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NBA players use ‘tunnel walks’ to show off their style

Daniel Solomon had a dorm room hustle selling fashion to buddies on the men’s basketball team who struggled to find the hottest clothes and shoes in their size when he was a college student at Indiana University in 2014. One of them was O.G. Anunoby, a star for the Indiana Hoosiers. Anunoby was picked by the Toronto Raptors, a professional NBA team, in 2017 and turned to Solomon for advice on his off-court appearances.

By then, a new generation of basketball players had begun to create personal brands, with off-court flair probably as essential as on-court performance. NBA legends like LeBron James had transformed gameday arrivals — dubbed “tunnel walks” for the paths connecting locker rooms to arena entrances — into the NBA’s equivalent of the red carpet.

However, Anunoby and his peers have now improved their style game, constructing their outfits at the speed of social media and swapping streetwear mainstays for high fashion. This has resulted in an increase in demand for expert stylists and “plugs” who can supply basketball players with unique styles, while also creating new marketing opportunities for luxury companies.

Solomon now runs a successful business providing “fire suits” to hundreds of professional basketball players, who now dress in high-fashion brands for their pre-game tunnel walks. When all eyes are on the players during the NBA playoffs, names such as Thom Browne, Celine, Bottega Veneta, Marni, Rick Owens, and Prada, as well as “insider” labels such as Chrome Hearts and Who Decides War, will most likely be on full display.

“Brands are seeing how much the tunnels and everything that we do kind of matters to society and pop culture,” said Washington Wizards player Kyle Kuzma, who is known for wearing meme-inducing fashion designs such as an oversized pink Raf Simons jumper.

The ‘fire fits’ business

Solomon began his profession at his family’s Long Island home, delivering streetwear labels like Supreme to Anunoby’s hotel room whenever he was in New York for games. Solomon’s service quickly caught on with other players, and he became renowned as a “plug” for cool apparel throughout the league. (Unlike a stylist, who often borrows clothes from brands, a “plug” sources and sells goods like a vendor at a vintage market). Today, Solomon organizes more than 100 hotel pop-ups each year and produces yearly sales in the high seven figures.

“It’s very efficient if you’re on the road and someone pulls up with thousands of clothes and you can pick whatever you want,” Kuzma remarked.

Wearing “fire suits” has almost as much currency as being able to “knock down threes from downtown,” and top NBA players are increasingly going to high fashion to grab attention. “The Internet has forced everyone to want to be more fashionable,” said Kuzma’s stylist, Toreno Winn Jr. “It’s all about creating moments because people’s attention spans are so short today.”

“The league is maturing.” They are concerned about their image and how it seems on Instagram,” noted Richard Ontiveros-Gima, a former paparazzi photographer who now shoots basketball players on his Instagram account @thehapablonde. “They grew up during the period when streetwear became high fashion — it’s natural for them.”

Fans are watching. The Instagram account @leaguefits, which focuses on NBA fashion, has over 890,000 followers. Traditional media is as well. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder was named “most stylish man of the year” by American GQ readers in 2022 for his edgy high fashion-streetwear mashups. The Athletic, a sports service owned by the New York Times, ranks players’ fashion choices regularly. Last month, the Wall Street Journal ran a feature on Kuzma and his “head-turning style.”

“Style icon is the perfect way to describe these guys,” said vintage specialist Tom DeCeglie, who, like Solomon, sells to NBA players in their hotels for the whole eight-month season. “It’s crazy how the tunnel walk has progressed to this point because I remember guys just coming in wearing sweatpants and that was it.”

The phenomenon’s origins can be traced back to the 1990s. Dennis Rodman’s flamboyant style, which included bright wigs, tattoos, piercings, and love for glittery crop tops at the time, challenged traditional ideals of masculinity and highlighted the power of a look to draw attention. Allen Iverson brought hip-hop swagger to the NBA in the early 2000s (frequently wearing cornrows, baggy Sean John sweats with Timberlands, and diamond-studded Jacob & Co. necklaces), causing the NBA’s then-commissioner, David Stern, to create an infamous dress code. However, it is LeBron James’ stylist, Rachel Johnson, who is frequently credited with persuading high-end designers to make custom garments in the players’ sizes, paving the way for better connections.

The possibility for brands

The mechanics of how the garments wind up on the players differ from the mechanics of red carpet dressing in Hollywood. NBA players are much taller and wider than ordinary people, and brands find it difficult to lend them clothing because most don’t make samples in their sizes. As a result, players often purchase their outfits from stores or the league’s “plugs.” They occasionally pay for custom orders from brands. Furthermore, because they are paying clients, their connections with fashion firms are frequently less transactional than typical endorsement partnerships.

While some brands pay players for placement, others, such as Marni, prefer to work with NBA players as VIP clients, claiming authenticity. And being welcomed by athletes means that the brand is exposed to millions of global followers who watch their games and see what they wear on television and social media.

According to retail analytics firm Edited, when Kyle Kuzma shared an Instagram photo of himself wearing a Rick Owens puffy jacket in February, the item sold out in a matter of days at Ssense. Similarly, when Cameron Payne of the Phoenix Suns was discovered wearing a $1,050 patterned Bottega Veneta button-down, the item had to be restocked four times on the Italian label’s US e-commerce site.

“It’s logical because athletes, especially in America, are your heroes,” said Hung La, founder of independent menswear label Lu’u Dan, which witnessed a substantial increase in sales after Kuzma donned its tiger-print sweatshirt earlier this year.

Kuzma, on the other hand, wants to channel his celebrity status into his brand, Childhood Dreams. Meanwhile, Solomon and DeCeglie are eyeing the chance in college basketball, where players garner a lot of attention and can now profit from their image.

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