Stylists to NBA's best offer perspective on how fashion can help hockey grow

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews. (Nathan Denette/CP)

To the untrained eye, it might've seemed like a step back. A crisp, tailored suit swapped for a simple, unremarkable hoodie and shorts, an odd choice for a night marked with occasion.

It was August 2020, and Auston Matthews was making his way into Scotiabank Arena for another evening of bubble playoff battle for his Maple Leafs, his summery vibe raising eyebrows as he strolled through the bowels of the arena.

But for those who could see it, there was nothing simple about the seemingly casual gameday fit.

The hoodie — an Honor Decal Hoodie in off-white, from Honor The Gift’s Gasoline collection — paid tribute to the vision of the L.A. line's founder, NBA great Russell Westbrook. The shorts — Dior Oblique Bermuda Shorts, in multicolour silk twill — run you well over a grand from the French fashion house, hardly a selection made for quick comfort. And then there’s the pair of sneakers Matthews donned in place of his usual loafers — the Jordan 3 Retro OG True Blue, an homage to one of the shoe's original colourways released back in '88 — an aptly-named choice given the hue of the jersey he lights lamps in.

In that 2020 bubble, with the league already thrust deep into new territory, fashionable displays like Matthews’ were a regular part of the game. The hockey world got a brief glimpse of what life looked like with more off-ice personality, the players briefly permitted to wear whatever they wanted on gamedays despite the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement requiring suits and ties. The next season, they reverted back to the usual buttoned-up look.

But fast-forward to the current 2021-22 campaign, and the dam’s continued to slowly break. The Arizona Coyotes started things off, becoming the first team to shake the dress code and let players do their thing. Matthews’ Leafs followed suit, relaxing their dress code to ‘business casual’ — somewhere in between hoodie-and-shorts and three-piece-suit.

It’s a meaningful, if subtle, departure for a sport that’s long been set in its traditional ways, one for whom conformity remains a key pillar. But look to the organizations in other sports that share cities and arenas with a number of NHL clubs, and the still-untapped potential to grow the game is clear.

Few understand that potential better than the architects of the fits that have helped fashion become a core part of the NBA’s culture.

Count stylist Erinnicole Goodwin among that group. Since launching her brand, It's Goode Clothing, back in 2017, the California native's crafted looks for the likes of Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan and Steph Curry, that role granting her a front-row seat to this shift.

“It's definitely spread like wildfire within the last two years,” she says of the impact fashion has had on basketball culture. “If you go further back, you can always trace it back to Allen Iverson, just an athlete who was true to who he was.

"From there, I think more and more over the years, athletes have been inspired... showing that they are people outside of just being a jersey and a number on a field or on a court.”

That wildfire’s left the NBA as hot as it's ever been in the fashion world. Arena entrances have become runways for the game’s best dressed. Entire media ventures have been launched dedicated to covering gameday looks.

Hoopers have become fashion icons.

Kesha McLeod's played a key role in that intertwining of the basketball and fashion worlds. The New York-based stylist counts among her many clients NBA all-stars like James Harden, Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, along with tennis legend Serena Williams, and Auston Matthews himself. She recalls a particular moment working with Harden when the scale of the NBA’s fashion takeover really hit her.

“We used to launch pieces for Versace,” she says. “They would have a certain piece in their collection that was about to release in a store, and they wanted somebody like him to walk down that tunnel walkway to premiere the piece. So, even just being that influential in what they do, and what these athletes bring to the fashion game, is really amazing and mind-blowing.”

For the hockey world, where an embrace of fashion is just beginning to make early waves, that whole game is largely misunderstood — seen by some as unnecessary, by others as disrespectful to the sanctity of the sport.

But ask those who've already seen how this timeline plays out, who've worked with some of the most prominent athletes in the world and better understand why exactly they care so deeply about expressing themselves through their style, and they see it differently.

For six-time all-star Lillard, embracing fashion is about more than just copping the hottest pieces. It’s about delivering a message about who you are and where you come from.

“Working with Damian is very much a collaborative process and it's always very intentional. It always tells a story,” says Goodwin. “He's very proud, as am I, to be from Oakland, California. And a lot of the pieces that he wears tie back into the Bay Area, or support local brands that are up and coming.

