Rachel Johnson Talks Dressing LeBron James And The Future Of Sports Style [Interview]

LeBron James and his stylist Rachel Johnson.
Photo: Getty Images/Vibe

LeBron James is one of the biggest names in sports. Today, tomorrow, and for the better part of the forseeable future. Tonight, King James and his Miami Heat teammates take on the San Antonio Spurs for Game 1 of the 2013 NBA Finals. As you may or may not know, LeBron was equally as lauded for his presence off the court during last year’s Finals, thanks to a little healthy fashion competition between the Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder. With that kind of precedent, there’s no telling what this season’s match-up has in store on the style front, but we hit up LeBron’s long-time trusted stylist Rachel Johnson to try and extract those answers before game time anyway.

Rachel, along with Dwyane Wade’s stylist Calyann Barnett, is one of the pioneers of the whole sports styling scene. She’s seen it grow from scrounging up custom-tailored designer duds from the few labels that would do it to anchoring an agency of stylists (Thomas Faison) and outfitting the hottest player in the game. We caught up with her to chat about dressing LJ and since we’re nearing the end of basketball season, where in the world of sports we might be able to get our fashion fix next. Check it out!

Can you tell me a little about your first sports-related styling job?

I started working with Jalen Rose in, I think, 2005. I was introduced to him through one of our music contacts. He was looking for jerseys, and I styled Fab at the time who was “The Jersey King,” so I had access to all of these jerseys. We linked up through that, and then, I started working with him on and on-going basis from there.

What was that like—first styling Jalen—especially with no other athlete styling going on?

My approach then was completely different than it is now. I mean, a lot of what I was doing really was learning to understand the athlete, the schedule, the demand on time, the mood and the attitude, and really just trying to navigate a new system. Up until then, I had been working mainly with musicians. I worked with Pharrell, I worked with Puff, I worked with Jay, and I always worked on set. I didn’t normally work in my clients’ homes, so this is a completely different approach.

So were you styling mostly shoots before?

Album covers, tons of videos, photo shoots for editorial.

Ahh, OK. So more isolated projects and then you moved to having a say in someone’s whole IRL style.

Exactly. It was a completely different experience in that way, and I love that. I love being able to make that kind of connection, and I love being able to help a man who really needed help. Those artists I just named are already style icons. They have great innate style, and I just helped to facilitate their style and push it along. But working with someone like Jalen, and all of my clients for that matter, it’s really helping someone who needs the assistance. It may not even be from a style perspective as much as it is from an access perspective because the sizing is just so different. The products, especially from a luxury side, are not already there.

Totally. Because at the time, these athletes probably weren’t as up on fashion and connected with designers as musicians and actors just from doing magazine shoots and going to shows.

Right, they weren’t then, but my clients are absolutely well-versed now. The standard back then for style, for these athletes, was those musicians, what they saw in videos, and it was more about emulating that style than necessarily creating their own.

Had you had a background in sports before you started styling athletes?

Not officially, no, but I’m huge sports fanatic.

That totally counts!

I was raised a Giants fan. I’m a huge tomboy, and I’ve always been into sports naturally. I understand the game of football. I understand the game of basketball. And I guess that was an advantage because I was able to speak to my clients genuinely about their games, what happened, how it went down, what was right, what was wrong. So it was a natural fit, and it was the perfect combination of two things that I love: sports and fashion.

LeBron James wore a Staple sweatshirt during the 2013 NBA Playoffs.
Photo: NBA.com

When did you realize that there was a market for styling athletes?

I guess when I started working with LeBron. I’ve been with him since 2006, and when I started working with him—I worked with a team who collaboratively decided that we wanted LeBron to be the biggest name in the world. That was our goal, and we had to figure out what that meant and how we were going to do that. That was when I understood that I could utilize fashion as a platform to create a persona.

What’s LeBron like as a client?

LeBron is extremely adventurous. He will try anything. Whether or not he actually will wear it is something else, but he’s always been very open-minded about trying new things. That’s what I love most about him. He’ll look at it, he may not even love it on the rack, but he’ll try it. And if he puts it on and he feels good in it, he’ll wear it! And it goes not only based on things that I bring him, but he comes to me with ideas about new things that he wants to try, new silhouettes, new fabrics, new colors, new designers. He likes to be versatile, he likes to change it up. He likes to wear three-piece suits, and he likes to wear leather sweatpants and t-shirts, too. He likes to continue to evolve, and he likes his style to be a bit unexpected in terms of what he might wear.

