Monday, December 12, 2005

The Sound of the N.B.A.'s Dress Code: Ka-Ching


When the National Basketball Association instituted a business-casual dress code this season, plenty of grumbling ensued among players, commentators and fans alike.

Do not count Bruce Teilhaber among the disgruntled.

As members of the Toronto Raptors descended on the three levels of his family shoe store in downtown Atlanta the other day, Teilhaber came to the telephone to offer his take on the new dress code. For decades, Friedman's Shoes had been a favorite destination for teams visiting the hometown Hawks. Few stores, after all, carry shoes in sizes 7½ to 22 (a measurement just right for the feet of Shaquille O'Neal).

But the new dress code has increased an already thriving specialty trade. Two days earlier, Teilhaber recounted, the store's van unloaded players from the Miami Heat after picking them up at the Four Seasons Hotel. Prodded by Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton, Heat veterans and long-time snazzy dressers, the players spent more than $20,000 that day on dress shoes that average about $250 but can soar to $750 for alligator shoes. On similar visits last year, Heat players dropped half as much, many steering clear of the dress shoes for less expensive sneakers.

"If a player's wearing a $3,000 suit, what's he going to wear with that?" Teilhaber said before quickly answering his own question. "He's not going to wear $99 shoes."

The haberdashers and purveyors of fine dress shoes who cater to outsized professional athletes are certainly enjoying the trickle-down economics of the N.B.A. They are now selling to players who previously stuck to T-shirts and sneakers, while returning customers are upgrading their wardrobes.

Élevée Fine Clothing in Van Nuys, Calif., now dresses about three quarters of the N.B.A.'s players, up from about half before the institution of the dress code. Bespoke Apparel, with boutiques outside St. Louis and Atlanta, is enjoying a 150 percent bump in business. Couture in San Francisco is getting more business from players on the nearby Golden State Warriors. And the Pacific Shoe Corporation is seeing increased orders (and hundreds of thousands more dollars) for its Mezlan brand, which is in demand by the players.

The N.B.A. has long had its share of natty dressers, from the funkadelic stylings of Darryl Dawkins to the more understated, even elegant attire of Michael Jordan and Kevin Garnett. Some teams, like the Knicks, already adhered to strict dress codes. But the league and its commissioner, David Stern, determined that the N.B.A.'s image - battered by the melee last year in Auburn Hills, Mich., between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers that spilled into the stands - could use some sprucing up.

As of Nov. 1, the baggy jeans, throwback jerseys and do-rags favored by players like Allen Iverson are off limits when on team or league business. Suits are not mandatory, but the players must wear dress slacks, khakis or dress jeans with a dress shirt and appropriate shoes. Sneakers, sandals, flip-flops or work boots are not considered appropriate. When players do not dress for a game but sit on the bench or in the stands, the demands become a bit stricter. A sport coat, dress shoes or boots, and socks become part of the uniform.

Accessories are not spared the withering gaze of the fashion arbiters at league headquarters, either. Players are no longer allowed to wear sunglasses while indoors, and headphones are welcome only on the team bus or plane, or in the locker room. Chains, pendants or medallions cannot be worn over a player's clothes

The penalty for noncompliance: a fine.

For a California kid partial to jeans like Luke Walton of the Los Angeles Lakers, the new code meant an extreme makeover, fast. "I grew up with hippie parents, so I don't know much about the fashion world," said Walton, whose father, Bill, is a former All-Star and a television commentator.

Being 6 feet 8 inches limited Walton's clothing options. But teammates steered him to Élevée, a custom clothier in the San Fernando Valley whose clients include Vince Carter of the Nets and Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets and whose suits range in price from $1,600 to $6,000 (or higher depending on the fabric). More than $15,000 later, Walton had picked out - with the help of Élevée's in-house designers - five suits, several velvet blazers and corduroy jackets, and custom-made ties and pocket squares.

Mike O'Brien, Élevée's chief executive, said revenue from N.B.A. players had increased threefold this season, although he declined to provide specific figures. He used to divide the league's players in two: the dressers and those who preferred sweatsuits, sneakers and throwback jerseys. "Now, we're getting dressers buying more suits," he said. "And the guys who didn't buy suits are now in the market."

The code, he added, "converted the whole league into dressers."

On some teams, the veterans have welcomed the new code as just another schooling (and hazing) experience they can impart to rookies. Last Tuesday, Jason Richardson and Baron Davis, dapper veterans on the Warriors, took the team's three rookies to Couture in San Francisco's Union Square. There the rookies - Ike Diogu, Monta Ellis and Aaron Miles - were razzed for their clothing choices, particularly Diogu, who was wearing sweatpants and a cheap I Like Ike T-shirt. As Richardson and Davis peppered their teammates with fashions dos and don'ts - "They needed a lot of help," Richardson said - the rookies picked out a selection of $1,500 suits and other accoutrements.

"To fit these guys is a real challenge," said David Yahid, the owner of Couture. Because of their distinct physiques - wide chests and shoulders that often go with narrow waists, for example - athletes can rarely buy off the rack, even at a big and tall shop. "Most athletes have a big round booty and big thighs, so nothing fits them," Yahid said.

David R. Corbitt of Bespoke Apparel, where suits start at $1,100 and hit nearly $10,000 for a pure, light cashmere tailoring, said the gaudiness of previous years had been blunted. "The older players are upgrading to a newer, a little more conservative look," he said.

Shirts possess a wider, more British spread. And thicker stripes for ties are very popular. "People are tired of the small and narrow," Corbitt said.

Corbitt, who dressed the rapper Hammer back in his heyday and has the football player Deion Sanders as a client, urges his customers to eschew the outlandish. "Your reds and pinks and purples, leave those to the gangsters," he said.

But understated is a relative concept, particularly for some younger players. "It's a teaching process," Corbitt said. "Their jeans have been hanging off their hips for years."

For companies like J A Apparel, owner of the well-known Joseph Abboud brand, the arrival of the N.B.A. dress code has not directly translated into more business, but it has provided another marketing opportunity. As part of an existing endorsement deal, the company provides Stephon Marbury of the Knicks with a new outfit for each game. Now, through Marbury, Joseph Abboud is providing a free suit for each of the Knicks, and fittings are scheduled for Dec. 22. The company plans, with league approval, to send a letter to every N.B.A. team offering to outfit its players, particularly the younger ones who may become the trendsetters of tomorrow.

"N.B.A. players are cultural icons," said Marty Staff, the president and chief executive of J A Apparel.

Men will look at these chiseled men in flattering clothes by Joseph Abboud and "absolutely say I want to look like that."

Staff added, "We call it image transfer."

The clothiers and shoe-store owners can also envision a different sort of transfer, one to the man behind the new dress code.

"I want to send Stern a pair of alligators, if I can find a pair his size," Teilhaber said.

The consummate shoe salesman paused, searching his memory as he mentally reviewed David Stern's few visits to the store. "He has a wide foot," he added.

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