Björn Borg: Game, set matching briefs

Björn Borg may have lost his tennis fortune in a costly divorce, but his latest racket - underwear - is a smash hit. Now the ball's in his court, he tells Josh Sims
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The Independent Online

Worldwide Brand Management (WBM) is a little-known fashion company outside Sweden and one that is today on something of a high: last year saw its biggest ever growth, with sales hitting £60m and profits doubling. It has four stores in its homeland and 12 franchises across Europe. It makes bold, slightly offbeat underwear, casualwear, and accessories in the vein of a Scandinavian Diesel.

Björn Borg, meanwhile, is a rather well-known, one-time tennis champion on something of a low. Or at least he was: divorces and financial woes, international outrage at the idea of selling his Wimbledon trophies and so on are all behind him. WBM is the management behind the Björn Borg men's - and women's - fashion empire, coming to a store near you. Its main product, underwear - colourful, comfortable and, in its skimpiness, giving a new twist on Swedish design minimalism - launches in the UK this spring, with bags and shoes, sunglasses and fragrances, coats, knitwear, sportswear and the rest of the vast collection all set to follow.

Even in an era of celebrity spin-offs, this one is unexpected. "But I was always interested in fashion, even during the days when I was playing," counters the tall, lean, long-haired Björn Borg, looking uncannily like the tall, lean, long-haired Björn Borg who scooped five straight Wimbledon wins between 1976 and 1980 before retiring at just 26. "Admittedly, I was never The Fashion Guy. The way I dressed was always much more simple. And it's strange looking back when people say that I started something in fashion: with the Fila clothing which became a fashion because I wore it, and the headband, which I wore because I had long hair and needed something to keep it out of my eyes, not because I thought it made a statement. All I did was play, practise, eat, sleep. But when I quit professional tennis it did give me the idea to do something in fashion."

That he did. The tale has not been without its business ups and downs but the Björn Borg fashion brand is a big seller in 12 countries across Europe, huge in Sweden, as one might expect, but bigger still in Holland. "Why, I don't know. They must just like what we do," says Borg. "It was easier to get going in Sweden, of course. But even there it took time for people to trust the brand. You can't get away with something that's not good quality or design and just stick your name on it. Having the name just makes you more of a target."

The name helps to sell his pants, of course. By his own admission, Borg is no fashion designer. He takes control of the company's sportswear lines - an area in which, he says, "I have a lot of experience and know what people want and how things should fit" - while offering his strong opinion on the more fashion-forward lines. "And now I only wear my own clothes. It's all I wear. But that's important - who wants to stand for something they don't like?" he says. But the Hollywood-cum-Stockholm persona helps more - Borg picked up a special prize at the recent BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards and this, after all, is the man who had the balls to return to the professional tennis circuit in 1991 and insist on still using a wooden racket. He was blown off the court, but what a statement.

To tennis fans Borg has become an icon - not simply for his unconventional and entertaining genius on court, but for giving what was then a traditional, middle-class sport a rock'n'roll edge that saw his style and choice of then quite esoteric sports labels as something worthy of imitation. It is, frankly, hard to imagine the likes of Pete Sampras - recently voted the world's best tennis player ever, with Borg coming in second (he was robbed) - or any of the other boring machine-players launching anything as subject to vicissitudes as a fashion line and making a success of it. Borg, in other words, is still cool. He wasn't called the Ice Man for nothing. "The attention was strange," says the reclusive Borg, still a millionaire from his triumphs and old endorsement deals. "Something happened to tennis back then: all these women running after this Swedish teenager. Of course it was exciting and it was fun. I think it was also very positive for tennis. But still I really wasn't aware that the Björn Borg name might work as a fashion brand. To be honest, I wasn't too aware of many things outside of tennis: it was all about trying to win tournaments. At the time you don't realise that you're building up a 'personality' that can help you sell something. I didn't really get that until I retired."

He follows something of a pedigree, though. On the one hand is the rush of Swedish fashion brands that have established themselves internationally recently, from the chic simplicity of Filippa K through to the rock stars' favourite, J Lindeberg, from art and multimedia group fashion sidelines by the likes of Whyred and Acne Jeans, through to high-street monoliths such as H&M and the old-timers undergoing a style revival, Tretorn tennis shoes and Tiger Tailoring among them. Swedish fashion is finally getting its moment in the sun after decades in the shadow of world-renowned product and industrial designers such as Ikea and Saab. And on the other is something of a heritage for the tennis greats to make a go of their own sports-oriented clothing and, latterly, fashion lines, most notably Fred Perry and Lacoste. "And the next tennis player following their footsteps into clothing is me, albeit that this is more of a fashion brand," says Borg, in skinny black jeans and boots, with an orange and black chequer-board pattern sweater, part ageing rocker, part relaxed playboy. "Everybody knows Perry and Lacoste. But a lot of people don't know what their origins are. That's the point where I want to get to."

Indeed, nothing would please Borg more than if the future of his fashion brand was built on "quality and design" - his very Swedish mantra - rather than his name.

There is a demand for the products of contemporary celebrities, he concedes. His only demand is they commit to producing quality goods. "Celebrities will keep coming out with their own products: people relate to different celebrities and want to buy into them," Borg says. "I could just sit down and use my name and watch the money come in. But it's my name on it so I want it to be done well.

"I'd be very happy if the brand name Björn Borg was to grow to such an extent that it separates from the person. Early on, it helps if the person is alive and part of the brand but you want it to live beyond that, too," he adds. "That's what I hope people say about our fashion - that it's great and they like it, not for them to think that they really have much to do with me. After all, there are teenagers out there buying these clothes who don't know who I am. Or at least I certainly hope so."

WBM is available at Selfridges (08708 377 377)