Does he have any favorites?

He doesn’t really. He loves it all. I mean, there are go-to designers that he wears a lot because we have the relationship and they are willing to create sportswear and suiting in his size, but he would never limit himself to only loving three people.

You’re having to outfit him for so many games in a season. What’s your strategy for that?

I plan ahead. The whole game of styling athletes is being able to plan ahead. I do my selections and buying when buyers do. As soon as things walk down the runway, I’m ordering my pieces just like a buyer does to stock their store or boutique. A lot of times, I’m waiting a year for things to come in, and when they do, I’m like, “OH! I forgot about this! This is beautiful!”

It’s like Christmas!

Yea! I mean, to put it in perspective, just this week, I started ordering Pre-Spring 2014.

Oh, wow.

Yea, we’re rolling!

So does this all happen month-to-month or at the beginning of the season?

For my clients who live in New York, Amar’e Stoudemire and Victor Cruz, it’s different because I can see them more often. I have more access to them and know that if I had to go back and add something tomorrow, I could. Working with LeBron and any of my clients who don’t live in the state, it’s usually a monthly visit, and we work effeciently to get a bunch of things done.

LeBron James during the 2012 NBA Finals.
Photo: Getty Images

Any hints at what you have on deck for LeBron’s Finals wardrobe? Are you even at liberty to divulge that kind of top secret fashion information?

[Laughs] The thing is: LeBron is very versatile, and he loves to have a range of options. That could be polos and jeans, or it could mean double-breasted silk suits.

How many options are we talking about right now?

Oh, I don’t know. I mean, there’s enough for him to choose from. He has a really good variety, for sure. I just like to be prepared, and I like for him to be prepared because I can’t just hop over there. You never know what you’re going to feel like wearing, but also, you never know what might happen. It’s like when you plan for a trip. You pack looks to go on this trip, and then, you get there, and you’re like, “I don’t feel like wearing this!”

OR you thought it was going to be really hot and it ends up actually being cold and you have no pants.


Yea, I feel that philosophy. Any other athletes on your client roster? You mentioned Amar’e and Cruz.

Chris Bosh and Serena Williams!

Wow. What are some of your favorite looks that you’ve put together this NBA season?

LeBron wore this double-breasted Ovadia & Sons beautiful, blue herringbone suit to his MVP ceremony this year. I really loved that look on him.

LeBron James accepts his 4th MVP award in an Ovadia & Sons suit.
Photo: Getty Images

Such a classic GQ look. What would you say are some of the biggest challenges of styling an athlete as compared to styling a musician or an actor?

Access to luxury clothing in their size, definitely. I’m just always waiting for clothes. I can’t run to buy LeBron a leather jacket. Everything has to be built.

Yea, because alterations aren’t, like, taking them in. It’s the size up that you need.

Yup, that’s the hardest, the sizing, for sure, but it’s a welcome challenge, navigating that whole thing. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.

On the flip side, what are some of the biggest rewards?

I love seeing my clients standing in front of the mirror, feeling good about themselves. That’s the biggest reward, honestly. I love to watch my guys stand in the mirror and pose and whatever it is that they do when they’re enjoying what they’re wearing! That’s the most exciting to me. And then, I really appreciate the fact that this is a community that was completely ignored by fashion and now everybody wants a piece of this movement.

After seeing what’s happened with fashion in the NBA, do you think that other leagues will start to follow suit? And if so, who do you think is next?

NFL, I think. I have a pulse on what’s going on in the NFL. MLB, I actually have a new client who I have the fortune of working with, so he’s giving me a small glimpse into baseball and what their focus is, and it’s not necessarily fashion. But you know, it’s a one-guy-at-a-time thing. Honestly, LeBron was the first guy to really start wearing luxury designers, and once he started to bring it, it became the standard. It takes one star to start a trend in a league from what I’ve seen, and then, it goes on from there. But I think football is next.

Victor Cruz at the 2013 Met Gala.
Photo: Getty Images

I was going to ask you if you could identify any up-and-coming style stars in football, but I’m SO biased toward Victor Cruz and he’s your client, so let’s just cut to the chase.

Yea, he’s a good one. Victor gets it. He knows when to turn it on, he knows how to wear the clothes, he knows how to own his look. That kind of confidence that he has comes from the inside out. You can always tell when guys have been dressed. Someone put clothes on them and told them that they look good and patted them on the back and said, “Go ’head now and get to carpet.” And then, you can tell guys that really had a hand in what they’re wearing and are really owning their look.

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