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Law Roach breaks down Zendaya’s tennis-inspired ‘Challengers’ looks and ‘method dressing’

By Kaitlyn Huamani, Los Angeles Times
Published: April 29, 2024, 6:00am

On camera or off, Zendaya stays in character.

From her wet-look Balmain gown at the 2021 Venice Film Festival to her recent jaw-dropping futuristic Mugler bodysuit at the “Dune: Part Two” world premiere, the young star has built quite a reputation for bold, method fashions.

The 27-year-old actor, who will co-chair the Met Gala in May, has graduated from a Disney Channel heroine to a blockbuster star and budding fashion icon over her nearly 15 years in the spotlight.

Much of this transformation is thanks to the work of Law Roach. Roach, who opts for his trademarked title image architect, as opposed to stylist, has worked with the actor since she was on Disney Channel’s “Shake It Up” in 2011.

Roach calls the duo’s thematic approach to red carpets method dressing — a nod to the acting technique — and it’s a hallmark of the pair’s collaboration.

On the press tour for “ Challengers,” which hits theaters Friday, the duo gleaned inspiration from Zendaya’s tennis champion character, Tashi Duncan, who’s at the top of her game — with the talent and intensity of a Williams sister — when an injury stunts her career.

Throughout the film’s international premieres and the cast’s promotional appearances, Zendaya has served up looks with tennis whites, collars and pleats, sportswear fabrics like mesh and even actual tennis balls.

These sporty yet chic silhouettes dominated her promotional appearances and photo calls, including an April 14 stop in Milan, where the star sported a 1992 Ralph Lauren dress that Cindy Crawford had originally modeled.

Some of her other get-ups were more on the nose, featuring actual tennis balls. During a visit in Rome, Zendaya wore a glitzy custom Loewe dress with a pleated skirt — a prime example of the elevated tenniscore looks she and Roach have crafted. The main attraction of the ensemble, though, were stilettos with tennis balls at the bottom of the heels.

Another tennis ball popped up as the centerpiece of a custom bright green gown at the after-party for the Los Angeles premiere. The bold look came hours after Zendaya stepped onto the red carpet in a black and pink corset ball gown, prompting fans to think it marked the end of her method dressing on the press tour.

“I wanted to be literal, I wanted to have this cultural moment and bring tenniscore back to the masses,” Roach said. “It becomes another way to add interest to the movie.”

Some of her looks were less obvious than others, like those that featured touches of tennis ball-green or tennis whites. Roach said one all-white look paid homage to Althea Gibson, one of the first Black athletes to play international tennis and the first Black player to win a Grand Slam event title.

Roach said he was happy to “highlight someone who, culturally, did so much for us as Black Americans and Black people, and also the sport of tennis.” The duo also recreated a look from a 1998 Vogue shoot with Venus and Serena Williams, and Roach said Venus told him she almost liked Zendaya’s look better than the original.

“You want to get it right and you want to make them proud,” Roach said. “And you can’t really get a better compliment from someone like Venus Williams.”

Many “Challengers” ensembles also incorporated silhouettes or styles from the 1960s and ‘70s, likely in acknowledgment of the period when women’s tennis gained traction and attention. In one checkered mod look from Louis Vuitton, the star nailed the tennis inspiration without going over the top. She similarly rocked a pink ‘60s-inspired dress with a tennis-like collar and modern cutouts on her torso.

The splashiest, and most talked-about, look from her tour was Zendaya’s custom Loewe gown that featured the silhouette of a tennis player preparing to serve a ball. She wore the shimmering green dress with matching heels to the Sydney premiere in March, which kicked off the conversation about her long history of method dressing.

The pair has a lengthy history of crafting red carpet looks that mirror her films’ aesthetics, themes or content, thereby using fashion to promote her projects. In 2017, she wore a gown with Monarch butterfly-like wings to echo the circus at the heart of her movie “The Greatest Showman.”

“With Law and I, we always find inspiration from films that I’m doing,” she said in a recent interview with Vogue. “A butterfly isn’t the theme, per se, but it is this idea of being costumey. You’re the greatest showman, and so everything is drama, and that’s what this dress was to me.”

For the premieres and appearances promoting “Dune” and “Dune: Part Two,” the actor played with both the sci-fi storytelling in the film and its desert setting, showcasing the diversity of Roach’s styling. Before the space-warrior saga, she traversed the Spider-Verse with cobweb and spider detailing on her “Spider-Man” press tour ensembles.

Zendaya and Roach are method-dressing pioneers, but Roach acknowledges that others used the technique before them.

“We can take some responsibility for bringing this trend to the forefront, but we don’t think that we’re the first people to ever do it,” Roach said. “Geena Davis did it in 1992 at the premiere of ‘A League of Their Own,’ she had this little white dress with baseball stitching. Glenn Close did it when she played Cruella de Vil. We are not saying we invented it, but we have been very much purveyors of it for these last films that she’s been in.”

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While promoting “Barbie,” Margot Robbie and several of her co-stars borrowed inspiration from the doll and her hundreds of iconic outfits. Fans eagerly awaited Robbie’s arrival on the red carpet to see which Barbie she’d “portray.”

Other stars have donned looks inspired by their projects in the past — most recently Jenna Ortega for “Wednesday,” Halle Bailey for “The Little Mermaid,” Dakota Johnson and Sydney Sweeney for “Madame Web” and Zoë Kravitz for “The Batman.” Angelina Jolie, Emma Watson and Keira Knightley also nailed the trend years ago.

Method dressing is likely here to stay, and Roach is hoping it will spill over from red carpets to movie theaters. Roach predicts tenniscore looks will take over this summer and has been reposting on social media “Challengers” theatergoers in their tennis skirts and chic white looks.

“It’s just fun,” he said. “There’s a lot of things going on in the world and I’m not naive to think that fashion or movies can change that. But I think sometimes just adding something that can bring joy into people’s lives is really the point.”