“Everything is personal and just a part of his own story — he won't wear something just because it's the newest release... He's going to wear it because it means something to him.”

That goal of better representing Lillard’s story plays a key part in how each gameday look is selected, she explains. It’s not just finding something fresh or mimicking trends — it’s a process of connecting who Lillard is on the court with who he is off it.

“Because at the end of the day, this is all a part of your brand,” Goodwin says. “These are all the things that come into who Damian Lillard is. And when you walk around on the street, you are a walking representation of the person that they know to be this amazing all-star athlete on the court, so your look off the court needs to come just as hard as your game does, you know? He understood that, and he appreciated that.”

The pushback against allowing hockey players to express themselves in a similar manner usually takes on one form in particular — the notion that fashion is a distraction. That the mental energy expended on looking great off the ice will take away from the ability to be great on it.

But after years spent working with an MVP in Harden, a reigning champion in Tucker, and a GOAT in Williams, McLeod isn’t buying that argument.

“You can't say I'm distracted because I woke up and ate breakfast this morning, or I'm distracted because I took my kids to school. It's just part of my routine," she says. "Getting dressed is what these athletes have [always] done, and it's part of their routine. Looking great is part of their routine — making sure that they're on top of their game, and what they wear and the fit and everything is perfect. You make time for what you want to make time for, and it becomes part of your routine.”

For the current generation of hockey fans, one of the first forays outside the usual borders of the sport’s relationship with fashion came in 2018, when Matthews caused a stir with a shoot for Sharp Magazine, swapping blazers for bold, flowing jackets from Valentino and Maison Margiela.

It was McLeod who crafted his look for the shoot, that collaboration granting her a chance to see hockey’s potential for something more.

“We don't know too much about NHL players. We know they come in with a suit, and then they're all guarded up in what they wear [on the ice], with all their performance gear. But you don't know nothing about them. And one of the things I got to know was how expressive Auston was,” she says. “Just from his knowledge of Virgil and Off-White… just even being knowledgeable of collections and everything, you knew there was an interest there.”

According to his fellow players, Matthews has since become the most fashionable in the game, the centreman named as such in the NHLPA’s annual player poll last season. Working with the young Leaf one-on-one, getting a sense of his understanding of her world, it's little surprise he’s become one of the central figures in the game’s push towards a more fashion-forward future, McLeod says.

“I think for him, he sees the bigger picture.”

For Matthews’ part, he’s made clear where he stands, telling ESPN’s Emily Kaplan recently that he's hoping things continue trending in the direction they're going. “I wish there was no dress code for games and stuff,” he told Kaplan. "I don't mind wearing a suit, but it gets old, I guess. It gets old pretty quick. I think it'd be fun to wear different things and be able to express yourself, similar to what the NBA does or even the NFL a little bit.”

The vast majority of his NHL brethren appear to agree. In the 2019-20 iteration of that NHLPA player poll, 73 per cent of the 563 NHLers who voted said they would be in favour of relaxing the game-day dress code, similar to the NBA. In the weeks since the dress code shackles have begun to drop off this season, we’ve already seen a number of players from the two early-adopting clubs embrace the change — none more so than Ryan Dzingel and his wild tiger-print fit.

The potential’s there — it’s simply a matter of opening the door, and letting players showcase who they already are outside of the game's confines.

“Auston is just being his regular expressive itself,” says McLeod. “He is literally just like my clients. But we would never know because of the dress code. … It wasn't until the bubble — you see him in Off-White and you see him in Honor The Gift, you see him in a little bit of Gucci and some Raf Simons, and you're like, ‘Hey, you might be speaking my language. I see where you're going with this.’ It brings in the youth, and it attracts other people to you.”

But there may be no one in the game with more hidden prowess in this area than P.K. Subban, McLeod says. Though the former Norris Trophy winner’s long been known for his sartorial flair, it's nothing compared to what's still tucked away in his closet.

