NBA players take style off court

In the evolution of NBA off-the-court fashion, a defining moment was the 2008 All-Star Game, for which the Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade arrived wearing a suit that had been selected in consultation with his new stylist, Calyann Barnett. The ensemble was nothing like the daring floral-on-floral prints that Wade now carries off with panache or the ankle-baring trousers he flaunts — in the face of loutish mocking from the broadcast deck — with a self-satisfied swagger. Instead, it was a slim-cut suit with a bow tie. His was a lean, aerodynamic silhouette in a land of three-button sacks.

“It was super tailored. People thought it was too tight,” recalled Barnett, co-founder of the WWB Lifestyle Agency. “But he got a lot of positive attention from fashion magazines and from the fashion world.”

It was one of the many signs that the NBA had entered its current fashion-forward phase, one that will surely be on display as Wade’s Heat take on the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals, beginning Thursday.

First basketball players moved from eight-button zoot suits to the boardroom attire of Michael Jordan. Then a generation of players from the early 2000s had survived the rapper, gangsta, slovenly-spoiled-rich-kid aesthetic. Now, the door had opened on the progressive sensibility of players such as Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire, Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook. Today’s basketball-playing young millionaires have on their own — or, for some, with an assist from the experts — developed a style that is artfully advanced and a touch competitive, but, most notably, body-conscious.

“They’re all their own specific kind of dandy or peacock,” said Brian Coats, contributing fashion editor at GQ, who has styled a host of athletes — including Jeremy Lin, Chris Paul and LeBron James — for the magazine. “They all want to be a little dressier than their competition.

“It’s so refreshing not to see them in the eight-button suit [jacket] down to their knees,” Coats said. “No one’s jacket needs to be that long unless you’re Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

Wade grew up in Chicago and was influenced by Jordan’s corporate-style footprint. But the color-drenched landscape of his new home comes through in his pastel vests, sweaters and use of layering, said Michael Wilbon, ESPN commentator, fashion savant and former Washington Post sports columnist.

Wade, said Wilbon, “has now gone a little extreme, of course. I’m of a certain age where I like suits and ties. But I like that Wade has led this envelope-pushing, even if it includes, well, pedal pushers or Capri pants or whatever I’m supposed to call what he wore last week.

“I’m okay with guys having a totally updated sense of style that can only be worn by 20-35-year-old men. I don’t know that it sets the style anymore,” Wilbon continued in an e-mail. “I wonder if they’re trendsetters or trend followers.”

Westbrook, of the Oklahoma City Thunder, likes a rule-breaking mix of sportswear, such as skinny camouflage pants paired with a tailored blazer. Rondo was an offseason intern at GQ and recently talked do’s and don’ts with Joan Rivers on “Fashion Police.” GQ described Chandler as embracing the ninja look. And indeed, he was an early adopter of head-to-toe ensembles in various shades of black, with a special affinity for the work of Belgian designer Ann Demeulemeester and fashion’s favorite goth, Rick Owens.

Since arriving in New York in 2010, Stoudemire has developed a personal style modeled on preppy cool with a bit of nerd-chic mixed in. He had his fashion coming-out in spring 2011 when he attended the Tommy Hilfiger show alongside Vogue editor Anna Wintour and later appeared in a photo shoot in the magazine. For his highly visible position alongside the runway, Stoudemire wore a cream-colored collegiate sweater, a Repp stripe tie and a plaid shirt. After the show, he then waxed confidently to fashion camera crews about what he had just seen: “Classic Tommy,” he declared, an assessment based on his having worn Hilfiger since he “was young.”

Stoudemire took things a step further that fall, collaborating with designer Rachel Roy on a limited-edition collection of sportswear.

Now, basketball players — and other athletes — are regular guests at fashion’s own championship game, the Costume Institute Gala, a fundraiser at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the only place where non-models actually strive to wear the most theatrical looks from the catwalk. Basketball players such as Carmelo Anthony compete with actors and billionaire moguls for fashion kudos on the red carpet and in the Temple of Dendur. It is a chance for them to broaden their appeal to an audience that does not necessarily watch ESPN. And by welcoming basketball players into the fashion fold, designers, retailers and editors expand their audience as well. After all, basketball players tend to be recession-proof.

