When Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner was preparing to attend the 2022 NFL Draft, he had a specific look in mind. Coming out of Cincinnati, he was projected to go in the top-10 selections and was invited to be one of the players on stage in Las Vegas. He needed a look that fit such a special occasion, and with the draft just a few weeks away, he decided his suit needed to be baby blue.
Clarence Jones, the stylist-designer who has clothed professional athletes for decades, was already working on a different look for Gardner, but once the cornerback changed his mind, Jones switched what he was working on. On draft night, Gardner wore a baby blue suit that was a perfect canvas for his diamond pendants, one that said “Sauce” and another that was a sparkly bottle of sauce.
Gardner got the exact look he wanted. He was the talk of draft night, as he was chosen by the New York Jets with the No. 4 overall pick.
“They're young guys who want to have their own sense of identity, their own sense of style,” Jones said. “So I wasn't mad about it. It was all good. We got it done. That was important.”
Jones is one of a growing group of stylists who are working with NFL players who want to look their best before and after games. With TV cameras and social media capturing their moves well before they get to the field, more and more NFL players are making sure they have the perfect outfit for their walk-in moment. They’re wearing designers like Balenciaga and Gucci, and bespoke, tailored suits. It’s no longer about just throwing on team-provided sweats.
“Every year, football players have become more and more cognizant of what they're wearing and have really invested, not only the money but the time and the effort, to understand what looks good, what looks good on their bodies, and not necessarily follow trends,” said Rachel Johnson, a stylist who has worked with former NFL players Victor Cruz and Colin Kaepernick.
“A lot of them were really diving into wearing more trends, more overtly designer pieces, some things that were more overtly outrageous, trying to look ‘different.’ Now, what I'm seeing is that guys are really settling into and honing in on what looks good on them and what style is best for them, what style represents their personalities, their brands, the way they play. And it's a lot less about wearing a specific designer or whatever the latest trend is.”
Between a team’s content staff, television cameras and reporters snapping pictures, an athlete’s pregame outfit instantly becomes part of the coverage in the lead-up to a game. Athletes’ outfits are discussed on social media and included in roundups of the best or worst looks of the week.
“I have noticed the greater trend of understanding that people are watching and that people care,” said Megan Wilson, a stylist who has worked with football and basketball players. “Broadcasters even have shows dedicated to it. So I have noticed that I feel like guys are understanding it a bit more.”
The biggest things athletes are understanding is that clothes need to fit them well and don’t come that way off the rack. Whether it’s getting bespoke clothes from someone like Jones or heading to a tailor with the clothes that Johnson or Wilson find, a good fit is the most important part of the look.
Johnson helped Kaepernick, the ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback, find the style that worked for him as not just a football player but also as an activist. Before the Super Bowl in 2015, she had a few meetings with him before agreeing on a specific style.
“Sometimes guys think that they have to wear bold brands or crazy colors or they have to do something outrageous in order to stand out and feel confident or be seen,” Johnson said. “Everything that I presented to him was really minimalistic, really sleek and understated, but also had a real level of power and impact. And for him to be able to see himself dressed in the vein of what James Bond would wear if he were Colin Kaepernick.”
It’s not always easy to find clothes that fit football players, who often require items outside what is available in stores. It’s not just that football players are taller and weigh more. They also have thick thighs and calves as well as broad backs and shoulders.
One of the reasons athletes continue to seek out Jones is that he’s used to dressing people like Evan Neal, a New York Giants offensive lineman who is 6-foot-7 and 350 pounds. Jones tries to make sure athletes as big as Neal don’t have to look different because of their size.
“They want that European fit, as close as they can get it. A lot of these guys, they want to look like the thinner guys. Even though they're big, they want to look thinner,” Jones said. “That fit has got to be on the dollar. They don't want their pants baggy because they're 6-7, 365-pound offensive linemen.”
When both Johnson and Wilson started styling, they found that designers wouldn’t often provide clothes that would fit their bigger clients. But as more and more designers have tried to be more inclusive, more athletes can wear their gear.
“The access to the sizes is the most important thing, and that starts with the designers and what they're putting in the marketplace,” Johnson said. “And so that understanding of needing to include gentlemen of all sizes has really also been advantageous for especially NFL and NBA players too, who want to express themselves in interesting, unique ways through their style.”