By Michelle Kaufman
You have an important business trip. You pull your suitcase out of the closet, throw in your nicest suit, your nicest shoes, a couple of dress shirts, undies, socks.
Shaquille O'Neal is on an important business trip. The Heat center is playing in today's NBA All-Star Game in Denver, where the best basketball players on the planet will show off their silkiest moves on the hardwood and finest threads at the after-parties.
But O'Neal didn't pack. Not a single sock. Instead, he called his personal tailor, Lamar Gayles, Sr., in Chicago and told him he wanted a new wardrobe for the weekend.
Gayles and five members of his 15-person staff got to work immediately. They rolled out 7 ¼ yards of the finest wool-cashmere blends and made O'Neal a suit and a matching hat (a typical man requires only 4 ½ yards). Then they made another. And another. And another. And another.
With French-cuffed shirts, fat-knotted ties, and custom-made socks to go with each one.
Four-day weekend. Five suits.
''Mr. O'Neal does not duplicate,'' explains Gayles, who has been O'Neal's tailor for eight years.
It can get chilly in Denver this time of year, so Gayles made O'Neal two chinchilla jackets, two cashmere top coats -- one black, one camel, and a few quilted leather vests. For down time, Gayles made O'Neal six new ultra-suede warmups, a couple of denim outfits, and four casual shirt-pant combinations. O'Neal likes to have at least one outfit in Heat colors (black and red) and one in his fraternity colors (Omega's purple and gold).
Thursday afternoon, Gayles hung all of O'Neal's new clothes on custom-made hangers, put them in a half-dozen wardrobe boxes and shipped them to his client's Denver hotel. Gayles then flew to Denver to meet the clothing and lay them out in O'Neal' s suite.
''When Mr. O'Neal gets to his room, all the clothes will be there, laid out with the matching shirt, tie, socks and shoes,'' Gayles said. ``He makes suggestions, but mainly, he trusts my judgment. In eight years, I've made him hundreds of suits, and there were only four pieces he didn't like and two that didn't fit.''
O'Neal is equally particular about his shoes, and could give Imelda Marcos a run for her money.
He's not sure exactly how many pairs of shoes he has lining his two closets in his Miami Beach mansion, but he ordered 200 pairs of Donald Pliners last year alone, and estimates he has 200 pairs of sneakers from his signature line. Over the years, he has also purchased hundreds of pairs of shoes from Friedman's shoe store in Atlanta, which specializes in big sizes and exotic skins.
O'Neal wears size 22 EEE, and all of the shoes are custom made.
''We have a custom mold for him in our two factories in Tuscany, and he orders 150 to 175 pairs a year,'' said Pliner, who is also O'Neal's next-door neighbor on Star Island. 'He just loves shoes. He'll come in the store and say, `I want 10 of those in different colors, six of those, 12 of those.' He buys so many that we even make a custom box for them. He's a great customer.''
O'Neal couldn't say how much he spends on shoes (``I never check the price tags.''), but considering the shoes he buys retail for anywhere from $300 to $2,000, the NBA star's shoe collection is probably worth at least a quarter of a million dollar s. He takes good care of the shoes, and keeps them in color-coordinated rows in his closets. Once in a while, when he tires of a pair of shoes, he donates them to large-footed teenagers whose parents have asked O'Neal for his hand-me-downs.
''I've got the blacks with the blacks, the browns with the browns, the reds with the reds, and all the wild shoes in one area,'' he said. O'Neal has one closet in the master bedroom, but that isn't big enough for his jumbo-sized wardrobe, so he turned half of his media room/theater into a closet.
''My wife [Shaunie] got the bigger closet because she's a woman, so there really wasn't enough room in my one closet for all my stuff,'' O'Neal said. ``I have hundreds of pairs of shoes. I'll have about 10 pairs with me for All-Star Weekend, five black and five brown, and maybe a couple of others, too.''
Why does he need so many shoes?
''It's not a matter of need,'' he said. ``I just like shoes, like the variety.''
He has the same attitude towards clothing. O'Neal likes to wear new clothes and stay ahead of the trends. He says he has gotten more conservative in his old age.
''I used to dress a lot wilder, with bright colors and wild designs and derby hats, because I wanted everyone to notice me,'' O'Neal said. 'Half the people said, `Oh, that's beautiful,' and half said, 'Oh, that's horrible,' but at least they wer e looking, and that's what I wanted. Now that I'm more corporate, I dress classier. Black, brown, navy, beiges. I wear three-piece suits, fat-knotted ties, classy hats, The Godfather look.''
He keeps Gayles busy. Five of Gayles' employees at Phenomenal Designs by Lamar work exclusively on O'Neal's account. O'Neal met Gayles eight years ago through a mutual friend, and the tailor was so honored he made O'Neal a customized leather jacket that included patches of the L.A. Lakers, O'Neal's fraternity, his alma mater (Louisiana State), and Superman, O'Neal's favorite comic book character. The jackets retailed for $7,000, but Gayles insisted O'Neal keep it is a gift.
''He just flipped with that jacket, and asked me if I do suits and other clothes, so I told him I'd be happy to be his full time tailor, his valet, whatever he needs,'' Gayles said. 'That's how the marriage began. He definitely had his own style, which we called `Shaq-a-Style.' He'd wear long jackets, derby hats, loud colors. But now, he looks really sharp, classy suits, Homburg hats.''
At the beginning of each season, O'Neal sits down with Gayles and they go over the basketball star's calendar. He likes to have new suits for every awards show, charity dinner, and major party. He also likes to find new clothes on his hotel room bed when the Heat is on the road.
''The concierges in every NBA city know who I am because I'm always shipping Mr. O'Neal's clothes,'' Gayles said. ``Once in a while, he'll send me a photo of a suit or outfit he likes, and I'll make it for him. Other times, his wife tells me there 's some color she'd like to see him in, so we find fabrics in those colors. He's been really fun to work with.''
In addition to making and shipping the clothes, Gayles said he helps O'Neal get ready for functions and appearances. ``If he's going to do a Nestle Crunch appearance, I'll pick out an ultra-suede outfit for him, and then if he has to go from there to an NBA fashion show, I'll have a suit and tie waiting for him at the next venue. I take care of all Mr. O'Neal's clothing needs.''
O'Neal buys underwear, t-shirts and some casual wear from Big and Tall shops such as Rochester and Casual Male, but most of his clothing is custom-made. Neither Gayles nor O'Neal would say how much he spends on clothing per year, but Gayles said, ``Mr. O'Neal is our most faithful client and our business is doing well.''