The NBA and fashion: A match made in heaven

The NBA and fashion: A match made in heaven

The NBA and fashion: A match made in heaven

Former NBA commissioner David Stern oversaw a plethora of rules changes during his 30 years in office. Changes to the game on court included alterations to hand checking, offensive and defensive violations and modifications to the length of the three-point line. However, there was one decision during his tenure that altered the landscape of the NBA forever, and the league has never looked back.

October 17, 2005, saw Stern implement a mandatory dress code on all players - including Development League personnel - that stated they must wear 'business or conservative attire' when embarking on any NBA matters.That included arriving and departing from scheduled fixtures, on the bench while not involved in games and conducting any official league events such as press conferences or organised charity functions.

The move, that was implemented for the 2005-06 season, originally received criticism as players in the league fought against the idea of being restricted in what they could and could not wear. Before the rule, everything was fair game, players could turn up to events in anything they deemed fit and often wore casual clothes or gym sweats.

But there were many events during the space of 2004 and 2005 that led Stern to seek a change to the rules and implement the new code. After a few teething issues that saw some players resist the change; resulting in some high profile fines and disagreements, the new dress code was widely accepted and even lauded by the older generation of players.

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However, the Columbia Law alumnus and the elder statesmen of the league in the mid-'00s could never have imagined what was about to come. The young guns, led by a fresh-faced LeBron James, utilised the change and embarked on a partnership that has only grown with every coming draft.

High-end fashion was heading for a head-on collision with the biggest stars in basketball and, after some initial reluctance from the fashion world, it turned out to be a match made in heaven, and has resulted in the NBA being dubbed the 'most fashionable league in the world' by many different publications.

Of course, the implementation of the dress code is not the only factor behind the fashion craze; social media and the vast amount of wealth on offer to today's players have also played their part, but Stern's ruling was the driving force that kick-started a craze that has become an everyday feature of the NBA world.

LeBron James was one of the pioneers, along with his teammates in the big three during his stint at the Miami Heat; Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Three of the biggest names in the league, who have a combined collection of 35 All-Star appearances, can always be seen looking their best with the latest trends from the biggest names, tailored to fit their unorthodox size.

LeBron James

But that was not always the case. James has been inspired by his personal stylist Rachel Johnson. The two-time NBA Champion hired the founder of the Thomas Faison Agency in 2006 - during his first spell with the Cleveland Cavaliers - but she encountered some obstacles in their early days as a duo. Quite simply, the fashion world was not prepared to embrace the NBA.

It is difficult to break into the closed-off community of the fashion world and Johnson struggled to turn the heads of designers despite the name of one of the biggest sports stars on the planet being on her books. LeBron James' name did not hold much weight in the world of catwalks and eccentric clothing. All that changed with a single cover of US Vogue magazine in 2008.

Anna Wintour played a huge role in kicking down the door for the NBA as she made LeBron the first black male to appear on the cover as he partnered with Gisele Bündchen in a photo shoot. Days before the release of the magazine, Wintour, who had previously shown no interest in the association, appeared courtside at a Cleveland game to cheer on her new cover star.

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That was it. The seed had been planted and the relationship began to grow. Designers and brands had previously looked upon players as some form of an alien, with their uneven body proportions; larger than normal height, big torsos and extremely long limbs were not the average personnel that the fashion world was used to attracting.

It was not until the ballers were seen in the clothing that the bigwigs in the fashion world began to realise the potential the NBA held in terms of attracting regular people to their ranges; it was a win-win relationship. In a previous interview with the Telegraph, Johnson used Amar'e Stoudamire as an example of how players were slowly welcomed into the uncharted territory.

"Designers would look at the sizes and measurements and initially become overwhelmed. But anytime I took a client to a designer and they saw them in their clothes, it was a 180. They got it. Calvin Klein was making ready-to-wear and tailored clothes for Amar'e Stoudemire and it was all good, but it wasn’t until he went to Milan and met with the creative director and the gentlemen who were actually cutting his clothes and they saw him that we achieved that perfect synergy.


"They saw this 6ft 10in larger-than-life man who looks impossible on paper but who in person looks really, really good in clothes, is handsome, has a perfect body, is fun to be around and is beautifully well-spoken, so we can invite him to parties."

LeBron on the cover of Vogue opened the floodgates and by 2010, the Miami Heat locker room was the hub of fashion as the now infamous pre-game walk into the arena and subsequent after game events became a chance for the players to show off their own personal styles.

Bosh, Wade and James, all had their own styles on the court and their personal preferences away from the hardwood began to show through in their clothing. After all isn't that what fashion is all about? Feeling comfortable in what you wear and expressing yourself.

