Basketball has always been the most fashionable sport—after all, Michael Jordan helped launch the sneaker revolution. But the advent of the pre-game tunnel camera in the last five years, and the imperative it creates to look good, has taken things to another level, says the Brooklyn Nets player and noted dandy James Harden. “When you look back in the NBA, stars used to dress,” he mused in an interview last week. “But I feel like now, the emphasis [is on] fashion, to where we got runways in our tunnels. There’s cameras flashing—it’s like a show.”
“You gotta put it on,” Harden continued. “You gotta put that outfit on when you walk into that game because there are going to be a lot of pictures taken of you. And then they’re going to be posted on social media. So if you want to be talked about, in a good way—or a bad way! Depends on what you got on,” you have to be into fashion, he said. “It’s kind of the culture, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
Fashion tends to take more than it gives, though, even (or especially) when it comes to its biggest advocates. Designers, editors, and stylists kept rappers at an icy arm’s length for decades, for example, and it’s unclear whether basketball’s influence on style is quite understood by the industry outside of sportswear companies.
Harden wants to change that, which is why he announced in June that he was joining the board of Saks Fifth Avenue. “My job is to bring my piece of the pie and take it to a whole other level,” he said. “The partnership with Saks, my position is to help Saks move the culture and let the world know that we’re not the previous Saks that everybody’s familiar with. We’re more innovative. We’re outside. We’re here to put a stamp on the fashion world.”
“For me, it was just an opportunity of a lifetime, honestly,” he added. “You know, I don’t know another athlete or just another person in my position that would have that opportunity.”
Harden is right that he is one of the few players powerful and stylish enough to actually shift that relationship. He was an early star of the tunnel fits era. “I’ve been into fashion for a very, very long time,” he said, adding that he loves “the creativity, the different mindset. I feel like I’m in that world in a sense of creativity.”
He has no favorite brands—he is simply and gloriously a clotheshorse. He calls designers “artists.” He wears Balenciaga’s hits and rarities with equal aplomb, and loves prints, unusual fabrics, and weird shapes. He has never regretted a single outfit. “I think I’ve worn something that I was like, later, ‘What the hell was that?’ [But] most of the time I’m confident,” he said. “I’m just very, very strange in the sense that I can wear anything and be confident. Most of the people in the rooms that I walk in, they’re like, What the hell is he wearing? But inside I’m normal, feeling like I’m wearing something everyone else has on.”
I asked Harden whether fashion is giving NBA players as much as they are giving the industry. The relationship isn’t quite yet what it should be, he conceded. “For me, to be on the board at Saks, my job is to bridge that gap. You’ve had players that go to fashion week and people that wear clothes or what not. But to make it cool, make it to where you get some of these younger guys that dress nicely and [are] into fashion an opportunity to tap into the fashion world at a higher level—I feel like I’m the person that’s going to pave the way for that, bridging the gap and shining more of a light on Saks and the things that we’re capable of. Not just in the fashion world, but in the community as well.”
Harden’s appointment is just the latest signal that Saks is keen to cultivate menswear’s growing influence in fashion. The store completed a massive renovation of its menswear space in 2019, making it one of the largest footwear destinations in the country, and has been partnering with other NBA players for branded content, including two projects with Utah Jazz’s Mike Conley and Denver Nuggets’ Austin Rivers in June for Father’s Day.
And Harden is already elevating his role in the industry. He attended Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga couture debut back in July, with best friend Lil Baby. “We were shopping in Paris when all that craziness went down,” he said, alluding to Lil Baby’s arrest for marijuana possession on Avenue Montaigne, the city’s ritziest shopping district. “We literally talk about and do everything [together], as far as business and fashion and careers. But, you know, he’s so accustomed to dressing one way, that’s just very, uh”—here he chose his words tenderly—“simple. Don’t like to step outside of your box, don’t like to wear a lot of flashy colors or clothes. And I’m the opposite! If I wear something that looks a little crazy, he looks at me like I’m doing something wrong here! So my job is to get him on that level where he’s able to wear anything and he still has that same confidence.”
“Fashion is just confidence,” he went on. “Wearing clothes is confidence. If you walk around like those clothes are made for you, it shows. That’s how I walk around.”
In music, especially in the rap world, fashion is something like a subcultural interest—the deeper the cut, whether it’s rare Raf Simons or the young star Kiko Kostadinov, the better. But Harden sees fashion more as a form of freedom from the team uniform: “As athletes, we get a lot of attention, good and bad. Us having our freedom off the court, showing who we really are—when we’re on the court or on the field, we don’t really have an opportunity to express ourselves like we can off. So this is an opportunity for us to express ourselves, to be who we are and be free, whether it’s dressing, wearing our clothes or using our voice.”
Of course, the new relationship with Saks has some perks. “For me, I just didn’t know how much money I spent on clothes, until lately. It’s a beautiful thing to be on the board,” he giggled. (In GQ’s March 2020 cover story featuring Harden and Russell Westbook, the latter estimated that Harden spent half a million dollars at least per year on clothes.)
Does this mean he’s taking advantage of a sweet discount? “I’m not going to go into all that! I just didn’t know until I looked up and saw the numbers! But all in all, we’re trying to build something that elevates the culture. We’re trying to elevate the world. We have some beautiful things coming along.” See you at fashion week, then? “I will be there very, very strong.”