Inspired: LeBron James
Inspired: LeBron James
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date October 12, 2020
Considering his larger than life stature, it’s difficult to think back to a time when Lebron James wasn’t the most famous—and arguably the greatest—athlete in the world. An indelible part of modern culture, today the King is everywhere, as respected for his athletic prowess as for his philanthropic work, business acumen and, of course, taste level. Despite the fact that James has been famous since literally his senior year of high school, his style journey actually began in earnest much later than his current Tunnel Fit dominance would lead you to believe. In fact, though today he is one of the few players consistently impressing on the new “runway” for years he, like most NBA players, was far from fitted.
Currently capping off his 17th NBA season, James has secured his fourth championship ring. Add that to his clothing line, Miami boutique, various collaborations and ten-figure lifetime Nike contract, he’s clearly a titan of culture. But it was not so long ago that he fell into the trappings of terrible athlete style, five button Steve Harvey suits and all.
After landing the cover of Sports Illustrated his senior year of highschool, the prodigy from Akron, Ohio was prophesied as the league’s next superstar, the only player that could one day challenge Michael Jordan for the title of greatest ever. 17 years later, it’s difficult to argue he didn’t, but those early years were tough, his tragic draft day all white suit included.
Back in 2003, the majority of the league wore terrible, ill-fitting clothes. Outside of unique talents like Allen Iverson and Dennis Rodman, few players stylistically speaking, truly bucked convention. James, still a rookie, followed suit (pun not intended), with blazers long enough and so wide that they made even someone of his superhuman build seem lanky. It was only around 2005, when then NBA commissioner David Stern decided the league needed to rehabilitate its image, that a new dress code was imposed. Suddenly, there were strict rules players had to follow in their pre-game and post-game attire. While there was some initial pushback (and, rightful indignation at the implicitly racist undertones), this did thrust the league into one that had to actively think about its appearance.
If you’re someone who was ready for the end of ill-fitting suits, you might say that players had adapted for the better. James, in particularly, began buying suits that actually fit him, with the appropriate number of buttons. By the time the Cavaliers were playoff contenders, James had hired a stylist and the King was wearing made-to-measure Ralph Lauren Purple Label and Brioni.
While the suits were fine enough, for James, his newfound public focus on style really didn’t take hold until 2010, when he signed a well-deserved max contract with the Miami Heat. In a bigger, splashier market with some superstar teammates, James finally let loose.
When he arrived in Miami, James was already without question the best player in the league. Still, his fame was primarily limited to the sports world and, despite smashing records and inching ever closer to “GOAT” status, the phenom was still just a basketball player. In 2010, that all changed. Now the centerpiece in a marquee franchise, James was no longer an all-star in a niche market. Alongside Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, he was now a member of Miami’s “big three”—not to mention located in one of the hardest partying markets in the country.
Though James signed with Nike from the jump, his signature shoes were predominantly worn on court. When the neon-blue and pink tinted Lebron VIII “South Beach” dropped in 2010, however, what was once a basketball sneaker immediately entered the hypebeast canon. A celebration of his new home base, the sneaker’s electric colorway was an instant classic, and entering a period when other players’ signature basketball shoes—and not just Jordans—were part of the sneakerhead conversation, Lebron James signatures dominated.
Now ruling the modern basketball sneaker game, James began experimenting with streetwear and high fashion as well. Pre-game walks in head-to-toe Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci replaced stiff tailoring, and Nike Air Yeezy IIs suddenly graced his feet, a fit straight out of the Watch the Throne tour (fitting, considering him and Jay-Z shared the same stylist). Beginning to explore both rare sneakers and high fashion, James, never content to simply be a consumer, decided that given his own personal brand cache and the Miami retail environment, decided to cash in on the business of hype. His answer: UNKNWN.
Founded in 2011 as a small sneaker boutique in the Aventura mall, UNKNWN transformed into a multi-brand boutique carrying everything from BAPE to Visvim and Margiela. Partnering with two childhood friends—the King prefers to keep things in the family—the small boutique with a Nike Tier Zero account transformed into a chain with an in-house line that carried all of the brands James regularly wears. Operating under the tagline “the sport of fashion”, the boutique is a near perfect representation of the athletes personal style. Though James opted to leave Miami in order to return to his hometown in 2014, UNKNWN remains, with a new Wynwood district flagship, one of the most notable retailers in the city.
James also helps share the spotlight with his fashion-focused collaborators, working with John Elliott regularly and even walking on the runway for Ronnie Fieg’s Kith Fall/Winter 2017 “Kith Sport” show. Of course whether its John Elliott or Kith, both brands have lent a helping hand in keeping James’ signature sneakers at the forefront of the conversation.
Speaking of fashion collaboration, of the many brands UNKNWN carries, one in particular stands out: Thom Browne. Surprisingly enough, the New York tailor’s shrunken suit is a personal favorite of the six-foot-eight-inch superstar, and for years James has bought (and more often, custom ordered) short suits and cardigans from fashion foremost gray suit proponents. In fact, James is so passionate about the aesthetic that for the 2018 playoffs, he custom ordered pre-game suits and separates for the entire Cavaliers team, a partnership that made waves across fashion and sports media alike. While millions of fans were puzzled—why is this herculean man wearing a strange suit from a man they had likely never heard of—the fashion world was abuzz. Unlike the ostentatious, “put a logo on it”-players of the world, James had taste.
Since then, James’ style may have grown more subdued, but for anyone watching along this playoff season, from unreleased Sacai x Nike sneakers to Aimé Leon Dore tie-dye button ups with matching shorts, James is still at the top of his game. Championship ring or not, if he keeps dressing like this, he’ll undoubtedly make the "best dressed" basketball player hall of fame. Honestly, he likely already has.