Bosh - the former Toronto Raptors forward - was into a more sophisticated look, often seen snapped in slim fit suits from independent designers, seeming to match his personality. While his teammates - now former in LeBron's case - were more daring and eccentric; especially Dwyane Wade.

The point guard - who also has his own stylist; Calyann Barnett - is a very style-conscious individual, who has a partnership with sock company Stance and a neckwear line 'The Tie Bar'. He is always willing to push the limits; although much of that will come from Calyann.

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In a previous interview with GQ, Wade admitted Barnett often convinced him to wear certain items that he would feel nervous donning otherwise: "I’m always more nervous than her because I’m the one who has to put this stuff on."

But his dedication to pushing the limits was epitomised in his appearance at the White House for the annual champions' meeting with the president. Barack Obama greeted the 2012 ring-winning Miami roster and the Chicago native wore a pair of pink-chocolate-yellow patent leather Louboutins. A brave decision, but it worked and the number three drew a lot of praise; the President even called out his shoes during his speech.

While Wade pushed the boundaries as an innovator of the fashion industry in the league, with every passing draft the younger generation have become more and more daring as style and swagger become more integrated into the life of an NBA star. Russell Westbrook and Nick Young are two examples of this.

Two players at different ends of the ladder; Westbrook is a five-time All-Star and 2015 scoring champion, and is chasing his first ring with the Oklahoma City Thunder after falling short in the finals of 2012 against Miami and the big, stylish, three. Young, on the other hand, is a rotation option at the struggling Los Angeles Lakers who has been with four different franchises since entering the league in 2007.

However, the two players certainly have one thing in common; their dedication to looking their best. The clue is in the nickname for Young - Swaggy P - while Westbrook's outfits are often doing the rounds on social media as he enters arenas night after night. Whereas the likes of LeBron and Wade have their own stylists to help them stay ahead of the trends, Westbrook does all of his shopping himself and has been a huge fan of clothing since his mother introduced him to that side of the world during his formative years.

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The point guard is a prime example of dress sense epitomising personality. His style on the court is bold, brash and in your face, that transcribes into everything the former UCLA man wears away from the hardwood. He is at the forefront of the fashion world, doing collaborations with the likes of Public School, Barneys New York and True Religion, and his choice of clothing polarises opinion, much like his personality on the hardwood.

The 27-year-old is not everybody's cup of tea, some deem him to be arrogant while others love the intensity he shows on a nightly basis. As for his clothing, Westbrook is always pushing the limits, skin tight clothing and out there patterns and colours make for an interesting style. Wearing a frayed Slayer t-shirt over a striped long sleeve top and skintight burgundy jeans was a prime example of this.

For him, it's more than just looking good and feeling good, it is a passion. Just like he loves basketball, he loves fashion. So much so that he is a regular attendee at fashion shows across the globe. During the Rag and Bone Women’s Collection show at the Spring 2014 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, Westbrook was seen alongside Anna Wintour, and the Vogue editor-in-chief has added the guard to her long collection of friends in the sporting world.

Wade and James were innovators, Westbrook is a maverick. He launched the trend of lensless glasses within the world of NBA superstars - which has been picked up by his teammate Kevin Durant, James Harden and many others - but his outfits often stir debate and leave some, more conservative, people questioning his actions. Another element of fashion is being alternative and pushing those boundaries; Westbrook certainly fits the bill. There is a reason he is known as the 'Kate Moss of the NBA' by some in the fashion world.


On those connections, Westbrook previously said: "I think it got said because some people are not afraid to do certain things or wear certain stuff. You have to have a certain swagger about you."

The California native certainly has a lot of challengers for the title of King of NBA swag, but none more so than the Los Angeles Lakers swingman, 'Swaggy P'. Young lives the celebrity lifestyle; when he is not doing something basketball related, he can often be found on the red carpet, snapped in the freshest look with his fiancee and music star Iggy Azalea.

His nickname is a pseudo-biblical reference to "the Prophet of Swag" and Young admitted in an interview with Maxim that he learnt to carry himself with such confidence by studying the greats like Kobe Bryant. He said: "I've learned how to carry the right attitude and confidence. Some players just have this aura around 'em and I thought, 'Man, that's dope.' Just playing with someone like Kobe, you want to be like that. There's nobody in the world who's better."

But how does the 30-year-old decide what he wants to wear on each particular day? It is simple: "I just like to be fresh. When keeping up appearances, it depends on the day, what I feel like, what I feel like doing, and what I feel like putting on, you know? Do I wanna stunt on ‘em real bad, or do I wanna take it easy? So it all really depends on how I’m feeling."

