c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — It was hard to miss Russell Westbrook during New York Fashion Week, and not just because the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard stands 6-foot-3 and weighs around 185 pounds.

There he was last Friday, in the front row at the Rag & Bone show — in a blue-print, long-sleeve shirt, olive trousers cuffed into capris and a felt bowler hat — as paparazzi swarmed around him and his seatmate, Anna Wintour.

There he was again Saturday night, among the early arrivals at Altuzarra, dressed in a print T-shirt and overalls, and chatting with Vogue editors (he was once again a guest of Wintour) and other members of the press while waiting for the scheduled 8 p.m. show to finally begin.

On Sunday, he showed up at Opening Ceremony (in black shorts and a black T-shirt) and, perhaps having learned by now that no fashion show starts anywhere near its announced time, waited in his parked SUV until seconds before the first model came out and then dashed to his seat across the room from Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Rashida Jones.

Later that night he was at a dinner party at Haven’s Kitchen for Thakoon along with actress Christina Ricci, and the next day he was again in the front row, this time at the show by the up-and-coming menswear designer, Tim Coppens.

“The shows, as an experience, have been amazing,” Westbrook, 24, said of his Fashion Week whirlwind. He added that he found that stepping out of the usual basketball scene and meeting designers “was refreshing.”

“It was a learning process for me, to be able to see the shows from a different point of view,” he added.

Westbrook’s presence as a front-row regular may have caught some of the other Fashion Week attendees by surprise, but the player believes he belongs among their ranks. When he arrived in the NBA, in 2008, Westbrook said that, clothing-wise, “nobody was doing anything that would attract the fashion crowd.” (Well-dressed league veterans like Dwyane Wade, Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire might disagree.)

“People got on the podium in whatever they were wearing that day,” he said. If some players were more presentable in tailored separates “it was cliché,” he added, noting that though many other players employ stylists, he chooses pieces on his own because, akin to being a point guard, he likes control.

“They were wearing the same suits,” he said. Looking “‘business casual,’ is what the NBA calls it.”

But it was not until the 2012 playoffs, when Westbrook chose a dizzying succession of unconventional prints, that he appeared on the fashion radar. To wit: a Lacoste polo printed with fishing lures; a Joyrich paint-splattered short-sleeve shirt; a Comme des Garçons shirt, leopard-and-dotted button-down; and a Shirts For All My Friends red geometric print top.

Often the looks were punctuated by a pair of red “nerd” frames (a nod to Clark Kent, Westbrook said), which he wears lensless. (The glasses later became a plotline in an ESPN commercial starring Westbrook and Jeff Van Gundy, one of the network’s basketball announcers.)

The new look paid off: in January, GQ showcased Westbrook in a multipage spread wearing printed shirts, while Flaunt, a Los Angeles-based fashion magazine, put him on the cover, the first athlete to appear there. The next month, Levi’s featured him in an ad campaign. And in March, L’Uomo Vogue ran an interview on Westbrook.

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“Russell is part of a newer generation, players that take fashion as a real badge of cool,” said Jim Moore, creative director for GQ. “For years and years, you had that Pat Riley and Michael Jordan idea of off-court style; they were all going to the same tailors and they were almost getting too fancy with it.”

Westbrook stands out for his daring color and original print selections, said Matthew Bedard, editorial director for Flaunt. “He’s not taking direction from someone else,” he said.

Yet, to the editors’ delight, Westbrook was fluent in fashionspeak. “He can really run circles around you as far as knowing the latest Givenchy show,” Moore said.

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Westbrook is also, apparently, a quick study.

It was just last September that he attended his first-ever fashion show at Lincoln Center for designer Richard Chai. Wearing a black button-down with a funky print on the front, black trousers, wire-rimmed frames and red sneakers, he slipped into his seat largely unnoticed until his seatmate Nick Cannon arrived, trailing camera flashes in his wake.

Before the lights dimmed, Westbrook said, somewhat shyly, that “sometimes, the NBA feels like fashion week,” but as his first runway experience, “I’m not sure what to expect.”

Backstage was another story, Chai said, where “all the male models were in a frenzy over him.”

Chai, who has designed custom pieces for Wade in the past, said Westbrook’s style is refreshing from a designer’s standpoint because he’s not afraid of tackling stereotypes. “Especially in sports, you’re supposed to be very ‘manly’ or look a certain way, but I love that he wears prints, even animal prints,” Chai said.

The designer invited him to the show’s after-party and introduced him to Jill Demling, entertainment editor of Vogue, who is a “huge sports junkie,” Chai said. It’s as if the Vogue carpet has been rolled out ever since. Demling has pronounced Westbrook the “Kate Moss of the NBA.”

Yet, unlike some athletes, who might be satisfied with a fashion show appearance or two, Westbrook has greater ambitions.

Over a recent lunch, dressed in a fitted black tee and dark bluejeans that he had cut into capris (a silhouette he’s liking right now, he explained), he kept circling back to his need to stand out, to “shift to a different lane and find my own way.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, one day, he would like to have a line. He also consistently works with a tailor, Johanna Alba who, for better or worse, sews custom designs for him.

“She knows what I like,” Westbrook said simply.

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However, his greatest fashion influence has been his mother, he said.

Westbrook was born in Los Angeles to Russell Westbrook Sr. and Shannon Westbrook, the oldest of two (his brother, Raynard, 22, is a running back for the University of Central Oklahoma). His family moved around the city a lot when he was younger, he said, before settling in an apartment in Hawthorne, where he attended Leuzinger High School.

It was not posh, but it also was not what some may assume about his inner-city childhood. “Hawthorne, it changed,” he said. “It was quiet when we moved there, but by the time I was in 9th or 10th grade it was a little rugged, a little rough.”

