Quick fadeaway jumpers, running through hoops and swinging away at fastballs, Ahlilah Longmire spent much of her childhood looking up to her brothers and following in their footsteps. Longmire was fueled by her competitive nature to keep up with them in just about every sport under the sun.
It doesn't take long to see where she found her competitive spirit. Her father played for the Kansas City Chiefs and her mother was frequently found on the tennis court. Longmire's mother would convince her to pick up a racquet, but she showed no enthusiasm for the game until her early 30s. It was at Harlem Armory and the Frederick Johnson Tennis Park where she developed a love for the game, and it's also where a saddening reality hit hard.
"I started noticing some of the junior players that were in my program, the adult program, because they were that good," Longmire told Baseline. "And you grow really close to them and then they start dropping off."
Aside from noticing the drop off on her own, it was Longmire's competitive tennis coach and former Director of Diversity & Inclusion at the USTA Esu Ma that really helped her to understand what competitive junior players have to go through.
The storyline of parents not having the time and finances to support talented young junior players was on a repetitive loop. As a competitor, Longmire loves to win, and wanted to provide an opportunity for others to win, too. The owner of the PR agency The Tesla Group since 2007, Longmire has a lot of experience working with athletes and sports companies.
"I’ve always been an ambitious person, I absolutely love everything about tennis," Longmire said. "I just felt really inclined and passionate to do something.”
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After years of brainstorming and planning, Ascot Manor was born. The performance and activewear brand is not just another company selling tennis wear and athleisure apparel. The brand's mission is to assist underprivileged children who want to pursue tennis careers.
“The model is that we reinvest a portion of the sales back into the business in order to sponsor," Longmire said. "We are still new. We launched our first products in September 2019 for six months later COVID to happen. I can be honest and say a lot of what is happening is from my own pockets."
Although COVID-19 put a damper on the sports world, the socially conscious brand is not allowing the pandemic to fog up its vision. Currently, Ascot Manor has five junior and five professional players on its team. The company heavily relies on their WTA and ATP sponsored players that push the brand's visibility when competing at tournaments around the world.
Top 100 national junior player Donovan Spigner is an Ascot Manor Ambassador.
"A lot of people don’t know this but the stripes in our logo are actually the three levels of sponsorship that we want to offer," Longmire said. "The lowest level being just the clothing and then it goes up to where we can start sponsoring tournament fees and travel, and the highest level which we call the Ace Level is where we are sponsoring everything that whole year."
For now, the Ace Level remains vacant, but it's the ultimate goal to have players fall under the category. In order for it to happen, Ascot Manor needs customers to buy clothes, and Longmire and executive designer Kareen Borgella are prepping the final touches on their pre-fall collection.
Borgella has designed garments for over 20 years for top brands such as J. Crew, Armani Exchange, and Ralph Lauren. The New York-based fashion designer was taking a break from her sewing machine when Longmire approached her with the concept of Ascot Manor.
“When Ahlilah told me what Ascot Manor was going to be about, I couldn’t not be a part of it," Borgella said.
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Ever since Borgella joined the team, she has been all in. She's advancing the brand through fabric and stitching, which can be a very detailed and meticulous process. This week, Borgella's pre-fall collection, labeled "New Horizons," will be unveiled and available for purchase on the Ascot Manor website.
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In this political and economical climate, the "New Horizons" collection aims to refresh customers with its light and bright color scheme. The new line is not just for on the court, it also offers what Borgella describes as "tennis leisure," which adds a sprinkle of tennis' aesthetic that customers can wear anywhere.
Longmire and Borgella are thrilled for the pre-fall debut and the brand's future, but amidst COVID-19 there lies other challenges. Spotting American players is proving to be a major hurdle, as the new brand is up against some stiff competition where household names like Nike and Adidas dominate.
“Because those names are so big, even if we wave a check in front of the kids, their parents are not going to leave a Nike or Adidas because they want that relationship, so that’s been a challenge," Longmire said.
Longmire knows what she's up against and her eyes are always peeled, scanning rankings, scouting at local tournaments, talking to coaches and networking. Her frustration from seeing numerous junior players fade from competition has motivated her to push on.
“Tennis will always be considered an elite sport and without the right resources, without the right connections, they will just never get involved or be able to experience it," Longmire said. "I just don’t feel that because this sport happens to cost more than others that there is just not enough resources to continue it, and it could be something that really may be where they are destined to be the world’s next No. 1. How can that be? It’s just heartbreaking.”
There is an abundance of beauty that comes from playing tennis. Studies have shown that children who play tennis develop a higher level of focus and have higher GPAs.
"It’s unfair to a single mom who has a kid that is passionate and hungry," Longmire said. "There needs to be more brands that step up."
Executive Designer Kareen Borgella (left) and Founder Ahlilah Longmire
Longmire and Borgella are starting to change that familiar narrative, but they are already changing another. Less than 10 percent of businesses in the United States are Black-owned.
For a very long time, Longmire didn't want anyone to know that she was Black, only to prove a point. The entrepreneur wanted to show that it didn't matter what color she was, that she could run a top PR agency.
“Now that I guess I’m older, I really want people to see the face behind it, where before it was a different feeling," she said. "It was more of me wanting to prove that I could do anything anybody else could do. Now that I know that I can do that, now I want you to come to me and know this is what I look like behind this brand."
The mission of Ascot Manor is most critical: It's not about buying into a Black-owned business, it's about providing opportunities for talented junior players.
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"In the fashion industry, it’s always been tough for a Black girl and to tell you the truth it’s still challenging," Borgella said.
The designer has been through her fair share of discrimination and used to cover up her image, but for a different reason than Longmire. Borgella, who has lost opportunities simply because of her skin color, believed that hiding her image would help to sell herself.
"I guess the fact that I was good at my craft and on top of that I was a Black girl, it was like, no you can’t have both," Borgella said. "You can’t be a Black girl and be super talented at the same time. You are a unicorn, you are a Black unicorn."
For both Borgella and Longmire it's been a journey filled with frustrating and emotional scenarios that unfortunately have not completely dissipated. The Tesla Group CEO who proved a point earlier in her career, is not covering up who she is anymore, but it has presented a re-occurring issue with many who are racially uneducated.
“I get treated sometimes as if I’m not Black," Longmire said. "It’s like, oh, she’s acceptable because she’s running a successful company, and then it’s like they no longer see color. For example, where I had a young lady tell me that her supervisor wasn’t really Black because he went to Harvard."
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The two women continue to wade through difficult conversations and they suggest that anyone going through similar situations should set aside their emotions. Both agree that it's important to remain calm in overwhelmingly frustrating situations, and use the opportunity to possibly educate someone.
They recommend not burning yourself out trying to debate the hard-hitting topics, but to instead use your voice and spirit to help make the world a better place. It's exactly what Borgella and Longmire are doing day in and day out with one beautifully-made tennis garment at a time.
“We really just hit it on the head in terms of combining fashion and sport in a unique cool way," Longmire said. "And it's run by women; we just have so much to offer so many people. I think the more we are supported, the more we can do."