On the evening he was drafted into the NBA, Canada’s own Shai Gilgeous-Alexander strode through a dimly-lit Barclays Center in Brooklyn wearing a custom green floral-print suit that has become one of the most memorable outfits in recent basketball history. That suit, made by L.A.-based designer Jhoanna Alba, put Gilgeous-Alexander on the NBA’s discerning fashion map – and set the tone for a rookie season that placed him near the top of the league’s pyramid of game-day taste-makers.
“He definitely takes risks,” said Ian Pierno, who covers fashion for SLAM magazine, a legendary basketball publication rapper J. Cole has compared to the Bible. “So many of these rookies are coming into league with stylists now, which is great because they look dope. But when you have a stylist, I think you’re a lot less likely to take certain risks. And there’s some stuff that Shai wore that – you know, some of the fits weren’t always perfect, but he took risks. He gradually progressed … and he’s still styling himself, still taking risks. He’s hitting these homeruns a lot more often now.”
In the NBA, fashion is second only to on-court performance and sneaker deals when it comes to building a personal brand. A trend that started as a joke – when Russell Westbrook and other stars flaunted the league’s business-casual dress code with absurd and avante-garde game-day fits – has become an integral part of basketball culture.
As a rookie with the Los Angeles Clippers last season, Gilgeous-Alexander was a solid player who scored about 10 points per game. But his profile in fashion circles rose much higher, thanks to a tasteful, carefully-curated wardrobe that consistently hit the right notes.
“He was still able to make this huge name for himself by doing it his way and going against the grain,” said Pierno, who runs SLAM’s influential LeagueFits Instagram account, where Gilgeous-Alexander is frequently featured – and one of the league’s most popular stars. “I think that’s encouraged a lot of younger players to express themselves in their own way.”
After a trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the offseason, Gilgeous-Alexander continued to turn heads despite playing in one of the league’s smallest media markets. He signed an endorsement deal with Converse and blossomed into a legitimate mid-level star, balancing on-court substance with enviable off-court style.
His game-day outfits have ranged from muted, two-toned shorts and designer t-shirts to a fuschia-coloured suit, neon-orange sweats, black bungee-cord pants and all manner of flannel overshirts – a staple of his Instagram feed and signature #dontmindmydrip hashtag. “It’s rare that we will see him wear a piece that other players have worn before, and it is kind of a copycat league,” said Pierno. “That’s pretty rare. He blends these different colors together that you wouldn’t normally expect – that don’t necessarily match – but it still comes together as a composition.”
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Gilgeous-Alexander cycled through a series of quarantine fits – ripped jeans, Air Force 1s, grey Jordan sweats, upholstery-inspired floral slacks and lots of flannel – that went viral on Instagram.
“I think for me, it shows he uses dressing as a way to have some confidence,” said Pierno. “A lot of NBA players have said what they wear will correlate to their field goal percentage in a game. Having that confidence to, whether it’s play basketball or take on whatever you have going on that day, is a big deal.”
In the NBA’s global and ever-expanding ecosystem, fashion is fine art and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an auteur. “He’s already in the top five in the game,” said Pierno, who said he has a bobblehead dressed in a copy of that memorable floral suit from draft night in 2018. “I think anyone that takes fashion seriously, it’s more than just fashion. It’s their artful expression. It is their way of painting or drawing.”