Fashion Film

In 'Challengers,' Jonathan Anderson’s Costume Design Sexes Up the Tennis Set

Challengers (Film Still), 2024. Image courtesy of MGM.

Seconds before tennis prodigy Tashi Duncan (played by Zendaya) has a career-ending injury in Challengers, the camera cuts to the stands. One fan wears a t-shirt with Tashi’s portrait and her nickname, “The Duncanator,” emblazoned across the front in red-and-white script. When Tashi’s leg snaps, the fan merch instantly becomes an ode to the legend that could have been. It’s a devastating detail, one too clever for its own good. 

First-time costume designer Jonathan Anderson has built an illustrious career in fashion on his detail-oriented, witty vision. As creative director of both Loewe and his own label JW Anderson, the Irish designer has subverted establishment prep for years, pushing the normal into abnormal with exaggerated proportions and cheeky references. It’s no surprise that his longtime friend Luca Guadagnino, director of Call Me By Your Name and Bones and All, tapped Anderson to create the costumes for Challengers, his tennis love-triangle saga starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist.

It’s not easy to take on the sartorial specifics of sports: Bring It On and Bend It Like Beckham embraced an athletic Y2K sensibility, while Match Point added a sultry charge to tennis whites. Yet Anderson both celebrates and skewers the bastion of prep with Challengers. Who better to playfully subvert the rigidity of tennis than the man who designed both the Pigeon clutch and a Uniqlo collection with Roger Federer

Tennis, much like the prep style Anderson plays with, appears simple to the uninitiated and exceedingly complex to those in the know. It’s rife with rules: Players at Wimbledon can be fined for not wearing all white. Yet the film’s costume design seizes these restrictions as precisely what makes the sport’s look so alluring. Striped button-downs and pastel polos ooze boyish, Abercrombie-esque sexuality. Loose-fit jeans and the “I Told Ya” graphic tee Tashi wears evoke John F. Kennedy Jr., one of Anderson’s inspirations and another larger-than-life figure whose trajectory was cut short. Coupled with Guadagnino’s sensual cinema and a synth score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Challengers doesn’t just suggest the repressed sexuality of its three preppy tennis players; it begs the viewer to break the rules with them. Anderson’s sartorial selections only turn up the simmering heat. 

At the present-day challenger match, Tashi’s devoted husband Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) wears regulation Uniqlo tennis whites. Her former flame—and Art’s former best friend—Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) is the dark horse in a tank top and mismatched shorts, the black and gingham pattern more evocative of a teenage boy than a tennis pro. Tashi, meanwhile, sits at center court sporting Chanel espadrilles and a Loewe cotton shirt dress, the knot tied around her stomach as she watches the two duke it out for her affection. Underneath these cast glances and put-together outfits lies a tension that began bubbling 15 years earlier. 

In an extended flashback—one of the most triumphant sections of the film—Tashi, Art, and Patrick drink together in the boys’ hotel room. Tashi then initiates a three-way makeout, only for her to eventually lean back as Art and Patrick kiss each other. Dead center of this triangular interaction is Tashi’s fuschia Juicy Couture zip-up hoodie, the unmistakable “j” zipper swinging as she sits and watches. Anderson uses the ultimate 2000s hot-girl talisman—gaudy, branded, and now much beloved—to bring a sense of specificity, play, and power to their strict environment (and the boys’ expressed heterosexuality). 

Zendaya at the Rome press tour stop. Image courtesy of Wireimage.

For a press tour stop in Rome, Zendaya wore a glittering custom Loewe tennis dress with a plunging neckline and micro hem, complete with white pumps whose stilettos pierced Loewe-branded tennis balls. As the “Tenniscore” trend continues to heat up, Anderson offers his sexy, cerebral tilt to the look, poking fun at the perennially preppy while doing it better than almost anyone.