Once mocked for his garish outfits and lenseless eyeglasses, the Oklahoma City point guard is designing clothes for Barneys and updating the way Nike markets to men.
It was dusk at Pier 26 in Manhattan when the monk began to chant, a deep, rolling vibrato you could feel in the pit of your belly. Across the flat, open expanse of the pier, which juts out into the Hudson River, a friar in a long tunic stood atop an open-air staircase, holding a pair of birch saplings. He gazed toward a fully clothed woman beneath a running shower on the roof of a tin shanty and, beyond her, a pair of identically dressed bearded men, one clutching the other in his arms like a teddy bear.
For the uninitiated, the experience was like waking up in a surrealist painting or discovering you’d ingested a lot of peyote. For Russell Westbrook, All-Star point guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder, it was just another fashion show, albeit the most hotly anticipated of this fall’s New York Fashion Week: Givenchy was unveiling its 2016 spring line. Westbrook, 26, wearing a look of rapt interest, had planted himself at the runway’s edge alongside Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, and Vogue’s Anna Wintour. Afterward, he hustled backstage to pay his respects to the French label’s creative director, Riccardo Tisci. “Every time I walk into a fashion show, I get excited,” he says.
If you know one thing about Westbrook, it’s probably his hyperaggressive, shoot-first, baseline-to-baseline style of play. For a few months this spring, en route to winning the NBA scoring title, he was so phenomenally good, racking up triple-doubles almost every night, that he took over the opening block of ESPN’s SportsCenter in the same way Donald Trump takes over a GOP presidential debate. You tuned in to witness the sheer majesty of the performance.
If you know two things about Westbrook, the second is probably the glasses. During the 2012 NBA Finals, when the Thunder took on the Miami Heat, he showed up at a news conference in a colorful Prada shirt and lensless red specs—“nerd glasses,” the press dubbed them—that had a sudden, seismic effect on the sports world and brought together Westbrook’s two great passions: basketball and fashion.
Basketball and fashion. These two worlds intersected only occasionally before 2012. Stylewise, pro sports was a wasteland. Turn on ESPN even today, and you’re confronted by a ghastly array of baggy four-button suits, Chris Berman wearing neckties seemingly on a dare, and Merril Hoge in starched collars, with tie knots as big as satin throw pillows. The jock code frowned on fashion. So when Westbrook wore his famous glasses, the jocks reacted as jocks do—with mockery. The next day, Charles Barkley and the crew of TNT’s Inside the NBA donned red glasses to tweak Westbrook’s unique style. (Barkley, who’s as smooth and round as a 400-pound Milk Dud, typically shrouds himself in suits that resemble gabardine muumuus.)
But here’s what happened next—a ton of NBA players, and plenty of other people, too, started wearing lensless frames. The Prada shirt sold out. Westbrook watched with amusement. “I started wearing frames back in middle school,” he says, a few days after the Givenchy show. “I used to pick ’em out for $2 a pair at thrift stores around the neighborhood. I’ve always liked to curate my own look, go with what I like. I’m not a big follower.”
Today, pro sports is in the midst of a style renaissance, and the NBA is its most fashion-forward league. Every night, superstars such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Amar’e Stoudemire turn the postgame news conference into a runway, greeting the cameras in Michael Bastian, Givenchy, or Alexander Wang. Offseason, you’re as likely to spot them in Paris or Milan as in the gym.
But no athlete in any sport has cultivated a more distinctive style than Westbrook. Head-to-toe monochrome red outfits? Check. Elephant-print jackets? Sure. Acid-washed coverall shorts? Wore ’em on Jimmy Kimmel Live in September. (Think I exaggerate? Check out @russwest44 on Instagram.) Westbrook loves mixing high fashion and low, pairing couture with H&M. He won’t hesitate to take scissors to a $2,000 shirt if the mood strikes. His outré style has become so famous that when he got married in August, the ESPN headline read: “Russell Westbrook Gets Married, Wears Regular Tux.” (It was a Tom Ford.)
Jock traditionalists, it should be noted, have struggled to accept the new fashion movement and its leading icon. “He wears weird s—,” Kobe Bryant said of Westbrook last year. “It’s a generational thing. I’m glad I didn’t grow up in his generation.” On YouTube, Westbrook’s outfits are a source of steady fascination.
Westbrook, who possesses the confidence to wear hot-pink pants, laughs off all of this, which he attributes to insecurity. “Sometimes people ask me jokingly for style advice, but I know they mean it seriously,” he says. He’s happy to oblige. Long before the NBA, back when he was still scouting $2 frames, Westbrook harbored an ambition to one day run his own fashion empire. And not just the star athlete’s typical sneakers-and-video-games franchise, though he has these covered. (Nike sells his shoes, and Electronic Arts put him on the cover of NBA Live 16.)
Westbrook had in mind full-on couture. Through a partnership with high-end retailer Barneys New York, he’s built a brand, Russell Westbrook XO, under which he’s created, with premier designers, everything the modern man of means requires. There’s clothing (with Public School), slippers (Del Toro), fragrance (Byredo), luggage (Globe-Trotter), and jewelry (Jennifer Fisher). He’s also introducing Nike’s multibillion-dollar Jordan Brand, previously known for midpriced athletic wear, to Barneys’s upscale clientele, with pieces he designed, such as a $500 white flight suit.
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