Calyann Barnett still remembers the emails and phone calls she received after NBA All-Star Weekend in 2009. Barnett, Dwyane Wade's personal stylist since 2007, had fitted him in bow ties, European-cut suits and colored eyeglass frames—unheard of at the time in the league.
"We were doing our own little thing," Barnett said. "I got all these angry comments, like, 'What are you doing? Why are you putting a basketball player in these looks?' It was crazy because, to me, it's not what you do, it's who you are, and your style is supposed to portray your passion.
"Dwyane and I ended up working together because I was so different, and he was looking for that."
How far we've come.
Now, being different is the norm in the world of NBA fashion, and there's no bigger red carpet for unique and unexpected fashion than the playoffs, which begin Saturday.
"Of course," Wade said. "During the playoffs, every game is televised; the cameras are on you from the second you walk off the bus to when you walk back on it."
It's a brand-creating opportunity players like Wade and Golden State Warriors' All-Star Stephen Curry don't pass up. Now, it's not uncommon to see star players landing clothing contracts, sitting front row at fashion week and strutting their stuff in lifestyle magazines that have enhanced sports sections.
"Each night is a huge game and an opportunity to dress it out," Curry said. "You want to have a podium game and be decked out when you're up there celebrating a big win. There are a lot more eyes on each entrance walking into the arena, so it's definitely fun to go all out."
"Playoff peacocking finds an NBA player at the height of showcasing his style, individuality and interpretation of trends," she said. "Like All-Star (Weekend), the playoff stage boasts opportunities to embrace and emulate the latest runway trends and exclusive designer wears that the mainstream gent can only hope to copycat.
"Regular-season attire is usually approached by considering what team is being played, where and when. National games and heavily touted matchups will always find an NBA player donning his Sunday best, and games like the Bucks vs. Timberwolves on a Tuesday night may find these gents in more casual attire. But playoff fashion has become a part of pop and mainstream culture."
In the past in the playoffs, players made statements with lensless glasses and man purses—both popularized by James and Wade in 2012—as well as colorful shirts and pants, made trendy by Russell Westbrook.
In the 2012 playoffs, Westbrook wore yellow pants for one game; for another, he rocked a Lacoste shirt with fishhooks. Now, because of his eccentricity, he has a fashion endorsement with Kings & Jaxs, according to his stylist, Jhoanna Alba.
"He got so much attention from that. Now look at him—he has his own underwear line," said Alba, whose first client was Magic Johnson and who now works with the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Roy Hibbert, Damian Lillard and John Wall. "Russell is very creative—on the court and off the court. He's hands-on; he looks at fabrics, feels them; he's part of the process. If there's something that he likes and he sees, he'll make it happen."
Last year in the playoffs, Paul George took "Westbrook-esque" to a whole other level. For Game 1 against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, he wore aqua pants and a green, amoeba-patterned dress shirt.
"I heard him called 'broccoli' and 'green giant,'" Barnett said.
"Now guys are not afraid to wear loud colors or fitted pants, and they really express themselves to be different," said popular jeweler to the pros, Jason Arasheben, who's more widely known as Jason of Beverly Hills. "Whereas I would say five, 10 years ago, guys were scared of being made fun of in the locker room, now they embrace it."
So what's in store for this year's playoffs?
On a small scale, the stylists expect recent trends to continue, like more bold and patterned shirts, which kicked into high gear in New Orleans at All-Star Weekend.
"Lots of hats, lots of eyewear, lots of leather," Johnson said. "Lots of confusing combinations."
The larger trend? "Lots of overdoing it," she said.
In other words, this postseason could be the biggest fashion circus yet. The consensus among the stylists Bleacher Report spoke with was that we've reached the point where anything goes.
"Everything does go," Barnett said. "If you look at a runway, there are so many pieces out there that you would never put on that nobody would wear. It's made for the runway.
"I feel like the athletes are really taking that look to the locker room. That's their runway. So things that they would never, ever put on in real life, they're putting it on."
"The playoffs are a time where the players feel like they can release their inner fashion model and use their trip to the locker room like a catwalk," said Kaitlin Anthony, creative director and stylist for Elevee, a top customized-suit destination for players. "NBA fashion has evolved tremendously, from zoot suits and wide-brimmed hats, to baggy walkers and chains, to the now ever-so-popular European slim look."
From the players' vantage point, a recent desire is accessorizing, because a classic stunning suit isn't enough for them. Small items like brooches, lapel pins, air ties, colorful socks and designer slip-on shoes will be all over the playoffs.
All of these things are in play for another reason: They provide motivation for the players to one-up the next guy in the locker room with just a touch of something different.
"Guys are looking for different ways to express their individuality and their personal style," Arasheben said. "Suits tend to often be just boring for the guys. It is Wall Street attire, so they want to jazz it up a bit. In yesteryear, they were wearing the big, over-the-top jewelry. Now they want a little bit more classy."
