If there’s an accessory too outré or a print too colorful for the NBA, basketball star–turned–fashion plate Russell Westbrook hasn’t found it yet. In a disintegrating Ramones T-shirt and bleached jeans, a leopard-print duster, or a shirt bedecked with cartoon dancers, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard is making basketball fun for fashion nerds and, one hopes, teaching basketball fans a little something about the world beyond mesh shorts.
Westbrook, who’s in the middle of a tied-up conference semifinal series against the San Antonio Spurs, is a very, very good player—he just finished fourth in the MVP voting, behind Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James. It’s saying a lot, then, that he’s drawn as much attention for his wardrobe in recent years. Since Westbrook dropped by a 2012 press conference in lensless red glasses and a Lacoste shirt covered in fishing lures, sports media have speculated about and reported on his outfits like he was Lupita Nyong’o and every game was a red-carpet event. When he showed up for a game last month in sunnies, drawstring cropped pants, and a cloche (!), he strutted down the line of cameras like he was working the catwalk.
While some pro athletes hire stylists to help them make the transition from sports personality to all-around A-lister, Westbrook spent years shopping for and dressing himself, hitting the outlets and bargain shops like Zara and Marshall’s in addition to luxury department stores. (Now, he employs stylist Calyann Barnett, who also dresses Miami Heat player Dwyane Wade.) Westbrook can trace his statement-making style back to high school, when he says he was voted best dressed for his prom outfit: a white tux with turquoise vest and white-and-turquoise Stacy Adams shoes. Now, he’s a regular face in men’s fashion magazines like GQ and Esquire; picks outfits for Barneys promotions; and designs mass-market clothes for men who like to bare their nipples.
These mainstream props haven’t inoculated Westbrook against ribbing from his teammates. “He’s a diva,” fellow Thunder player (and snappy dresser) Kevin Durant told ESPN Magazine in 2013. “I call him [Beyoncé alter ego] Sasha Fierce. On the court, he’s a fierce competitor. Off the court, he’s chilling in front of the mirror, making sure he got the right lip balm on.” Sports fan philistines—the type who take their fashion cues from Jeff Van Gundy rather than Jean Paul Gaultier—made fun of the ripped-up Slayer shirt Westbrook wore in January, calling him a “stripper on laundry day” and likening him to Avril Lavigne.
But Westbrook has only deepened his commitment to dressing outside the norms of mainstream men’s fashion. When Sports Illustrated recently named him one of the top 10 fashion personalities in pro sports, Westbrook told the magazine that he pulls inspiration from womenswear and “fabrics and art on the walls” of the hotels he visits during basketball season. He once said he takes 45 minutes—about three outfit changes—to get dressed in the morning and sometimes texts his mother a picture to get her take before he walks out the door. Now that he’s launched his own line of glasses frames and a Barneys design collab, Westbrook takes clothing even more seriously. “I took the time to do my research and learn about the fashion world before I was able to get in to it,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I had the pleasure of sitting down with [Vogue’s] Anna Wintour and André Leon Talley to pick their brains about the origins of fashion and how it all began.”
Westbrook isn’t just making a personal fashion statement. He’s pushing the sartorial boundaries of a league bound for the past decade by a strict dress code. In 2005, then-Commissioner David Stern mandated that players wear business attire before and after games, during official press appearances, and while sitting on the bench in games they didn’t play. The policy, spurred in part by a 2004 fight between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons, was widely panned as racist; it specifically forbade hip-hop attire: baggy jeans, chain necklaces, jerseys, sneakers. Players like Allen Iverson, whose tattoos got airbrushed off the cover of the NBA’s Hoop magazine in 2000, protested that the policy punished men for their personal style and implied that the (mostly black) men who dressed that way were criminals.
Westbrook told ESPN the Magazine that, as a rookie in 2008, he “was trying to figure out the dress code and not get fined.” Now, he stretches its limits. He wears jerseys and jeans, and even designs the latter. Last week, Westbrook arrived at a playoff game in a bandana and a Patagonia T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and the sides billowing open—hardly business attire. But while Westbrook was fined last month for cursing at a fan, Commissioner Adam Silver has never penalized him for wearing a T-shirt that was too distressed. Indeed, what league would dare to fine a player who’s brought loads of new attention to the sport (hello, NBA, I am now writing about you) and proven himself worthy of the hoity-toity fashion world’s most discerning gatekeepers?
The Thunder point guard is schooling the NBA in how fashion functions as a social code that shifts over time and usage. As in the English language, norms in fashion have been used to devalue specific cultures, and to exclude marginalized populations from positions of authority. Westbrook’s look is far from hip-hop: He got famous for wearing lensless frames—why let the curse of perfect vision preclude him from accessorizing his face?—and has experimented with flip-up sunglasses and preppy cardigans. He arrived at Tuesday’s game in skinny white pants, a denim jacket, and an ivory tunic. But his chic twists on certain elements of that style (jeans, jerseys, bandanas) have exposed a blatant hypocrisy in dress codes that single out clothing associated with black men.
“He don’t care what people say when he plays or when he dresses up,” then-teammate Thabo Sefolosha told ESPN of Westbrook in 2013. “He knows what he is and he doesn’t care what other people want him to be,” echoed Nick Collison. In an interview with Esquire, Westbrook gave similar advice to admirers grasping for some of his eyewear swagger: “You can wear anything if you are confident in it.” Westbrook’s self-assurance and self-made style make him a worthy role model for everyday kids and aspiring fashionistos. His unflagging disregard for the customs of basketball dress also make him an example for the entire NBA.