NBA stars are scoring big in the fashion world | CNN

The 24-year-old pro basketball player — a point guard for the Indiana Pacers — has cultivated a look that’s equal parts academic, retro-militaristic, trendy and preppy. He likes a splash, too. If you look at his Instagram grid, you’ll see such items as a brightly-hued Louis Vuitton Speedy duffel (a piece from Pharrell Williams’ debut menswear collection for the house that retails for nearly $10,000) and an enormous Hermès Birkin, perhaps the ultimate status-symbol bag.

Judging by his frequent posts, it’s not a stretch to say that all things sartorial have become as much a part of Haliburton’s image as his game. And he’s far from alone.

Basketball players’ style — largely in the men’s league, but increasingly the women’s too — has become a bonafide pillar in fashion media and consumption. This is in large part due to the ascent in popularity around “tunnel walks,” the pre-game arrival routine that has, in recent years, turned into something of a para-runway show. Players including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Josh Giddey, Tyler Herro and many, many more have all stamped out their own aesthetic in and through these “walks,” and huge audiences eyeball their every wardrobe move. See, for example, the basketball style-tracking Instagram handle @leaguefits. It has over 1 million followers.

“I believe NBA style culture is another avenue for players to express their showmanship,” the stylist Marcus Paul, who has worked with Gilgeous-Alexander (on a Converse campaign) and Luka Dončic (on an “Esquire” magazine shoot), told CNN. “The tunnel is a competitive runway. Players are having fun with fashion and battling each other in the tunnel. So they are battling each other on and off the court.”

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There’s also a two-way-street dynamic at play: a hunger among fashion brands to align with these athletes and figures first, or at least, in a magnified way. Caitlin Clark, this year’s number one draft pick to the WNBA, made global style headlines for her Prada outfit during the draft ceremony on April 15. (It was the first time the Italian house has dressed a female basketball player.)

Before his passing, Virgil Abloh initiated collaborations between Louis Vuitton, the house he led, with the NBA; under Williams’ new vision, LeBron James has appeared in a global Vuitton campaign. Even SKIMS, Kim Kardashian’s lounge and underwear brand, has cashed in on the spotlight: the company recently released a campaign featuring the college basketball players Donovan Clingan (UConn), Caleb Love (Arizona), Hunter Dickinson (Kansas), Jared McCain (Duke), Robert Dillingham (Kentucky) and Paxson Wojcik (UNC).

Basketball players’ style has more eyes on it than any other sport, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Mitchell S. Jackson told CNN. How come? “(The league) was the first to embrace it,” Jackson, author of the recently released photobook “Fly: The Big Book of Basketball Fashion,” explained. “Basketball players are so much a part of American culture. Name an athlete in history more famous now than LeBron? More famous in history than Michael Jordan? There was a time when Jordan was the most famous person on earth, and maybe he still is.”

Throughout “Fly,” Jackson’s bird’s-eye-view on the intersection of high fashion and elite athletes is comprehensive, and packed with commentary and historical context alike. Why, now, does he think this dovetailing is in such a fever pitch?

“NBA fashion culture has become so influential because the NBA is the best marketed league of America’s three major sports leagues,” Jackson said. “Its players are arguably the most recognizable… It’s a league that has the history of a dress code, so fans who’ve been following for a long time can remember its evolution. Add to that, social media and the ability for all the players to share their lives, including what they wear, to millions of people.

Stephen “Steph” Curry has stepped up his styling over the past few years, and especially so during the most recent NBA season. During it, the Golden State Warriors point guard partnered with the shopping platform Rakuten and the Black in Fashion Council to help Black designers grow their businesses via awareness and exposure. During his pre-game arrivals, Curry wore such nascent labels as Savant Studios and Head of State.

“I always laugh at my first NBA games when I looked like I was dressed to go to the set of ‘Peaky Blinders,’” Curry told CNN over a Zoom call. “With my little Kangol hat and vest and white button-down. I thought I was doing something!”

“(These days,) I try to be comfortable, first and foremost. I don’t usually wear too many loud colors,” he continued. “I like to take some chances, trying different stuff. I just try to keep it fun.”

Curry is cognizant of the amplification an athlete can catalyze for a brand.

“With the public conversation around sports and fashion being bigger now than ever, we can help start new talking points,” he said. “I’m trying to be more thoughtful around these moments, uplifting people that deserve the attention.”

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“I don’t know that more people are looking to Kyle Kuzma for style inspiration than Timothée Chalamet — yet!” Sam Schube, director of GQ Sports, told CNN of players’ reach as trendsetters. “But the fact that they’re in the same conversation at all is a fairly remarkable development. I think it’s of a piece with the broader, LeBron-era rise of player empowerment: as athletes began insisting on a greater degree of influence over their own careers, they also began asserting themselves as forces off the court.”

“We talk a lot about current NBA tunnel style, but the league has been America’s most stylish for decades,” Schube continued. “Allen Iverson, who as I see it is the pound-for-pound most influential dresser in sports history, comes to mind. But so does Magic Johnson and his eighties fur coat, or Phil Jackson rocking overalls, or Pat Riley rocking the hell out of American Gigolo-era Armani.”

Likewise, Jackson’s book and point-of-view reminds us that we need to give flowers to the trendsetters that came before the current zeitgeist — the Walt Fraziers and Wilt Chamberlain’s of years past. What these players did with their looks was significant in more ways than just flexing their style muscles.

“My favorite era is (what I call) ‘Flamboyance,’” noted Jackson. “It kicked off after the passage of the Civil Rights legislation… I love this era because the clothes seemed to be expressing the recognition of Black people — that they’d entered a new era of freedom… that they didn’t have to kowtow to conventions.”

Gilgeous-Alexander — the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard who was voted GQ’s Best Dressed NBA Player in 2022 and 2023 — echoed this sentiment.

“The guys before us have paved the way,” he said during All-Star Weekend in mid-February.

Gilgeous-Alexander is currently starring in a Converse campaign — he’s a partner of the Nike-owned brand — and describes his own style as, “instinctive, unlimited, and no boundaries.”

He concludes: “They laid down the runway for us to benefit. Athletes have had style for so long, we just haven’t had the magnifying glass that exists today.”

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