Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 22 No. 14
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Draft is the new stepping-out party for NBA fashion

Athletes, agencies and stylists shape boutique industry designed to introduce a player and his personal style.

It’s getting to be a big (and tall) production. Most — if not all — of the NBA prospects arriving in New York for the draft this week will have at least one custom-made suit designed just for him to wear on draft night.

In fact, many of the players will have three to five suits to wear for events throughout draft week — replete with accessories — as well as for the team press conference the day after the draft, according to stylists working with the players. All of the suits are perfectly tailored to the player’s body as well as his taste. But more and more, the suit for draft night in particular not only is made to order, but designed to make a statement.

“It’s going to be super wild this year,” said Boushra AlChabaoun, a stylist at Elevee, a Los Angeles-based luxury, handmade clothing maker that works with celebrities, including athletes.

“Oh yeah, I am making some wild colors and some wild prints,” added AlChabaoun, who is working with more than half a dozen players invited to Thursday’s draft at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

The business of outfitting players for the NBA draft may have started out as a necessity — it’s not easy to find a suit that fits when you’re taller than 6-foot-5. But it’s turned into a show within the show, creating a boutique industry as well as a branding opportunity for the players.

There are a handful of stylists who work with players to create handmade suits for the draft. One suit can cost anywhere from $1,900 to $15,000, according to one stylist. NBA agents help players find the stylists as part of their preparation for the draft.

The fee arrangements vary quite a bit. The clients usually pay for the suits, and some stylists have relationships with agencies. Sometimes there is a retainer, sometimes not. Sometimes they may do it as trade.

“Agencies and players can choose to work with whomever they want,” AlChabaoun said. “Some agencies do not get involved at all and allow the players to make the decisions when it comes to draft clothes. Some agents want their players to get everything and anything for free.”

Another recent trend is a clothing or retail company, such as JCPenney, paying a player to wear one of its suits as part of an endorsement.

But increasingly, players are working with stylists to dress them or hand-make the suits they help design — and especially in the NBA, which stylists say is the most fashion forward of all sports.

Slideshow of NBA draft fashion

“The draft is the perfect starting place for them to figure out what they would like to present to the world,” said Adri Zgirdea, co-founder and stylist at AZSN Studio. Based in Chicago, Zgirdea works with Priority Sports & Entertainment and BDA Sports, and this year is dressing Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke and Maryland forward Bruno Fernando.

“Off the rack, you just can’t find a suit for a man that size,” Zgirdea said of Clarke, who is 6-8, and Fernando, who is 6-10. “If you do find it by chance, there is a lot of alteration that goes into that suit.”

Actors and other celebrities have had stylists for decades. But the prevalence of stylists for athletes has taken off primarily in the last decade. The increase has coincided with the popularity of social media, where athletes are routinely photographed or filmed walking into stadiums and arenas.

“Just like actors and actresses, they all have stylists, because obviously their image is one of the most important things,” said Sami Jenks, another stylist at Elevee. Jenks has been working with NBA players since 2002. Back then, just a few players used stylists and suits were more traditional, with players typically wearing black, gray or navy.

“In 2002, they were wearing business suits,” Jenks said. “Everything was extremely baggy and long. Everything was oversized.”

But suits have changed to suit the times.

“Now, everything is not necessarily a business look,” Jenks said. “It’s more about showcasing their personal style, and now everything is very, very slim.”

These days it’s all about the fit, and that’s what most players are concerned with, multiple stylists said. AlChabaoun takes about 40 measurements of players she is outfitting, she said.

“The chest, the neck, the length of their legs,” AlChabaoun said, listing the measurements. “Their thigh measurements — the circumference. Their arm hole — how deep their arm hole is so the jacket isn’t cutting into their armpits and isn’t too big, either.”

Colors are flashier, and many players are opting out of solids, too. “In the most recent years, the rookies are really stepping out of the box and doing more prints,” said Jhoanna Alba, founder of Los Angeles-based Alba Legacy. “Prints and accessories are very popular now. And colors — burgundies and electric blues.”

