The Style Evolution of LeBron James

Sean Hojnacki@@TheRealHojnackiFeatured ColumnistFebruary 19, 2013

LeBron James entered the NBA in 2003 directly from high school. His game was rock solid a decade ago, and it has improved even further since then.

But has LeBron's style changed?

Of course it has, but how? There's a big difference between how an 18-year-old dresses and how a 28-year-old selects his wardrobe.

For example, someone just out of high school might wear a digital camo Yankees hat with a varsity jacket and giant gold watch. 

A 28-year-old man, on the other hand, might wear a bespoke suit with a pocket square that matches the lining of his Ghurka leather man bag (yes, really, per Rachel Ullrich of ESPN.com).

Keeping It Professional

Having tens of millions of dollars also helps. Then you can just hire a stylist and a personal shopper. Also, every designer wants a millionaire basketball player to wear their clothes, so there are tons of freebies.

Sarah Gearhart of USA Today High School Sports asked LeBron's stylist, Rachel Johnson, about the importance of young players making a good impression on coaches and recruiters. Johnson advised:

First impressions are everything. When you’re meeting for the first time in a professional setting, utilize the opportunity to be professional. People don’t want to see how cool you are. They want to see how you look pulled together and representing yourself.

Fashion is a great way to express yourself, but maybe wait until you're no longer a rookie to get loud and proud. Nothing looks more sophisticated than a man (even a high schooler) in a tasteful suit.

Or you can just dress like a baller.

What's the key to a classic, professional look? According to Johnson, "A trouser needs to be involved." Well, obviously. (Note to self: get trousers.)

So, when you're a young cat who declares for the draft straight from high school (these days, after your first year of college), you want to play it cool. Wear some classic, professional trousers.

Or a sparkling white suit. Either way.

That's just one of the privileges of being dubbed "The Chosen One" by Sports Illustrated at 17 years old.

Dress Code

The major watershed for NBA fashion was the institution of a dress code for players in 2005.

This was partially in response to the brawl known as the "Malice in the Palace" in 2004, which resulted in players charging into the stands in Detroit to physically confront fans.

It also came as a backlash to the likes of Allen Iverson consistently rocking a style more common on a city street than at a press conference podium. But that was just part of the beauty of A.I. 

Ultimately, for better or worse, the NBA decided to revise the image of the league and trend toward professionalism.

The NBA's fashion police composed a dress code mandating "business casual" attire for all players "whenever they are engaged in team or league business" (per NBA.com).

Moreover, players attending a team game not in uniform must wear a sport coat and dress shoes, as Joakim Noah recently found out. A puffy sweater isn't going to cut it on the bench; this is much better, according to the NBA (did he borrow that shirt and jacket from the head of arena security?). 

This dress code helped usher in a new era for fashion around the NBA. If everyone has to wear business casual, then you better come correct with your style.

The league's dress code became just another outlet for one-upmanship. 

This was also around the time that the fashion world succeeded in making the average male almost as fashion-conscious as the average female. All of a sudden, "metrosexual" became a buzz word (h/t Mark Simpson and Salon.com). 

Men were encouraged to invest in moisturizer. They began waxing their eyebrows and exfoliating.

And this helped usher in the dawn of the stylist in the NBA, although they had already wandered into the NBA by 2003. 


Lena Tillett of ESPN.com also interviewed LeBron's stylist, and she's so much more than just a mere "stylist." Rachel Johnson is a "lifestylist."

She's almost certainly the one that suggested to LeBron he carry a "man purse" into the locker room before a game in 2012. She probably also has a huge drawer filled with lensless black horn-rimmed glasses.

Johnson began "lifestyling" players around 2003, when most fashion senses around the league were not nearly as honed as they are today.

Johnson observed, "Even though the men thought they were hot and well-dressed they didn't really understand the world of fashion. They had never been allowed in that arena."

After all, you can't walk out of the locker room in a suit carrying a canvas gym bag. If you're sporting business casual at work and you've got cameras on you, you better hire someone that knows about fashion.

LeBron and his draft class came just at the turning point of NBA style. As Johnson recalled about her entry into the NBA sphere:

LeBron's generation—D-Wade [Dwyane Wade] and [Amar'e] Stoudemire, wanted to be more entertainment-looking...They found someone like me who studied fashion whom they found through their favorite entertainers because I used to style guys like Puff and Jay-Z and Pharrell.

And it all snowballed from there.

Less than 10 years later, James is buddies with both Jay-Z and Anna Wintour. He has graced the covers of Vogue and GQ.

Johnson also lifestyles Miami Heat star Chris Bosh, but she is probably not as proud of her work with him.

LeBron's style is totally different anyway. 

Johnson says that James goes for "a more Italian playboy kind of look. Sexy but relaxed, effortless, confident, more color and more playful."

So he's bridged the gap between Ohio high schooler and Italian playboy in under a decade. This guy is good.

Also, being a celebrity in Miami is much different than being one in Cleveland. When you're stepping out on South Beach after a steak at Prime One Twelve, you have to kick your style up a notch.

The Fashionable NBA

The seismic shift in style around the league seems to have occurred haphazardly, gradually and almost without our noticing.

We can laugh all we want about hipster glasses and Russell Westbrook's shirts. That's little more than childish ignorance (which, as we know, is always good for a laugh).

The bottom line is, many of the NBA's biggest stars have also become fashion icons in their own right. 

You remember Westbrook's crazy fishhook shirt that he donned during the 2012 playoffs and paired with some Sally Jesse Raphael glasses?

Well, that shirt is from Lacoste and it goes for $115 a pop. Oh, and it's out of stock. Westbrook didn't just pick that up off the superdiscount pile at the thrift store; he's into fashion.

And many All-Stars are. Rajon Rondo interned at GQ's headquarters in New York during Fashion Week last year. Amar'e Stoudemire has his own clothing line.

And LeBron just makes things look good. One time, he put on a pair of headphones and then everybody had to spend hundreds of dollars to have them too.

LeBron keeps it tasteful, classic and classy, but there's some flair in there too. 

He's basically all the personalities from that Nike ad with the swimming pool rolled into one.

And it's obviously worth the effort...if you can afford it.

After all, LeBron almost looked better dressed than President Obama when the Heat visited the White House. Almost—except LBJ needs a lesson on knotting a tie from Mario Chalmers.


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