At the 2012 Costume Institute Gala, for instance, Chandler wore a custom-made, rich blue tuxedo with midnight lapels by tailor Waraire Boswell. Marvet Britto has guided Chandler through the thicket of fashion politics, marketing opportunities and image-making.

“I have always looked at and leaned on fashion as an organic extension of each client’s brand. When my clients started going and sitting front row during fashion week, it was not another bullet item, but they had a genuine love for fashion,” said Britto, president of the Britto Agency, a public relations and brand strategy firm.

Much of the attention players now pay to personal style began after the NBA instituted its dress code in 2005. That code essentially forced athletes into a more polished, business-casual mold whenever they are on team or league business. It prohibits shorts and tank tops, for instance, along with chains and medallions, and forced some players to revamp their wardrobe.

At the time, Britto was working with both Latrell Sprewell and Stephon Marbury. “While some of the players didn’t agree with [the new rules], I went to Ozwald Boateng and a couple of designers in New York, Ron & Ron. Latrell commissioned upward of $350,000 in suits from Ron & Ron,” Britto said. “You had guys wanting to have the personality they played with on the court reflected in their personal style.”

The new dress code also came at a time when men’s fashion in general was changing. Young men were more inclined to express an interest in fashion as a way of showing their personality just as surely as they used technology or music as a statement of identity. In 1975, only 25 percent of men bought their own clothes; women were doing apparel shopping for them. By 2005, 75 percent of men were putting together their own wardrobes.

In entertainment culture, there was less of a strident delineation between black style and white, urban clothes and suburban ones. Performers of all shades were moving easily among looks that were vaguely gritty, a little bit preppy, weirdly futuristic, a bit skater and braggingly expensive. And civilians were taking note.

Successful hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z, who had been so influential in popularizing low-slung jeans and oversize silhouettes, were shifting toward more tailored clothes. They were wearing suits by Versace, Gucci, Givenchy and Giorgio Armani. And they were attending those designers’ shows.

Young men, ages 18-25, were starting to buy suits. But they weren’t buying them for work; they were purchasing them for play. Even old-line companies such as Hickey Freeman started marketing to 20-somethings.

High-end menswear also was moving to a much slimmer silhouette that was tailored to accentuate a man’s physique. It was a look that was perfect for basketball players who are tall and well proportioned.

“They have broad shoulders and narrow waists. They have perfect bodies,” Barnett says. “That’s part of the reason they can go into the fashion-forward world.”

One of the favorite labels among well-dressed NBA players is Tom Ford International. The former Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent creative director launched his own menswear line in 2006. The collection was breathtakingly expensive and beautifully rendered. It also had been developed by a designer who understood power and sex appeal in glamorous, cinematic terms. And Ford, one of fashion’s savviest businessmen, also created a line that fit real men — really, really wealthy men. Chandler loves it. The Miami Heat’s LeBron James wears it. So does Wade, among others.

“The fit is a larger shoulder and a smaller waist. You can get a 64-long jacket,” Barnett says — and by the way, that’s in Italian sizing. Basketball players are tall, but they’re not Brobdingnagian. “The pants tend to be longer; there’s more room in the leg area; and it allows them to stand out. And it’s exclusive; not everyone can afford Tom Ford.”

No, they absolutely cannot. Made-to-measure suits start at $5,000.

At their Tom Ford-tailored best, these basketball players project power and reflect glamour. At their most casual, with their leather T-shirts, graffiti-print sport shirts, dhoti-style trousers, Chelsea boots, skinny suits and boy-band bow ties, they display a personality that distinguishes the individual from the team.

Basketball made them rich. But fashion is helping to make them famous.

Robin Givhan is a fashion critic and writer, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure.
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