Sweatpants aren’t stylish. Traditionally worn by sixth-graders and jocks and those who lounge aggressively, the draw-stringed trouser is defiantly apathetic. Wikipedia says sweatpants, otherwise known as tracksuit bottoms, are “one of the most commonly worn items of clothing.” There are no statistics on this, but you know it’s true. The image on the site is unapologetically blunt: three tailgating bros holding wine glasses, smiling. Of course they are smiling. They are comfortable.
That may be why NBA players, tall men who are paid exorbitant sums of money to put a ball in a basket, are wearing these jogging pants again. In the fashion-conscious league, where the walk from the bus to the locker room has turned into a runway, it’s a counter-revolution of young millionaires doing what they want.
But these aren’t traditional sweatpants from the ’90s. Sure, they have the knitting around the ankles and the waistbands. But they’re often made of leather and other expensive fabrics. “Sweatpants are the new denim,” says stylist Brandon Williams. He adds that specifically, slim-fit sweatpants are the rage.
The origin of the sweatpant 2.0 in mainstream culture is unclear. Perhaps it was bolstered by the drop-crotch revival of 2010. Kanye West says he unsuccessfully pitched the idea of leather sweatpants to Fendi six years ago. (“How many motherfuckers you done seen with a leather jogging pant?”) The New York Times noticed the lazy chic style in 2012. By last spring, they were everywhere. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Drake (yes, even Drake) wore them at the NBA All-Star game. The fashionable jogging pant was reborn.
“They are really comfortable,” says Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley, a client of Williams’s. “Most pairs I have are pretty stylish.” He’s not kidding. Los Angeles Clipper Chris Paul has a pair of $325 Barena Venezias. King James owns $550 silk Lanvins. Even NBA Commissioner David Stern has a pair, though it’s unclear why.
“Comfort is the luxury in the case of sweatpants,” says Scott Sasso, owner, designer, and creative director of the street-wear brand 10.Deep. His company has had fashionable sweatpants for at least five years, but he doesn’t think all fabrics necessarily work. “Leather or suede sweatpants just make for a more sweaty wear.”
Micah Cohen, designer of Shades of Grey by Micah Cohen, says that while some players are legitimately into fashion, sometimes it’s a bit of a hollow gesture. These men all have personal stylists. “With their competitive level of consumerism, it sometimes seems like fashion is simply another way for these guys to one-up each other,” he says.
“With their competitive level of consumerism, it sometimes seems like fashion is simply another way for these guys to one-up each other.”
Historically, the league has been a fashion battlefield. Walt “Clyde” Frazier wore wide-brimmed hats and mink jackets in the early ’70s. In the late ’80s, Michael Jordan killed short-shorts, opting for something baggier, something he could tug on. Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson waltzed onto the scene in 2001 with baggy pants and corn rows, and suddenly every young player wanted to look like him. But in 2005, after the rise of “hip-hop” culture, Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault case, and a brutal fight at the Palace of Auburn Hills, the league established a dress code.
Commissioner Stern said at the time that the “business casual” code was created because the “reputation of our players was not as good as our players are, and we could do small things to improve that.” Essentially players had to wear dress shirts, turtlenecks, khakis, dress jeans, and more professional attire. Strictly prohibited were T-shirts, jerseys, chains, pendants, and medallions. Sunglasses indoors or headphones also were banned in most cases.
“I like to dress up,” said ex-player Grant Hill, shortly after the rule was instated. “When I first came into the league, it’s like guys were competing in fashion. I think it’s good. Some guys are going to complain, but I understand it.” Hill was wrong.
Instead of ending the fashion competition, players hired personal tailors, launching a new style arms race. And here we are. Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook, a serial fashion offender, brought back thick-rimmed glasses. His teammate Kevin Durant made it cool to wear backpacks. The Heat’s Wade does whatever he wants: He’s worn an orange ensemble, with an orange purse; he’s also worn capris.
Shaun Powell, a columnist at Sports on Earth who covered the NBA for 20 years, says the wardrobe revolution of 2005 wasn’t split along racial lines—it was a generational divide. The old guard African-American players were as appalled as everyone else with the 20-somethings dressing like they were 16. He says Iverson, who looked up to the rapper Tupac Shakur back then, still dresses the same way these days. “Don’t you sometimes think, ‘Now is not the time to dress like my youngest son,’” says Powell.
As young players pivot back to a more casual—yet just as expensive—form of trousers, perhaps a pause is needed. “If you don’t present the sweatpants correctly,” Williams warns, “it’ll look like a normal sweatpant. This could ruin it for everybody.”