When Grand Slam champion Venus Williams stepped out onto a French Open court in a see-through black lace skirt and red bustier, the beleaguered lace industry let out a cheer.
Williams' corset-like outfit _ reminiscent of a 19th-century Parisian can-can chorus costume _ shocked many sports fans and prompted wolf whistles and catcalls. But it also intrigued fashion insiders, and lace designers are now hoping that Williams' bold ensemble might boost their game.
"Seeing a tennis woman of Venus' caliber dolled up in lace and resembling more of a figure skater will hopefully revive the industry at a time when French lace makers are going out of business one after the other," said Isabelle Tartier, director of Paris-based Frank Sorbier, one of the few fashion houses that still uses lace.
Tartier blamed the lace industry's economic woes on cheaper Chinese-industrialized lace flooding the market.
"(It) is rarely made up of 100 percent cotton like French handmade lace, and is supplemented with chemicals such as polyamide, which produces cheaper thread," she said.
Julien De la Rue, finance director at lace factory Solstiss in northern France, said his company's sales had dropped in half in the last three years, from (EURO)30 million ($38 million) in 2006 down to (EURO)15 million ($19 million) in 2009.
"We've seen a decrease in demand these last two years primarily because lace has gone out of fashion. Designers prefer to use leather nowadays, so you simply don't see it on the catwalk," he said.
Williams, who designed the dress and has run her own fashion line Eleven since 2007, was quick to pick up on a possible niche market.
"Lace has never been done before in tennis, and I've been wanting to do it for a long time," she said after her appearance Sunday at Roland Garros, beating Swiss player Penny Schneiden.
Williams' burlesque outfit, with its tutu and frills, didn't do much to disguise her skin-tone underwear and "its illusion of bareness," as Venus described. That illusion _ suggesting that she was naked under the lace _ is what set tongues wagging and photographers snapping wildly at her muscled, taupe-covered derriere.
"What's the point of wearing lace when there's just black under? The illusion of just having bare skin is definitely for me a lot more beautiful," Williams said.
Marcellous L. Jones, editor of Fashion Insider.com magazine, agreed.
"I thought she looked sublime," he said.
"Her mix of can-can and pom-pom girl look brought cheer and entertainment to a tournament that has become dully predictable. I think it's great publicity for Roland Garros and great for the female tennis players who have become sidelined by the men," he said.
In terms of tennis fashion, women have always had a leg up on their male counterparts. Rafael Nadal's khaki pants and Roger Federer's sleeveless shirts have nothing on the catsuit that Venus' sister Serena Williams, currently ranked world No. 1, wore to the U.S. Open in 2002.
Nor do Andre Agassi's denim shorts and multicolored shirts compare to Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova's micro-miniskirts, or Maria Sharapova's tuxedo-inspired ensemble that she wore to Wimbledon in 2008.
For designer Frank Sorbier, female tennis fashion has always been about breaking the rules.
"When French tennis champion Suzanne Lenglen started playing in the 1920s, she was the first to invent a new style of dressing, which insisted upon wearing short skirts and exposing the player's bare arms. The aim was to liberate the body and leave it free to move," Sorbier said.
The tribute was fitting: Venus Williams wore her flouncy lace skirt in a match on the Suzanne Lenglen Court at Roland Garros.
"It is like a return to the past and a desire to liberate the body once again," Sorbier said.
Asked whether he would consider collaborating with Williams to produce a new tennis fashion line, he said "the door was open."
But his partner Isabelle Tartier said even if Venus has a good eye she needs more fashion schooling.
"Her colors need a bit of work. The red and black, which smacks of a lingerie get-up, is a definite fashion faux-pas," she said.