HOW STYLIST RACHEL JOHNSON TURNS ATHLETES LIKE LEBRON JAMES INTO FASHION SUPERSTARS

fashion Fashion

June Ambrose, Victor Cruz, Rachel Johnson, Julius Randle and Shawn Ashmore FROW at the fall 2015 Ovadia & Sons runway show. Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images
June Ambrose, Victor Cruz, Rachel Johnson, Julius Randle and Shawn Ashmore FROW at the fall 2016 Ovadia & Sons runway show. Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Like actors, musicians and politicians, professional athletes look to stylists to prepare for high-profile outings and create an overall aesthetic. For sports stars, fashion can be an even more crucial element in enhancing (or creating) a public image — leading to attractive contracts, lucrative endorsements and positive PR for the team. 

See, non-sports fans like me might recognize LeBron JamesAmar'e Stoudemire and Victor Cruz more as front-row regulars, fashion collaborators and Anna Wintour BFFs, rather than: four-time NBA MVP, former New York Knicks power forward and center, and New York Giants wide receiver, respectively. And these superstar athletes (and their renowned personal style) have one person to thank: stylist Rachel Johnson. It's a bit of an understatement to call her just a stylist; she's also a relationship builder and an educator, for both her clients and the designers who dress them. 

Johnson graduated from Florida A&M University with a degree to teach English, but two years out, she scored simultaneous gigs under June Ambrose and Sybil Pennix, who styled Notorious B.I.G. and Sean Combs. "[I was] like the fifth assistant. Not the first assistant," Johnson tells Fashionista over the phone. From there, Johnson built her own roster of music clients, including Pharrell Williams, Keyshia Cole and Jamie Foxx.

About a decade ago, she made her transition into sports with "Fab Five" member, retired baller and current ESPN commentator Jalen Rose. Soon after, in a charmed music-meets-sports moment, Jay-Z introduced her to LeBron James's manager. "That whole meeting was all very serendipitous," she says. 

Further bringing entertainment, sports and fashion together, Johnson recently collaborated with CFDA Fashion Ambassador and Givenchy model Cruz on a project with Furthermore from Equinox, a new digital publication from the luxury fitness company. The two are part of theFurthermore Elite, bringing lifestyle and culture together through health and fitness. 

Johnson took time out of her many responsibilities to chat with us about the fascinating art of custom-designing for the greatest athletes in the world, dressing Stoudemire to meet Anna Wintour for the first time and fielding her clients' questions about Raf Simons going to Calvin Klein. Read on for the highlights:

How did you transition from music styling to carving your niche in sports?

During that time [2005], the music industry started changing and drying up. It was the advent of streaming music and piracy. The ways that people consumed music were changing rapidly, so budgets were changing and they expected the same amount of work for half the amount that they were paying in the past. A friend of mine introduced me to Jalen Rose. He wanted old-school jerseys and I had the direct connect for [them]. 

When I first walked into his closet, I was amazed at the selection. It was all huge, boxy — the historically bad NBA suits. The purchasing processes also intrigued me because, at that time, guys would order 60 suits for the season at one time and wear those suits over and over again. These tailors had no interest in helping them develop a style, become marketable or use the fashion community as a basis to promote themselves. Once you've made a black, a grey and a blue suit, then what do you do with the other 57 suits? That's why they were wearing purple suits, green suits, ultrasuede suits. That's why the guys looked less fashionable. Because [no] thought was put into creating their looks at all. And I said, "I think these guys might need me."

Your clients aren't traditionally sample size, so what is it like working with the designers?

Initially, there was a huge learning curve because the designers just didn't understand the [players'] proportions. For example, I took Amar'e Stoudemire to Calvin Klein when he became a Knick [in 2010]. They were very interested in dressing him. They took Amar'e's measurements and sent them to Milan, and the things that Milan sent back were less than desirable — when [the designers] looked at the measurements on paper, they thought that [the numbers] had to be wrong. The pattern makers would use the rules they were used to enforcing to create some balance to what they saw on paper. They just couldn't believe a person could be 6'10," but have a 35 inch waist. So when we took Amar'e to the Milan atelier, and the designers and the pattern makers were actually able to see him in person, they're like, "Oh, we get it now."

