Monday, September 25, 2023

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    Hanging With Reilly Opelka, the Tallest Man at Paris Fashion Week

    Like the tote bag rule. At last year’s US Open, Opelka was fined $10,000 for bringing an “unapproved bag” on court with him. It’s a problem only Opelka might face. Where all of his opponents use bags made by ‘“approved” athletic brands, Opelka prefers one he got from his sponsor in Antwerp, Tim van Laere Gallery. Van Laere, it turns out, makes a cool tote, in a Pepto pink shade, emblazoned with the phrase “Art x Tennis Club.” But since a contemporary art gallery isn’t technically a gear manufacturer, per the rules, Opelka was supposed to leave the bag in his locker. But as any fashion fan knows, rules are there to be broken. Van Leare gave him a painting for his troubles.

    His obsession with art developed naturally, Opelka explains, the deeper he got into the worlds of Rick, Prada, Loewe, and Ann Demeulemeester. In the car, he pulls out his phone to show me some of the art he’s acquired for his budding collection. He’s got a work by Belgian artist Rinus Van de Velde, and another by the controversial German painter and performance artist Jonathan Meese. “When I first got into art, I hated [Meese],” Opelka says. “I was like, ‘I don’t get him, he’s nuts.’ Then I watched his performances and I watched how he spoke, and I got hooked on him. He preaches that art needs to dictate the world—a dictatorship of art.” Now, thanks to his sponsor, Opelka isn’t just playing for money—he’s playing for sick art, too. Per their deal, if Opelka wins a grand slam, van Laere will reward him with a painting by macabre Romanian artist Adrien Ghenie. Hoisting the trophy ten feet above Arthur Ashe court would be nice, Opelka says. “But no doubt, the best part of me winning the US Open would be having a Ghenie.”

    At the hotel, Opelka ducks into a bathroom to get into his custom Thom Browne look. Browne is known for shrunken proportions, but the brand’s work with NBA players like LeBron James has paid dividends for enormous athletes of all kinds. When Opelka emerges, he’s wearing a black cardigan over white shirt and tie, cropped two-tone tweed trousers, and a pair of brogues Thom Browne had left over from when the brand dressed the Cleveland Cavaliers during their 2018 playoff run.

    As we make our way to the beaux arts Paris Opera house for the show, Opelka says he’s considered wearing Thom Browne on court in the past. “Thom is great, and it would make sense, because he’s inspired by classic tennis style: Arthur Ashe, guys like that,” he says. The sameness he sees elsewhere in the draw pains him. “The kits themselves, they’re all the same colors, they’re all so similar. Every brand does their photoshoots at Indian Wells, so the vibe is the exact same. There’s nothing unique about it anymore, and it’s sad,” he says. Why, I ask, does he think tennis players haven’t yet taken a page out of the NBA playbook, and turned their tunnel walks into mini fashion shows? “We’re a solo sport,” Opelka replies. “Anything goes wrong with us, there’s a direct effect. So I think the way the business structure of tennis is set up breeds a sort of conservative culture, where everyone’s so scared to be different.”

    With a business structure designed around playing for art and wearing big fits on court, though, Opelka can be as different as he wants. Later, I find him on a terrace outside the opera house enjoying a post-show glass of champagne. He’s fielding selfie requests from a few fans, gingerly bending down to get his head in the frame. The show, a lengthy and dramatic procession of opera coats and intricately layered suiting, he says, was “gorgeous.” He met Browne after and is clearly still geeking from the experience, his eyes a little wide and his broad smile plastered to his face. But he’s still an elite athlete, and he’s gotta take care of his recovering body. As he makes his way to the exit, a slight hitch in his broad stride, he says he’s decided to take the rest of the day off. “These fashion week seats,” he says, “aren’t built for seven footers.”

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