Thirteen years ago, former NBA commissioner David Stern implemented a mandate that would reroute the course of men’s fashion. The infamous dress code imposed on the league — dubbed the Allen Iverson rule because of his resistance to conform — required players to dress conservatively in business attire during NBA-related activities. Once a dreaded guideline, the regulation paved the way for multimillionaire athletes to craft their now-coveted style.
“Even though at the time there was a lot of backlash, in a way he helped a lot of players start to be seen as influencers and fashionable people. It’s not that Stern taught them how to dress, but he helped them take it more seriously,” said shoe designer Armando Cabral, who counts Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony among fans of his namesake brand. As players elevated their off-duty looks, they garnered exposure for Cabral and others.
Once the public started paying more attention, [players] took it to a new level. It’s become a highlight in their arrivals to the game, in interviews and in their day-to-day [lives], according to Ovadia & Sons, which has outfitted the likes of PJ Tucker and Steph Curry.
Khalilah Beavers, the image maker behind Jimmy Butler and Anthony, was among the initial cadre of stylists helping to merge sport and style. “It grew from a couple of guys being watched and followed to everyone. It’s like a competition now,” said Beavers.
Designers now willingly accommodate players’ athletic frames, particularly their atypically large feet. Fabrice Tardieu, a Dwyane Wade favorite, has extended his offering up to a size 17. Meanwhile, Cabral remembers the largest shoe he’s ever made as a whopping size 22 for the retired Dikembe Mutombo.
Wade, who is signed to a lifetime deal with Chinese sportswear brand Li-Ning, told FN that he became vested in fashion as an athlete because it is a “vehicle for self-expression and individuality.”
“I enjoy taking risks and pushing boundaries,” he said.
NBA style has even evolved into a team exercise in some instances (not to mention a notable hashtag with over 65K Instagram posts attached to it). Earlier this year, Wade’s stylist Calyann Barnett dressed LeBron James and the entire Cleveland Cavaliers squad in head-to-toe Thom Browne for their playoff series against the Indiana Pacers. With 11 years of experience under her belt, however, Barnett emphasized the importance of sending a deeper message when dressing her players — at a time when athletes and fashion players alike are raising their voices about politics and activism.
“Basketball is a predominantly black career. So when there are issues facing that community — that many of [these athletes or their family members] have faced or still can face, that should be a focus,” Barnett said. “These fashion houses have been around for years and if I am going to support them, let’s make sure they support my causes and what’s near and dear to me.”
Here, FN explores the key moments that led to the fashion influence of James, Wade and more of the league’s other sartorial heavyweights.
Most Valuable Player of Fashion: Russell Westbrook
The NBA’s annual awards ceremony incorporates a Best Style accolade — a publicly voted honor — and for the past two years, Westbrook has claimed the crown.
Aside from being a fan favorite, the Oklahoma City Thunder star has earned more than his fair share of fashion cred. Just this past May, the notoriously self-styled Westbrook was casually sandwiched between Kendall Jenner and Eva Chen at his Met Gala table. And between front-row sightings at the likes of Louis Vuitton and Tom Ford, the Jordan Brand athlete’s fashion calendar arguably rivals his basketball schedule.
“Westbrook is probably the most authentic with his off-court style. He seems more comfortable in his choices of silhouettes, colors and brands. He plays with proportions … like an oversize sweatshirt with slim jeans or a baggie look and printed tops,” said creative director Jerome LaMaar.
Still, some of his choices are considered divisive. His exaggerated high-water pants or the ombré elephant-print tights he debuted in his 2014 Westbrook XO Barney’s collection come to mind. Paige Geran, Kobe Bryant’s former stylist, has grown to enjoy his ingenuity.
“He’s creative. I adjusted to it after watching for a while. He’s one of the few that can pull that off,” she said.
Team Leader of Style: Dwyane Wade
Despite Wade’s worldwide recognition, many designers didn’t understand his fashion appeal at first.
“We had to connect the dots and say, ‘This guy is an international superstar.’ I had to make an 11-page document explaining who he was. The first time Dwyane went to Paris Fashion Week in 2011, he was the only player there. He’s still one of the few that goes to Givenchy and the only basketball player that has gone to Hermès and Berluti,” said Barnett.
Outside of established luxury houses, the Miami Heat shooting guard spotlights emerging brands. He put Tardieu on the map by sporting his kicks, with the Maximilien sneaker being one of his preferred styles. “They were the first ones to get him out there and do things like colorful shoes even before I was in the game,” said Tardieu.
The renowned player also represents his Way of Wade signature sneaker with Li-Ning, both while playing and behind the scenes as a creator.