Arasheben, who said he has several clients on every single NBA team, has the perfect location in the Los Angeles area, where many players reside in the offseason. His player clients keep tabs on his latest creations through his blog or Instagram account, and sometimes he'll send them new additions from his Gentleman Collection.
"They eat it up," he said.
In the past two months, some players who've come into town to play the Lakers or Clippers have stopped by Arasheben's shop or he's gone to their hotels to discuss playoff designs. So what are those for this postseason?
"Black and white diamonds, rubies and emeralds," he said. "Guys are not afraid to go into a different direction, be a little bit more daring with their fashion."
Other brooches and lapel pins are actually vintage. The players' stylists are finding them on eBay or in antique stores.
"They're open to vintage now," Alba said. "This generation, they're mixing a lot of old with the new, so you're going to see them in the Versace printed shirts and the florals from the '70s that Gucci is doing a lot of now."
As for the stylists, many of them are in full swing this week to get ready for the playoffs. In fact, Anthony said, "We have trained stylists across the country to help with the famous last-minute style crisis."
Barnett said the two days in between the regular season ending and the playoffs starting is when she and Wade "go through everything." That includes 28 different outfits for the postseason.
Barnett said she gets a lot of brand requests for Wade—who's considered, along with James, as the first to move the fashion needle in the NBA. In 2013, Wade had a different theme for every round of the playoffs, wearing Dsquared2, Calvin Klein, Gucci and Versace. This year, he'll be going with a more classic and consistent look with more smaller brands, including Julian David, Lou Dalton, Phillip Lim, Jil Sander and Alexander Wang. That doesn't include his endorsements with Stance Socks and The Tie Bar.
"People know that when the playoffs start, they're going to be looking at him, and they want their clothes on his body," Barnett said.
While Wade is on the high end of NBA fashion, many players don't have a personal stylist—but still need to get custom-fitted because of their height.
Those players will throw in thousands of dollars—Alba has a five-suit package for $8,500—to get a few looks for the playoffs, but unlike Wade, they won't have a pre-tailored outfit for almost every single game of the postseason. A lot of them still go to stores on their own, like the Houston Rockets' Chandler Parsons.
"I like to shop and get new clothes, duffles and backpacks," he said. "I'm not sure how many, but I will have a nice rotation (for the playoffs)."
Others have their significant other help them pick out threads, like in the case of Curry's wife, Ayesha. For this playoffs, he might unveil a fedora.
"She's the brains behind it all," Curry said. "She's my in-house stylist—along with her best friend, Sheraine. They get together and get me right for the year, especially the playoffs."
Bosh is excited to see what the playoff newbies have in store, like Wall and DeRozan.
"This is their first time in the playoffs, and they're at the forefront of their teams," he said. "What are they going to wear, and how are they going to handle everything? I think your outfit speaks to your game a little bit, too. If you have a serious outfit, that means you're ready to do some serious work on the court."
What many can agree on is that their style changes depending on the host city. For one, weather plays a big role, and a colder place like New York City offers more of an opportunity to dress up.
"NYC is more a of a suit city, and L.A. is a little more laid back," Parsons said. "I love both."
Another factor is the round of play. As Bosh explains, "The bigger the stage, the bigger the outfit." Barnett gave her take on the topic regarding Wade.
"Sometimes the earlier rounds are a little bit more fun and lighter, but when it gets down to the Finals, they really matter," she said. "During the Finals last year, he was all black and white. He didn't want to take attention away from his game; he wanted the game to speak for itself."
Some players, like Bosh, seek out magazines and movies for new ideas. His last head-turner was the latest James Bond film, Skyfall.
"He had a bunch of well-put-together outfits, kind of like that classic, minimalist style," Bosh said. "I think that stands out, especially now with everybody trying to do a bunch of stuff."
Bosh also draws inspiration from social media, including Instagram and Pinterest—and in many ways, that medium ignited the playoff fashion craze in the NBA. Players realized the increased exposure of arena arrivals and postgame press conferences to showcase their styles, and the growing sports blogosphere caught on quickly.
"Social media is a huge driving force behind the mushrooming of NBA style on a cultural level. The intrigue comes from that," Johnson said. "If LeBron James, the manliest of men, a warrior, can wear a beautifully tailored red tuxedo, his boldness inspires manly mainstream men to emulate his chutzpah. Among the masses, athletes validate menswear, style and trends, and they make it cool to embrace it."
Starting this weekend, get ready for social media feeds and game broadcasts to play up styles upon styles. And the players will take just as much of an interest in all of it as we do.
"I'm watching almost every playoff game, so I definitely know what other guys are wearing," Curry said. "I'll be taking mental notes."