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A common theme that occurs is that of feeling comfortable. While Young has a number of different outfits to choose from, he always feels content with what he decides to don on any given day. That is the same principle the Sacramento Kings point guard Rajon Rondo lives by.

The 2008 ring-winning guard is highly into his fashion and interned with GQ in 2011. He spoke about his own style and insisted, for him, it was all about being comfortable: "It is pretty simple, it is just self-expression. Be who you are, and be true to yourself."

David Stern's actions played a huge role in creating this new world of high-end fashion in the 21st century, but it is not the only reason as to how the league and players have ended up where they are today. The boom of the internet and social media has also been a huge force. With everything available at a player's fingertips, these guys can see an item they like and send a photo to their personal designers to have it prepared in a matter of days.

Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are filled with fashion accounts from official pages to tribute pages, and as the world gets bigger, communication is getting smaller, meaning that NBA players, and - in most cases - their stylists can stay ahead of the game.

Christopher Arena, the senior vice president of identity, marketing and design at the NBA gave his view on why the worlds of fashion and basketball have come together in such perfect harmony: "Our players are some of the greatest athletes in the world, they are aspirational, and people appreciate their work ethic for going to be the best at who they are and a great athlete. So whether you are an eighth grader who plays the trumpet or you are somebody who works for a living and you are trying to burn off the weekend warrior calories, they have brought some inspiration.


"And unlike other sports, our game allows our players to not have equipment necessarily on them, shrouding their face or anything like that, so they are very visible in the marketplace, social media and in pop culture in general, so I think the recognisability of the players, their aspirational nature just makes them a beacon for anything and so they as athletes and some of the requirements in our dress code, they like to look good.

"Their desire to look good allows them to dip their toes in the water of the fashion world and I think the fashion world recognises that they look great because of how they wear when they’re so physically fit. So, for all of those reasons, I think the crossover is natural and once the crossover happens, whether the brands they represent take that to another level, social media, advertising or product lines, it is just a great marriage."

But it was not like fashion was born overnight; personal taste and trends are an individual choice, and there have been stylish players in the league from way before Stern decided to implement his ruling. Maybe it was not in the high-end market like we see with the majority of today's players, but it certainly had a lasting impression on the world of basketball.

Walt Frazier was arguably the Russell Westbrook of his day, pushing the boundaries in the 1970s with his cover shoot for Esquire magazine, sporting a white Borsalino wide-brimmed suit. Throughout his playing and broadcasting days, he was seen as the pinnacle of off-court fashion in basketball.

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Of course, there is also the introduction of a certain sneaker label from a certain greatest of all time. Michael Jordan's deal with Nike changed the trainer game in the NBA forever and the six-time NBA champion and Chicago Bulls legend has never looked back as his brand has grown from sneakers to clothing and onto accessories.

The Air Jordan 1s were released in 1985 and retailed at $65. They changed the way the world looked at basketball sneakers and the cultural significances in the deal between Jordan and Nike were a catalyst for the unrivalled success. Over 30 years down the line, his trainers are a huge part of his multi-billion dollar fortune and are no longer seen as solely sports trainers, they are worn by people in everyday life.

In the 90s, there was a boom in street wear as Allen Iverson took his style from the hood to the hardwood. Baggy clothing and jewellery was all the range as the 11-time All-Star took the NBA by storm with his style on and off the court. It's a common theme with the league and supporters, the fans try to copy the best - it happened with Jordan, it happened with James, it's happening with Curry and most definitely happened with Iverson.

Stern's dress code was implemented during the height of the Philadelphia 76ers legend's powers. He was one of the main players to rise up against the ruling. However, there were ways around the code and the players soon began to realise that.


Fashion is in the NBA to stay, there is no turning back the clock. The high-end world of Milan, Paris and New York has invaded the association and vice versa. So much so that there was an official NBA fashion show during the 2015 All-Star weekend that saw Zach LaVine, Klay Thompson, Jeff Teague, J.R. Smith and Chandler Parsons compete for the most stylish man.

Every year, the new batch of rookies are treated to a symposium about life in the big league, and that includes a talk about style. Rachel Johnson has overseen that for over seven years and as the years have passed and more players have embraced the concept, the youngsters are becoming more and more prepared to try new things.

This a result of the young guys like D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson - who recently dubbed themselves the 'Swag Bros' - growing up watching the likes of LeBron, Wade, Bosh and Carmelo Anthony. The fashion world is here to stay and not only are basketball players icons on the court, they're fast becoming inspirations off it, and not just for their sporting ability.

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