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NBA stars Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kevin Durant. Photo: Getty Images
NBA stars Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kevin Durant. Photo: Getty Images

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Inside the Symbiotic Relationship Between Fashion and the NBA

This Thursday at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, a fresh crop of basketball players will be selected to join teams at the NBA Draft 2014. Almost three million people tuned in to ESPN for last year's draft; it's the most anticipated annual off-season event in the NBA. Don't be surprised if this year's rookies appear red carpet-ready: decked out in perfectly tailored Italian suits, fancy designer dress shoes, and bright pocket squares.


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These newcomers have a lot to live up to and not only on the court. NBA players have become fashion idols over the last few years, grabbing the attention of fans, magazines and even fashion designers for their outfits. This recent swagger is a far cry from the jerseys, baggy shorts and chains basketball couture used to entail and the NBA could not be happier with this new look.

"No other sport builds superstars like the NBA," Tzvi Twersky, Slam Magazine's senior editor, told Racked. "Just look at the NBA's Instagram: they take pictures of the players walking the area before the game, showing what they're wearing, that's not an accident. They're not just doing that because it looks cool, they're doing that because they might get your attention. You might not watch the NBA but you're going to check out Russell Westbrook."

The 2013 NBA Draft class. Photo: Getty Images

It's not uncommon to be talking about fashion and in the same sentence mention names like Westbrook or Kobe Bryant, Amar'e Stoudemire, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade—players that are landing the front covers of Vogue and GQ; walking the red carpet at the Met Ball, film festivals and awards shows; and sitting front row at Fashion Week in New York, Paris and Milan.

Players' product endorsements have also stepped into more stylish territory: athletes have always signed with companies like Adidas and Nike, but Barneys just announced a partnership with Westbrook (who plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder and has been called "the Kate Moss of the NBA"), who willcurate a collection of men's sportswear and accessories. Back in November, Wade, of the Miami Heat, dropped a collection of men's neckwear for trendy e-tailer the Tie Bar; Stoudemire, of the New York Knicks, created a line with with fashion designer Rachel Roy in 2011.

"Over the past five years, there's definitely been a push to dress up more. There's a competition on and off the court."

Many NBA players have grabbed attention thanks to a signature look. Westbrook's style is unapologetically flashy, featuring statement tees and wildly patterned button-downs. Durant, also of the Oklahoma City Thunder, is a GQ contributor known for his nerdy-chic clothes and thick glasses. James Harden of the Houston Rockets sports a thick, long beard that he insists he will never shave. Nick Young, an LA Lakers player and Iggy Azalea's boyfriend, is nicknamed "Swaggy P" for his street-meets-high-fashion look. Stoudemire built his stylish reputation from a full wardrobe of dapper suits and Bryant audaciously told GQ that he's "the Valentino of the NBA."

"Over the past five years, there's definitely been a push to dress up more," said NBA stylist Khalilah Williams Webb, who dresses clients like Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks, Rudy Gay of the Sacramento Kings and Brandon Bass of the Boston Celtics. "There's a competition on and off the court. For Melo, I'm shopping at Open Ceremony, Phillip Lim, Dries Van Noten, Rag & Bone and Armani."

Anna Wintour and Westbrook sit front row at a Rag & Bone fashion show. Photo: Getty Images

But since when did fashion have anything to do with the popularity of a basketball player? Some point to the mandatory dress code NBA commissioner David Stern implemented in 2005. The rule—which said players must wear dress coats, collared shirts and pants to NBA-related events off the court—was the first of its kind for any major professional sports league. It took a few years to settle in, but once players got used to to it, they began to take their wardrobes to a whole new level.

"The NBA image was covered in tattoos and draped in oversize velour suits," Jahmal Landers, the owner of Portland-based neckwear company Bowyer and Fletcher, explained. "The typical platinum-and-diamond encrusted NBA superstar took casual attire to the next level on their way to and from the stadium. The NBA was trying to find its identity in the 'after Jordan' era. David Stern was not appreciative of how his product was packaged and sold. The NBA was getting married to hip-hop and thugs and Stern felt he had to make the NBA more palatable."

"The NBA image was covered in tattoos and draped in oversize velour suits."

NBA players like Allen Iverson vehemently opposed the dress code, proclaiming it had racial undertones. But once Iverson left the NBA in 2010, the association was completely rebranded. When players join the NBA now, the agencies representing them often assign three key personnel: a publicist, a trainer and a stylist. And while some, like Slam's Twersky, argue that many NBA players simply mimic these top tastemakers' aesthetic, NBA stylists say they work with each client to develop their own look.

Jhoanna Alba, a stylist who creates custom suits in LA for players like Westbrook, Portland Trail Blazers' Wesley Matthews and Dorell Wright, and the Miami Heat's Rashard Lewis, said with some players, she has to start from the scratch. Since they weren't necessarily worrying about their style choices before joining the NBA, she has to give them Fashion 101 courses. Alba will create a lookbook for a client, provide a clothing package of some 20 different outfits consisting of five suits, shirts and ties (for about $8,500) and will also educate her client on how to mix and match with their current wardrobe. She doesn't necessarily push looks, but will collaborate to identify personal taste—although in some instances, she has to make decisions to avoid a major fashion faux pas.