There needed to be a human factor. There needed to be a touch and feel. People needed to be in the room to understand each other from a personality perspective, from a cultural perspective and from a fashion and styling perspective, as well. The learning curve was not diminished until I sat with every single designer. Anytime I wanted to bring a client and designer together, this meeting of the minds had to happen; there's a lot of fostering of relationships, a lot of hand-holding, a lot of nurturing that had to happen in order for the two sides to understand each other.

How does fashion help create an athlete's public image?

It's really everything because fashion really is more than just what the guys are wearing. It's also, "where are they going?" [It's] not only creating an image for your client, but also giving him somewhere to go and working with the team to ensure that he is at the right charity event. That he is at the opening at the Whitney. That he is attending shows in Paris. The clothing part of it is fun and interesting, but even more than that [it's about] the exposure that they're getting when they have the clothing on. To me, the two can't be separated because I could have clients that look amazing in the sexiest, the most epic black suit you've ever seen in your life. But if nobody sees it, who cares? 

How much of your job is teaching the player about fashion?

The education piece is everything. That's why I just laugh sometimes. I have a degree to teach high school English. I'm an educator at heart, so even though I'm not teaching them how to match subjects with verbs, I am educating them on fit, sizing, who the major players are in the fashion community, which events they should be attending and which artists they need to know. So it's a constant education and the most important part to me, because you can always tell when a man was dressed by somebody and he had nothing to do with it. For me, the authenticity of my clients' looks is one of the most important things; it can't be authentic if he hasn't been able to choose how he looks from an educated perspective.

'Do you like my outfit?' Amar'e Stoudemire in Tom Ford and Serena Williams at Vogue's first Fashion's Night Out in 2010. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
'Do you like my outfit?' Amar'e Stoudemire in Tom Ford and Serena Williams at Vogue's first Fashion's Night Out in 2010. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

What was a memorable time when your client came into himself sartorially and he loved it and owned it?

The first thing that comes to mind really is Amar'e. There was a beautiful transition for him coming from Phoenix, Arizona — playing for the Suns — to New York and living in the Meatpacking District and really being able to consume style on a completely different level. One of the first events that he attended was the very first Vogue Fashion's Night Out [in Sept. 2010]. There was this huge fashion show at Lincoln Center and Amar'e went and sat next to Serena [Williams]. This was going to be his first time meeting Anna [Wintour]. 

I put him in this skinny baby blue Tom Ford suit. And we did go from zero to 100, but I had no choice because this was a make or break moment. This look was completely outside of [Stoudemire's] wheelhouse to the point that, before he left to go, he was even asking the maids on the hotel floor if they liked what he had on because he needed so much reinforcement. He was like, "I don't get this. I'm not comfortable in this at all." But I didn't care because I knew what it was and I knew that he looked fucking awesome. So he had this big coming out moment and kills it. I showed him the reaction that he got [via text, social media, etc.] and he was like, "OK, I get it."

What was like working with Victor Cruz for the first time?

I went to his closet — I just always start in the closet to just see what people are up to, where their heads are, where they invest their money, what they buy — and he had tons and tons of jeans. I made him try [them all on]; I didn't like the fit on any of them. I don't tell him that. I'm just like, "Why don't we try altering a couple of pairs of your jeans?" He's a little tentative, but he's like, "Okay." So I bring back maybe the first five pairs of [altered] jeans for him to try on. He looks in the mirror and he's turning... and he just starts dancing. So I know that when my client looks in the mirror and starts dancing in the clothes that I put him in that I've done my job. 

Victor Cruz and his impressive denim game at the Dockers x CFDA NYFWM opening party earlier this year. Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images
Victor Cruz and his impressive denim game at the Dockers x CFDA NYFWM opening party earlier this year. Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Where do you look for inspiration and keep up on trends?

One of my inspirations really comes from my clients; once their interests are peaked and they've been given the tools and the confidence that they need to become curious, to want to do their own research and to look for their own sources of inspiration, then they bring that back to me. When Raf Simons went to Calvin Klein, Victor was the first one who called me about it. The guys see this stuff. And they hit me like, "What do you think? What do you think is going to happen? Is the brand going to stay the same? How is the design going to be? Is the brand still going to be as wearable? Is it still going to have a sport edge? Are we still going to be able to love Calvin for all of the reasons that we love it?" They know who Raf Simons is because we've had those conversations.

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