“It’s something I am extremely passionate about and I feel very fortunate to be intimately involved in the design process of my fashion partnerships,” he said.
Best Wardrobe: Chris Paul
After being benched due to an injury last season, it was Chris Paul’s sideline style that seized a win. Printed Happy Socks added quirkiness to his crisp white Common Projects sneakers as he cheered the team on — a look that Paul’s stylist Courtney Mays described as meshing with his “classic, young professional” aesthetic. As president of the National Basketball Players Association, minimalistic pieces are his staples. The Houston Rockets point guard’s clean-cut taste is exemplified in his current clothing collaboration with Five Four Club, a contemporary men’s subscription-based fashion service.
“Chris is a veteran player so the silk shirts and heavily logoed items are not as appealing. When he’s not playing, he’s kind of the businessman of the NBA so we make sure his look reflects that,” said Mays.
The Jordan athlete will push the envelope on occasion. His colorful, patchwork Dolce & Gabbana suit (paired with Don C Jordans) was a lighthearted ensemble for the Kid’s Choice Sports Awards last month.
“His style has evolved. Sometimes it takes someone that has that eye to say ‘this could work for you.’ Now, he’s a little more interested in taking those fashion risks,” said Mays.
Fashion Player of the Year: LeBron James
It’s not uncommon to catch James in a freshly tailored Thom Browne ensemble, which was his choice for the launch of his I Promise School last month. But the four-time NBA MVP broke ground long ago when he became the first black man to appear on the cover of Vogue in April 2008. While it was a historic marker and a signifier of James’ stake in men’s fashion, the controversial image — he’s pictured holding model Gisele Bündchen in a pose that many likened to a King Kong poster — sparked debate.
“That cover incited a lot of conversation about race and stereotypes, and it was one of the most impactful things that I was a part of during his career,” said his previous long-term stylist, Rachel Johnson, who now works with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Ten years later and now a seasoned veteran, the Los Angeles Lakers newcomer deliberately uses fashion to underscore issues he’s passionate about. For last year’s season opener, the Nike star sported sneakers engraved with Equality on the heel as a show of solidarity with the ongoing football protests spearheaded by Kaepernick.
“Watching players express their views out loud makes me very proud. I stand up and applaud loudly,” said Johnson.
Sixth Man of Style: Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo Anthony is one of the original players in basketball’s fashion class. He is a mainstay at Paris and New York fashion weeks, and he fronted Italian luxury label Ermenegildo Zegna’s campaign in 2015. As a regular attendee at the famed Met Gala, the Houston Rockets incomer has attended the annual affair more than most other players.
Beavers, who has worked with Anthony for more than nine years, has seen the style transition in the NBA firsthand.
“It was initially, ‘These guys are big, so how do we make them look great?’ In reality, they can go to a black-tie event wearing fitted clothes and look amazing,” she explained.
Now, the Jordan athlete is branching into design. Earlier this year, he collaborated with hat label Goorin Bros., and it marks the first co-branded product line that the company has ever done with a professional athlete.
Fashion highlights from James Harden and PJ Tucker, the Houston Rocket teammates who have become the Batman and Robin of NBA style.
Most Improved: James Harden
Front–row sightings: Valentino, Yohji Yamamoto, Public School, Neil Barrett
Standout piece: A custom Neil Barrett suit featuring embossed black flowers to accept his NBA MVP Award this summer. “It was made in eight days just to have it from the runway to L.A. It had to be hand carried from Milan,” said Kesha McLeod, Harden’s stylist.
Shoe selects: Balenciaga Triple S, Chanel sneakers, Raf Simons x Adidas, Saint Laurent Chelsea boots. “He wants the luxury of everything. He loves the texture.” — McLeod.
On his style rise: “Overall, with the season he had on court it was time to take everything to the next level.” — McLeod.
Best Shoe Game: PJ Tucker
Designers he’s wearing: Jerry Lorenzo, Tom Ford, Gucci, Nick Fouquet
Aesthetic accolades: 2018 Sports Illustrated Fashionable 50
Kick game: He reportedly spent $200K on sneakers last season.
What a stylist says: “I love his personal style. He styles himself during season, but he also has a unique sense of style because he played overseas for four years, so he is really into fashion and knows the brands,” said Geran.
The Best Sneakers at New York Fashion Week Men’s: Deconstruction, Tie-Dye and More
Li-Ning Makes Paris Fashion Week Men’s Debut for Spring ’19 With Chunky Sneaker Explosion
Jay-Z Is Named President of Puma’s Basketball Operations