"One client wanted an orange suit! We compromised on a rust color," she laughed.

Durant's backpack has become a fashion accessory. Photo: Getty Images

"I just purged every item out of Matt Barnes and Mike Conley's closet," said Brandon Williams, another NBA stylist. "There were all these things that didn't fit right."

Williams shops at brands like Kenzo, Dolce & Gabbana, Saint Laurent and Ralph Lauren for his clients—although he said it's not easy to pull sizes at regular boutiques for players that have wingspans double the size of an average human. He doesn't believe in using the same looks for every player because authentic style "has to do with who they are," he explained.

"The look has to be different because there's the guy who tries the sport coat with the jeans but the sport coat might look too big for him or the jeans won't fit right," Williams said. "And the sneakers are dirty. I do not like bad sneakers. Guys have crazy sneakers that are bulky and real garish and I do not believe in that."

"It's harder to get veteran players in tailored suits, but the rookies are all about it."

Alba noted she has a more difficult time convincing older players to wear trendier looks. "It's harder to get veteran players in tailored suits, but the rookies are all about it," Alba, who's been in the athlete styling industry for 22 years, said. "Back in the day, everyone wore long jackets and wanted to look like Michael Jordan with the baggy suits. Now everyone wants to develop their own individual sense of style, which is why custom is more popular."

These days, the clothing these NBA players proudly sport—Valentino suits, Rag & Bone tails, Versace statement button-downs, Tom Ford vests, MSGM bomber jackets—mean everything to their image.

"There's a whole culture shift in general of men paying attention to their clothing, now more than ever, and it helps with the NBA players' branding," said Mark Anthony Green, an associate editor at GQ. "These athletes are inherently competitive and they are now competing on who can be more stylish. Take a player like Nick Young. His first season, he wasn't bad or good, just mediocre. But he was super stylish, wore Versace silk shirts, and got chatter and attention that helped him play better. He demanded the ball and gained confidence."

Blake Griffin, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wane at a GQ party during All-Star Weekend. Photo: Getty Images

And with social media used as a key marketing tool to gain influence, NBA players are dressing up all day, every day to impress audiences because they know they are being watched off the court.

"At post-game press conferences, the critiques aren't about what the guys are saying, it's about what they are wearing," Twersky, who frequently hangs out in NBA locker rooms, added. "I see these guys and they are uber-aware of what's being said about them. Most check or search their names four to six times a day."

Major trends directly attributed to the NBA's influence are now trickling down to the streets and runways. Durant started wearing backpacks to post-game conferences back in 2011, and suddenly, the sporty accessory was everywhere. Oversize glasses were never a thing in the black community, according to Twersky, until Westbrook arrived and now are just another common fashion accessory. And that sneaker obsession and fitness apparel craze? These players certainly had something to do with it.

"You can't overstate how influential NBA players are. Athletics have influenced designers."

"People are buying $400 sneakers. Imagine that," Twersky said. "There was just an article in the New York Times that said sneakers are now acceptable on red carpets and at black-tie affairs."

"You can't overstate how influential NBA players are. Athletics have influenced designers. There are really tapered sweatpants, athletic logos have come back, and $60 sweatshirts just made of cotton." GQ's Green added. "With guys like Amar'e and Dwyane going to fashion shows, designers want to make things for them. Riccardo Tisci's last Givenchy collection was even basketball-themed. The influence was basically the entire collection, with jerseys and cryptic basketballs."

Unlike basketball trends of the past, most of these looks aren't within reach of the average fan. While NBA fanatics in the nineties could spend a minimal amount at Foot Locker on baggy tees to mimic their favorite players, most kids can't buy Portland Trailblazer's Dorell Wright's Balenciaga kicks.

Not all sports fans feed into the new NBA look. Some even argue the players are spending too much time worrying what they'll wear off the court and not giving enough attention to the actual game.

Givenchy's basketball-inspired collection for fall 2014. Photos: Getty Images

"There's constant criticism that players think too much about brands," Mike Prada, an NBA editor at Racked's brother site SB Nation, said. "People think they are distracted and aren't focused on the game. They think that because the players all get along now: they train together, hawk the same products and go to events together. There's brotherhood among the athletes, whereas the Celtics used to hate the Lakers, the Knicks hated the Pacers, the Heat hated the Knicks. It felt more real to people; the idea that athletes aren't caring 170 percent about their craft but put ten percent into what they look like is off-putting."

Still, many are happy that NBA players, who serve as role models to children across the country, have left the baggy tees behind for a more polished look.

"I coach sixth grade basketball in Brooklyn, and a kid showed up to his first game in a suit. He was doing his best LeBron or Dwyane," Green said. "Growing up, we idolized Michael Jordan, trying to walk, talk, and chew gum like him. They are learning how to dress from these players, not from Ryan Gosling. "

"The emphasis of fashion and sports is more nuanced because you look back to when metro was not cool to be associated with," he added. "But feminine or masculine, the sports world is respected by everyone so for these guys to be interested in fashion and looking the part, it's really awesome they dress like true gentlemen and transcend culture."

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