Would you give her some product?” It was Marty who said, “She was a true champion, she was in the semifinals of the French Open when she was 13, she was an Olympic gold medalist in Barcelona – let’s give her a chance.” Ultimately she went from being ranked over 800 in the world to No. 1. Part of the reason why she was so successful was that she found a company in Fila that completely embraced her and showed her that second chances were a part of life and we believed in her ability to perform at the highest level.

One of my favorite comments about Capriati came from a British writer who said, “Jennifer’s return was the best comeback since Lazarus.” Fila has had, like all businesses, to deal with changing fashions, the economy, and moving to different ownership situations. What’s been the key ingredient in your remaining at the forefront?

If you look at the Fila mission today, commitment to sport, performance and style are three components that have sustained the brand. It’s that commitment that helped us stay the course.

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 13: Kim Clijsters with daughter Jada Ellie after she won the Women's Singles Final playing Caroline Wozniacki September 13, 2009 at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows in Queens, NY. She won 7-5, 6-3. (Photo by Robert Sabo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 13: Kim Clijsters with daughter Jada Ellie after she won the Women’s Singles Final playing Caroline Wozniacki September 13, 2009 at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows in Queens, NY. She won 7-5, 6-3. (Photo by Robert Sabo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

One great moment in tennis was when Kim Clijsters’ daughter Jada stole the show after Kim won the 2009 US Open. What did Kim mean for the brand?

Kim was an amazing athlete and she’s an amazing human being. If you look at some of the Fila champions over the world, there is also an important human side to them. Borg wasn’t just an athlete, he was also a style icon. Kim looked great in our product, but people loved her for her personality, her ability and commitment to family, and the fact that her little girl was as important in victory as the victory itself.

She was probably one of the most beloved champions of the recent era. She’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and I’m sure it’ll be a much bigger deal [than usual] because of her fans and how they embraced her. She was one of the fans’ favorites.

In our sport you have a stadium of up to 24,000 people looking down for hours at two sole individuals. Their gear has to be so critical.

Tennis is one of the only sports where a brand can dress the professional. Other sports have uniforms and don’t have the ability to access the athlete in a way that is creative. We’re constantly trying to find new fabrics, new colors, new ways to create fashion.

If you had to choose one Fila outfit, would it be Borg’s?

Definitely the White Line, which Borg wore in the beginning, the white-navy-red. Today we call it Fila Heritage. It has become a fashion statement with young people. Urban Outfitters has bought Fila Heritage for 200 stores. They’ll have Fila boutiques – we took the Borg shirt and made a crop top for girls, and we took the Vilas polo and made it into a dress. These kids are activated by the style and they don’t even know where it comes from. What’s old is new again.

Vilas had those huge thighs and short-shorts.

That short-short was made into a short for girls, the No. 1 bestselling short that we have. That era has become brand new for a whole group of millennials and young people.

Fila is based in Italy. What is special about the Italian culture and aesthetics, creativity, fashion and beauty?

Today in Biella we just opened a museum as part of our commitment to the Italian culture and to those who marked the beginning of our success. We’re in the same city as Zegna, which is one of the world’s great men’s brands, and as Loro Piana, which is known for the best cashmere in the world. Biella is in the foothills of the Alps, and in the old days you needed rivers and water to wash and dye, and a lot of the activewear was made out of wool. There were big looms driven by water power.

The Italians are known for their amazing creativity, work with color, and outlandish ideas. From Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel to today, you’ve got this history of Italian craftsmanship and creativity. They were able to completely change everything about tennis in terms of how it was played and how it was viewed, by recruiting incredible athletes and having them wear something that nobody else wore. Even fabrics made in ways that nobody had ever seen before. It was the Italian creativity that captured the world’s imagination.

Tennis is what Fila is most proud of. It’s where we came from and where we are. When I had an interview with the company many years ago, I brought pictures with me, and one of them was the Foro [Italico] in Rome. It was a photograph of just the clay court with the Fila branding. The caption said, “Minutes before the match, and the omnipresent Fila is on the court.” I said to myself, the fact that Fila was there, ready for the athletes to arrive, made us that much more authentic. And authenticity is what separates Fila in tennis from everyone else. We’re a tennis brand, and tennis players take us seriously. We’re an authority in the category. We’re not a newcomer.