Players also are custom-designing the linings of their jackets, with artists drawing in images or words that are unique to the player’s life, like their birthday or their hometown or university.

Stylists say the decision on what kind of suit to wear is usually made at the first meeting. Taking measurements only takes about eight to 10 minutes, but players can spend hours figuring out what exactly they want to wear. The amount of time and the type of suit usually depends on personal taste.

More than anything, the suit a player chooses is a reflection of him — his personality and whatever brand message he wants to convey to the public, stylists said. The draft is a natural place to make that statement, signifying the life change of going from college to the professional world.

Jenks says one of the first things she discusses with players is the message they want to send.

“Some guys want their message to be, ‘I’m all business,’” Jenks said. “Maybe somebody else wants their message to be, ‘I’ve made it.’ Some guys want to come out with an all-red suit with Louboutin sneakers. Other guys want to wear a traditional suit with a classic Oxford shoe.”

Alba said she has a client this year who wanted an ultra-conservative look. “We have one guy who just wanted a basic gray suit,” she said. “That was it. That was stuck in his head of what he wanted. … He is 7 feet tall, so he didn’t want to do something that was too wild. He just wanted to keep it classic.”

That player is European and, in Alba’s experience, international players generally are more conservative and tend not to want a flashy look. “They like basics, like solid navy, solid black.”

Through the years, players have gotten more creative and artistic with their draft-day dress. And increasingly, even those with more conservative personalities go all out when it comes to draft night.

Last year before the NBA draft, AlChabaoun predicted that one of the players would wear a suit with shorts instead of traditional long pants. LeBron James wore a suit with shorts during the NBA Finals last year, and Draymond Green wore one the year before.

She was right: Trae Young, selected No. 5 overall by the Mavericks and later traded to the Hawks, wore a red suit with shorts.

This year, AlChabaoun doesn’t anticipate shorts again — “It’s been done” — but she pointed to the black suit with a white shoulder harness that Michigan linebacker Devin Bush wore to April’s NFL draft before he was picked by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“That was a great example of what’s to come,” AlChabaoun said, “and it’s going to blow your mind.”

If a shoulder-harness suit does appear, it will not be made by Elevee, she said. However, a lot of AlChabaoun’s clients have told her that they want to “make noise” with their draft-day suits and she is accommodating them.

“They want to be loud,” she said. “They want people to hear them walking.

“I wish I can quote exactly what my player said — it was the funniest thing I have ever heard anyone say — ‘I want to be louder than New York.’”

In addition to creating the suits, stylists provide other services for their clients — including being there as they go through the draft journey. All of the stylists interviewed said they travel to New York for draft week.

Increasingly, stylists are working with a player’s entire family and may take them shopping in New York if they don’t make them outfits before draft week. The stylists also are there to handle fashion emergencies, such as a suit that doesn’t fit or a suit that a player decides he just hates.

Both Jenks and Alba said they can make an entirely new suit in about 24 hours — if they have to.

Alba arrives in New York the Tuesday morning before the Thursday night draft with a staff of three assistants — and lots of suits. “We take the red eye from L.A., get settled in our rooms and start pressing the suits,” she said.

Alba and her employees stay at the same hotel with the players and their families and help the players dress for each event. The fashion team takes care of the suits, the shoes, the socks, the ties and any other accessories, not just for the players but increasingly for their family members, too.

There are multiple media events during draft week, and a player typically appears at a press conference the next day in the city of the team that selects him.

“So we have a suite in New York at the same hotel the players stay in,” said Julian Abdul, Alba Legacy assistant designer. “The players come to us and we have all their stuff laid out ready for them. For their press conference, their luncheon, their media day. We have everything laid out, labeled for them. They come in and put it on and they are out the door.”

Zgirdea notes that the players are very young, most of them just 19 or 20, and part of the stylist’s job is to make sure they are at ease with what can be an overwhelming experience.

“I think the main point is to just get a suit they feel comfortable in and they feel great about,” Zgirdea said. “So that they feel fantastic come June 20, and when they walk across that stage they feel great.”