Why High-End Brands Are Targeting Athletes Like Never Before

Lanvin Men's Show Paris
From left to right: Victor Cruz, Dwyane Wade, Nick Young & Serge Ibaka sit in the front row at the Lanvin men's show last month in Paris.
REX Shutterstock.

Spotted: New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz strolling the streets of Paris last month. The NFL star attended some of the biggest men’s runway shows, including Lanvin, Off-White, Balmain, Dior Homme and Louis Vuitton.

Cruz and other star athletes are not only becoming regulars on the front row these days, but they are immersing themselves into the industry as a whole.

Appearing in ad campaigns and collaborating with luxury designers, these sports professionals represent the new school of style influencers — and they’re giving brands exposure to an entirely fresh consumer base as well.

Cruz, who gained notoriety in football for celebrating nearly every touchdown with a salsa dance, regularly makes best-dressed lists and is a budding style icon in his own right.

“Fashion and staying up on trends is extremely important to me because I like to stay abreast on all things,” he told Footwear News. “Mainly because I am in many circles where I have to speak on these things, it is important that I can not only look the part but speak the part.”

Victor Cruz Givenchy Campaign Victor Cruz stars in the Givenchy fall ’15 campaign. Courtesy of Instragram

Cruz’s credibility in the fashion industry was heightened last year when he was named as the face of Givenchy’s fall ’15 campaign, and also when he took on an ambassador role during the first New York Fashion Week for men.

“Victor consumes fashion and style like nothing I’ve ever seen. He’s ravenous,” said Rachel Johnson, his stylist.

Go-to footwear brands for the sneakerhead include Nike, Pierre Hardy, World of Niché and Dior. As a Nike-sponsored athlete Cruz said he would love to continue that partnership and is interested in collaborating with brands such as Stampd, Dior and Louis Vuitton in the future.

Russell Westbrook Givenchy Show Spring 2016 Russell Westbrook at Givenchy’s spring ’16 show. REX Shutterstock.

But it’s not just Cruz who has made a name for himself in fashion.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard (and Jordan Brand athlete) Russell Westbrook, who has an ongoing partnership with Barney’s new York, is also known for his bold presence in the industry.

“Prior to meeting Russell Westbrook, we were already aware of his strong sense of style,” noted Tom Kalenderian, EVP and GMM for men’s Chelsea Passage at Barney’s. “As we became acquainted, we were equally impressed with his innate sensibility for mixing brands and putting his unique stamp on the look. Russell was as comfortable designing fashion as he is on the basketball court.”

Dwyane Wade, a Li-Nang athlete who said last week he was committing to the Chicago Bulls for next season, is another player to watch. The hoops star, who will serve as an official ambassador for New York Fashion Week: men’s this year, repeatedly turned heads when he entered the American Airlines Arena in Miami every night as a member of Heat, wearing the most eclectic ensembles. And off-duty, he can be seen sitting front row at various fashion weeks.

Odell Beckham Jr Public School Show Odell Beckham Jr. & Anna Wintour at the Public School show in February. REX Shutterstock.

“My personal style is unpredictable,  but [also] an expression of my or my mood,” Wade told FN. “Without speaking, it lets the world know what hat I am wearing that day, literally and figuratively — whether it’s father, basketball, business or trendsetter. Ultimately, it is effortless.”

Shoe brands he favors at the moment include Giuseppe Zanotti, Vans, Saint Laurent and Del Toro.

Del Toro designer Matthew Chevallard said that during his time working with the Heat, standout moments included creating NBA championship signature slippers for former team star LeBron James and collaborating with Wade.

“To have their approval and backing is really large,” the designer said. Other NBA players Chevallard has worked with include Westbrook and Chandler Parsons. More fans — most recently Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving during the NBA Finals — have been spotted in the brand’s popular slippers and chukkas.

LeBron James Del Toro Shoes LeBron James’ custom Del Toro slippers. Instagram.

“The athletes above and beyond are more influential than musicians and classic influencers that have been used int he past,” said Chevallard. “In terms of developing menswear and pushing the envelope, they are incremental to that process.”

Public School and its designers, Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, have also ben actively seeking opportunities to work with Wade. The pair, who took the star to the 2016 CFDA awards, created a custom look for him to wear to one of fashion’s biggest nights.

“We had a bet with him that because we were nominated for our third menswear award, and he has three NBA championships — we said if we won, we would trade our award for [an] NBA ring. He was nervous about that, but he got to keep it,” Osborne said.

On working with Wade and other athletes, Chow said, “It’s important for the brand for a visibility sake. Being fans of the sport and fans of the players, just having those conversation of being fans of each other, it’s fun.”

For Public School’s recent Air Jordan 12 collaboration, the designers cited a defining shoe moment involving rapper Drake, who posted a photo on Instagram of himself and New York Giants star Odell Beckham Jr. both wearing the limited edition sneaker.

Odell Beckham Jr Public School Air Jordan Sneakers Odell Beckham Jr.’s Public School x Air Jordan kicks. Instagram.

With the majority of professional male basketball players standing at six feet tall or more — and with shoe sizes of 15 and 16 — brands have started to produce bigger sizes.

“Until a couple years ago, no brand made above a 16,” Chevallard recalled. “These guys were literally forcing their feet into shoes that didn’t fit them.”

“Brands are starting to realize, especially when it comes to footwear, that sizing is important,” said stylist Megan Ann Wilson, noting that Givenchy and Fendi have increased its size offerings.

Rachel Johnson, who has styled Cruz, James and former NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire, said what athletes want to wear come down to what’s available.

“Del Toro is one of the first brands that really worked to become a part of the athletic world,” she said. “This metamorphosis of the athlete in the fashion marketplace has opened up footwear offerings in unimaginable ways.”

In the high-end designer world, Giuseppe Zanotti is one big name who has been inspired by basketball players and other sports professionals. “Athletes are like heroes for fans, and many of them are considered real fashion icons,” he said. “They are the best ambassadors a designer can hope for, and this can’t be anything besides beneficial for the business.”

Dwyane Wade CFDA Awards 2016 Dwyane Wade wearing Public School on the CFDA red carpet. REX Shutterstock.

With more than 25 million viewers tuned in for Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, it’s no surprise that all eyes remain on athletes, particularly as the men’s market continues to evolve. “Their interpretation of what designers offer and what they have coming down the runway just humanizes style, and it takes some of the stigma out of it,” said Johnson. “Athletes give men courage to develop their own personal style.”