“What's so amazing about P.K. is that he has crazy pieces, but pieces we would never see,” she says. “He has these amazing coats and cardigans and sweaters — it's mind-blowing everything he has. Things that I've seen on runway like, ‘Oh my God, how did you get this?’ And he's like, ‘Well, I shop. That's what I love to do.’

“But we would never be able to see this, because during the winter season, what is he doing? He's playing hockey and he's wearing a suit.”

The potential for new opportunities goes far beyond just allowing players to explore their personal style, though. Opening that door for athletes to use fashion as a tool to tell their own stories allows for all manner of different avenues to reach out and connect with their communities.

Goodwin saw that take shape most clearly in her work with DeRozan, the two collaborating to create his personal line, COMP10.

“DeMar had this vision of wanting to create a clothing line that told the story of his hometown,” she says. “He's very proud to be from Compton, California. … Every piece begins with a conversation with DeMar and his family members and friends. They'll tell me about a place they used to go to growing up. They give me homework — they educate me, tell me what the significance of these different things in their city is, or what they think of when they think of home, or where they went to school. And then we in turn interpret that creatively and create the product line.

“It's been a very special process because it is so personal, not just to DeMar but also to his family and to other people who are from the city of Compton and from that community.”

That last point is the crucial one. For DeRozan, embracing fashion was a bridge to telling his story not only to hoops fans, but to a wider audience existing beyond.

“With the example of COMP10 for DeMar, you don't have to be a basketball fan to connect with the story and the messaging that goes into that brand," says Goodwin.

It’s in that potential to use fashion as a means of expanding audiences that a real, tangible opportunity to grow hockey exists, explains Vijay Setlur, who teaches sports marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

“If you're just marketing a sport to sports fan, then you're limiting your revenue-generating potential,” he explains. “Whereas if you're marketing the product to a wider audience, that includes both casual consumers but also non-consumers, then you're making yourself more relevant. Fashion is a universal subject. By ensconcing yourself within a universal subject, you draw more attention, and because of that, you become more relevant.

"When you become relevant, that allows you to build your brand, it allows you to sell more product, sell more tickets and ultimately generate revenue.”

The NBA’s already proven it understands that opportunity, leaning into it not only by allowing players to routinely go viral with their gameday looks, but even going so far as to program around it from time to time, staging fashion shows at past NBA all-star festivities.

The difference between that approach and the one the NHL's taken ties into a larger distinction between how the two leagues market themselves, Setlur says.

“The NHL markets its product based on the product itself, the core product, which are its events or its games," he explains. "And specifically, they use the major tentpole events as a driver. So, whether it's the Winter Classic or the Stadium Series or the Heritage Classic, the NHL's largely marketed its product based on its events and the sport itself — the speed and the excitement, and so on. Whereas the NBA's marketing has been driven by its star players, and that's been the case for a long time.”

And, according to Setlur, there’s a particularly pressing reason the hockey world may soon need to adopt an approach more similar to the NBA's. Pointing to a study from data intelligence company Morning Consult, he noted the impact research on the next key wave of consumers could have on the situation.

“People that follow the NHL, they don't follow it for the players, they follow it because of loyalty to their teams. Whereas in the NBA, it was more about players than it was about the teams,” he says of the study’s findings. “And that says a lot, because what we're finding based on research that's been done into different generations is that Generation Z — which is a key priority consumer market for the industry — this group of consumers is more interested in following athletes than they are in following teams.

“And because the NHL doesn't market its product through its players so much, I think the NHL is at a growing competitive disadvantage to the likes of the NBA, which is star-driven.”

Embracing the fashion world seems one worthy avenue that could begin leading hockey to a more star-centric future — its impact has already been proven elsewhere in the sports world, time and time again. All that's required is a willingness to break down the longstanding wall between the game’s traditions and its potential.

Between asking players to fall in line, and allowing them to stand out.

“My philosophy is that clothing is a language," says Goodwin. "It allows us to tell our stories. It's something that connects all of us.” And for a sport that's in dire need of more personality, more individuality, allowing the players to make those connections is key. “It humanizes them in a way. Rather than just being sports deities, they become people.

"It's just so important to be able to express yourself and to tell your story, because I think that we all deserve to have a voice. And fashion can be a way to say so much without ever having to open your mouth.”

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