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The Tribute

The Godfathers Of Athleisure

From Mr Ayrton Senna to Mr Björn Borg, meet the sporting icons who always aced it in retro sportswear

  • Messrs Björn Borg and John McEnroe at the Wimbledon men’s single final, 1981. Photograph by Mr Bob Thomas/Getty Images

One of the first trends to land in 2017 – quicker than you can hum the BBC Wimbledon theme tune – is terrace fashion. Also known as athleisure. These are looks that take their cue from 1970s and 1980s sporting styles – matching two-piece tracksuits, zip-up nylon jumpers, drawstring trousers, chevron prints in burnt orange or tobacco brown – and give them an upscale tweak by rendering them in luxury fabrics or adding pleats for maximum slouch. It’s something you’d expect the likes of Nike and adidas to run with, but it’s also a trend endorsed by some of the biggest names in more traditional menswear, among them Prada and Gucci, so worthy of your attention. With that in mind, we’ve rounded up an A-team of sporting heroes who initiated many of these looks, and blazed a natty trail on – and off – the pitch, the court, the course, the track and the circuit. Scroll down for the kind of sartorial inspiration that will put you in pole position on spring’s style grid.


  • Pelé during the World Cup final in Brazil, 1958. Photograph by Offside Sports Photography/L’Equipe

Pelé, aka Mr Edson Arantes do Nascimento, had many reasons to be cheerful during the World Cup in 1958. Aged 17, he became the youngest goal scorer in the tournament’s history – a record that still stands – with two strikes, including the injury-time header that sealed Brazil’s 5–2 win over home nation Sweden. He had, perhaps not uncoincidentally, just coined the deathless phrase “the beautiful game” to eulogise his sport, and he was already well on the way to greatest-player-of-all-time and worldwide-icon status. All this, and he invented the athleisure look to boot. How else to describe his off-duty-but-never-offside ensemble of sun-bleached Breton-style tee and impeccably slouchy-luxe trackpants, now the default outfit of everyone from hipster creatives to school-run dads? Four words: back of the net.

Get the look

  • Todd Snyder Striped Cotton-Jersey T-Shirt

  • A.P.C. + Outdoor Voices Slim-Fit Tapered Stretch-Shell Sweatpants


  • Mr Francesco Moser, Paris–Roubaix, 1979. Photograph by Offside Sports Photography/Presse Sports

They surely called him “Lo Sceriffo” (the sheriff) because when it came to two-wheel road racing through the mid-1970s and early 1980s, Mr Francesco Moser laid down the powerful, streamlined law. He brought plenty of Italian flair to the Paris–Roubaix, winning it three times in a row. Commentators lauded his ability to tuck his head lower than his back, his peerless armography (they bent a perfect 90 degrees at the elbows in a full-speed crouch) and, as one noted, “the expensive taste of glamour he carries with him, like a whiff of aftershave”. That air of Old Spice headiness was only enhanced by his classic cycling gear, emblazoned with go-faster-striped cuffs and the iconic pro-team logos – Famcucine, Campagnolo – that were the Gucci and Prada of the handlebar elite. In our age of acid-toned jerseys and psychedelic leggings, what’s not to Lycra?

Get the look

  • POC Fondo Classic Cycling Jersey

  • Cafe du Cycliste Jeanne Water-Resistant Cycling Bib Shorts


  • Lord Sebastian Coe in the countryside around Sheffield, 1981. Photograph by Offside Sports Photography/L’Equipe

He may have later adopted the impeccably cut suits of a Conservative MP turned Olympic committee and IAAF president-grandee, but back in his track pomp – he’s pictured here in 1981, two years after he broke world records in the 800m, mile and 1500m – Mr, later Lord, Sebastian Coe looks like he could be starring in an haute reboot of a kitchen-sink classic, The Modishness Of The Middle-Distance Runner. Mr Wes Anderson could certainly base a whole movie around the clean lines of the zippered, colour-blocked sweat top, while the prototypical track pants and running shoes evoke those halcyon days before a certain Run-DMC song kick-started sneaker mania. It’s a look that deserves – nay, demands – a lap of honour.

