September 12, 1977 12:00 PM

When Tracy Austin marched out on center court at Wimbledon this past June, she was wearing a frilly gingham-trimmed pinafore, making her look even younger than her 14 years—and more vulnerable. Was Tracy wearing a little-girl dress to psych the 22-year-old defending champion, Chris Evert? (If so, it didn’t work; Evert beat the youngster 6-1, 6-1.) But Tracy made a lasting impression as the youngest player ever to compete at Wimbledon, and her Little Miss Tennis outfits helped—along with her relentless volleying, of course.

Little Miss Tennis is the brainchild of a “retired” tennis mother, Marilyn Kosten of Memphis, Tenn., whose daughters, Lori, 12, and Julie, 15, are outstanding junior competitors. As young teens continue to make tennis news these days, they’re also making a mark in court fashion, and Kosten is the trend-setter. Her short skirts and pinafores come in everything from seersucker to khaki, and are often appliquéd with a bold lettered “Love” or “Tennis.”

Kosten, now in her mid-30s, came to fashion design while shepherding her two daughters on the road at tournaments. “The women looked gorgeous,” she noted, “but the little girls were looking awful.”

She was in the mood for something besides sitting on the sidelines anyway. Her husband, Herbert Kosten, a Memphis builder, had already made her a “baseball wife” for a year when he played with a Cincinnati Reds minor league team. One morning in 1974, Marilyn recalls, “I woke up and said, ‘I am going to design some tennis dresses,’ ” although she had no experience in fashion design beyond modeling—and wasn’t much of a tennis player herself either.

She went to a local Memphis fabric shop, picked out some colorful fabrics and had a seamstress whip up five styles she created—mostly pinafores (because they are easily adjustable) with a nice roomy pocket. “The pocket seemed so obviously needed,” Kosten says. “Children’s hands are too small to hold two tennis balls.”

The five styles went so well at a local tennis shop that the proprietor ordered 100 more dresses, and Kosten decided to expand. She flew to New York, hoping only to get some expert advice on her dresses from the children’s buyer at Saks Fifth Avenue. Instead Kosten walked out with orders for 240 dresses, together with Saks labels to sew in them. “My kids have their trophies,” she says. “I felt I had gotten mine.” Kosten’s Little Miss Tennis line was born—and within a year she had grossed $100,000. Since then she has sold annually over 12,000 dresses (retailing at about $24), more than doubling her business.

Kosten still operates from her Memphis home, using a Ping-Pong table as a sorting area, but now employs some 20 seamstresses at her major distribution centers in Mississippi and Dallas. (She can’t sew a stitch herself; she simply sketches the designs.) But she fights becoming too big. “I want to keep my hand in it,” she explains. “I created this and I love it.”

Part of her pleasure is seeing her own daughters in Little Miss Tennis dresses, but she is determined never to become a tennis mother again. “Part of Lori’s success,” she says, referring to her 12-year-old who recently came in second at the USTA Girls’ Twelves Championship, “is that I’ve left her free.” With her older daughter, Julie, Kosten feels, “I was too wrapped up in it to even think about how it bothered her.” These days, when the kids need an escort, Dad tags along, and Marilyn is resolved to keep it that way. “I find it much easier,” she says, “to wait for Lori to call and say, ‘Hey, Mom, I won!’ ”

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