Besides, his home life was happy. His mother, who worked in a public school cafeteria in Los Angeles, “liked her job,” Westbrook said. “And I always got free food,” he said, grinning.

His father was on a production line, working in a factory that manufactured tires for airplanes. Since he started playing in the NBA, both have since “retired,” he said.

As a freshman, Westbrook was not a big kid. He played football, baseball and basketball, standing at just 5-foot-6. He eventually focused on basketball on account of his size 12 feet. “I thought I’d grow into it,” he said. (Today, his height is a plus for designers and fashion editors. “He can wear the designer samples,” Bedard said.)

It was also around then that “I started becoming very picky,” he said. Growing up, his mother used to buy his clothes for him and she was always “following and knowing what the trends were.” He started to choose his own colors and pieces, like “I used to wear Girbaud jeans and Rocawear,” he said. “Definitely my clothes were big.”

Probably because he did not come from wealth, his first impression of fashion was that of an outsider. “It was basically what I could afford,” he said. “Trying to find the best bargain, I kind of shopped all over the place.”

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Westbrook spent two years at UCLA before being selected by Oklahoma City (then the Seattle SuperSonics) as the fourth pick in the first round of the 2008 draft. It was during the draft process that he met the people at Levi’s, who had set up a booth at the event, and Alba (the NBA introduces draftees to tailors and brands, he said), who made his relaxed fit gray pinstripe suit. “I still have the suit at my house,” he said.

His style has slimmed down considerably since then.

“The fact that Russell wears such a slim cut, shirts that are almost too tight, is so liberating in a way,” Moore said. “He’s not afraid to show off his physique.”

It would take until his second season, though, for Westbrook to truly branch out. “In your rookie year, you can get away with sneakers and some T-shirts from time to time,” he said. “A lot of people wore hats. Some people wore jerseys.”

For him, it was about affordability. He could splurge on riskier pieces once he had more of a nest egg, he said. (Forbes has pegged his annual take at $16.9 million, including a plum endorsement deal with Jordan Brand, which was signed last October.)

It would not be too much of a stretch to suppose that Westbrook was reading the tea leaves: The sport, and the marketing thereof, were evolving.

“I think the NBA thought it was an opportunity for them to get some different press and try to find a way to incorporate that into what’s going on,” he said. (He treaded more carefully when discussing his knee injury, which put him out of the playoffs this year. “I love basketball and I love fashion,” he said. “But if it weren’t for basketball, a lot of the opportunities I have now wouldn’t have come about.”)

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Social media has been shaping that evolution. Westbrook is active on Twitter, where actress Olivia Wilde has shouted out his style (“I was very surprised,” he said, chuckling. “It’s nice to see others — actresses, actors, rappers — notice what I’m doing.”), and Instagram, where he has posted videos of himself, like his lip-sync of a Taylor Swift song. Swift brings in a “different type of crowd,” he said.

He uses social media to reach out to fans and to distinguish his off-court image, he explained. “It’s an opportunity to show my personality and have fun with it.”

It is also a tool to drive attention.

Last month, to the Teen Choice Awards, Westbrook wore a sleeveless black and white print tunic with light drop-crotch capris, made by Alba but inspired by a 3.1 Phillip Lim look book outfit. The pairing was so out there that, surely, it was a media gambit?

“Personally, the things you see on the runway are the best pieces, and the items I happen to like,” he said with a shrug. “And they’re controversial pieces that people talk about. Somebody is not going to like it.”

“But it’s good,” he added. “It’s good in that it’s going to put me out there.”

SIDEBAR:

DRESS DREAM TEAM

It is not only Russell Westbrook who has turned fashion into a competitive sport. These NBA players form a sartorial dream team.

DWYANE WADE

Team: Miami Heat

Position: Guard

Style Signature: Smooth as can be. Wade carries off suits and classic separates with an enviable panache. Rarely one to misstep (read: he’s not trying too hard), Wade is more likely to be seen in minimalist pieces by Calvin Klein and the like.

LEBRON JAMES

Team: Miami Heat

Position: Forward

Style Signature: There’s a streak of Ivy League in many of his choices, like rugby stripes, tweed vests and placket polos, but James keeps his options open and has also been known to pair a sharp blazer with a Givenchy print tee and a gold chain. After dark, he pushes the envelope, like the red tuxedo he wore to the ESPY Awards in July.

CARMELO ANTHONY

Team: New York Knicks

Position: Forward

Style Signature: Chalk it up to his signature gold-rim aviators, but Melo, as fans like to call him, exudes ’70s-era glamour. Anthony also toys with his color palette, having tried mustard shirts, maraschino trousers and mint-green blazers.

TYSON CHANDLER

Team: New York Knicks

Position: Center

Style Signature:Chandler has been a regular presence at Fashion Week in recent seasons, hanging with Vogue editors and wearing avant-garde labels like Rick Owens and Ann Demeulemeester. He is a careful study of proportion, working pieces like leather capris into his repertoire.

CHRIS PAUL

Team: Los Angeles Clippers

Position: Point guard

Style Signature: With a knack for tailoring, including finely cut double-breasted suits and nerd glasses, Paul is no fashion slouch. Last October, he snagged the cover of GQ, and this May, he made the Vanity Fair list for “Best Dressed NBA Players.”

The Reserves: Amar’e Stoudemire, who won’t shy away from patterned bow ties; Derrick Rose, a champion of designer casual wear like hoodies and varsity jackets; and Kobe Bryant, a suave operator in fine leather jackets and Italian suits.

— BEE SHAPIRO