Get the look

  • Fanmail Organic Cotton-Velour Track Jacket

  • Tod's Panelled Leather Sneakers


  • Mr Björn Borg at the Wimbledon men’s singles final, 1980. Photograph by Bettman/Getty Images

“If you’re afraid of losing, then you daren’t win,” Mr Björn Borg once said, and that credo applied equally to his rig as to his rasping top-spin backhand. He was single-handedly responsible for hijacking the overly formal sportswear of the 1970s, taking tennis whites from prepster to playboy by adding bands of colour to head- and sweatbands and a louche, unbuttoned contrast collar to his polo. His gold chain, incipient beard and lustrous locks just added to the rock-star allure. It was an age when Mr Borg and his fellow baseline badasses – Mr Guillermo Vilas, Mr Vitas Gerulaitis – were more likely to be found falling out of London hotspots Tramp or Annabel’s at 3.00am, supermodels in tow and Benson & Hedges in hand, than perfecting their passing shots on the practice court. Is it any wonder Mr Borg’s post-retirement incarnation was as a purveyor of upscale underwear?

Get the look

  • Lacoste Tennis Slim-Fit Jersey And Piqué Polo Shirt

  • Lacoste Tennis Shell Shorts


  • Mr Ayrton Senna at the Lotus Racing headquarters in Norfolk, 1985. Photograph by Mirrorpix

Mr Ayrton Senna’s legend is built on three pillars: his nerveless Formula 1 exploits in the most trying of conditions (no one who saw him come from fifth place during a biblical deluge in the 1993 European Grand Prix to lap his peers will ever forget it); his tragic early death on the track a year later, aged just 34; and an approach to style that could best be summed up as muscular minimalism. Pictured here in his adopted home of Norfolk, England, in 1985, Mr Senna seems to be channelling that era’s casual subculture in his sprucely logo-stamped attire, while the single-lens sunglasses may be a nod to the Tropicália movement of his native Brazil. Overall, he looks like he could have stepped out of a French nouvelle vague movie. That movement’s penchant for jump cuts mirrors Mr Senna’s characteristic on/off throttle spurts.

Get the look

  • Valentino Contrast-Trimmed Cotton-Piqué Polo Shirt

  • Prada Aviator-Style Acetate Sunglasses


  • Mr Arthur Ashe and his wife, Ms Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, USA, 1977. Photograph by Ms Susan Wood/Getty Images

There’s so much to love in this 1977 shot of tennis great Mr Arthur Ashe and his wife, the photographer Ms Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe: the minimalist elegance of the complementary racing bikes, the simpatico synchronicity of their smiles and the his ’n’ hers tracksuits. Mr Ashe’s subtly stylish outfit mirrors his unflashy, slow-and-low demolishing of firebrand Mr Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon final two years previously. The solid navy, punctuated by the varsity-style stripes on the cuffs (very on-trend four decades on), and logo quietly but firmly advise Mr Connors and his ostentatious ilk who, in this arena at least, is boss. “Clothes and manners do not make the man,” Mr Ashe once averred, “but when he is made, they greatly improve his appearance.” Here is the intractable proof of that assertion.

Get the look

  • Stüssy Striped Jersey Track Jacket

  • Beams + Champion Slim-Fit Tapered Loopback Cotton-Blend Jersey Sweatpants


  • Mr Seve Ballesteros at the Penfold PGA Tournament in Kent, 1976. Photograph by Mr Ed Lacey/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Mr Seve Ballesteros set great store by clothing – he always wore a navy jumper and trousers and white shirt in the last round of majors, and won five of them – as is plain from this shot during a practice session at a PGA tournament in Kent in 1976. While most of his peers favoured deafening checks, shapeless slacks and prodigious collars, Mr Ballesteros is a picture of pared-down stealth-luxe prep in his lightweight jacket, fitted pants and classic co-respondent shoes. “His swashbuckling style, like his swing, wasn’t put together or manufactured. It was pure Seve,” declared one pundit on Mr Ballesteros’s death from cancer in 2011. The man himself put it more succinctly: “I miss. I miss. I miss. I make.” Style-wise, at least, he was all make.

Get the look

  • Kjus Golf Soren Striped Stretch-Jersey Golf Polo Shirt

  • Ecco Golf Tour Hybrid Leather Golf Brogues

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