Numbers on the Board: Menswear Makes Athletic Jerseys a Fashion Item

Men's designers are taking sports jerseys off the courts and putting them on the runway.

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Complex Original

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Dope jerseys are nothing new to hip-hop heads, but would you consider paying more than $400 for one?

Written by Jian DeLeon (@jiandeleon). Additional reporting by James Harris (@Dr_TacoMD).

Streetwear and hip-hop have always embraced sports and athletic gear. But star players retire, teams change ownership, and longtime fans associate nostalgia with certain jerseys—which makes a John Starks Knicks jersey inherently cooler than a Melo one. Companies like Mitchell & Ness make a killing with throwback reproductions, and brands like Supreme flip known logos of sports teams to make something new yet cool, like the hockey jersey Frank Ocean performed in on Saturday Night Live. They might look different from a league-licensed jersey, but the message is the same: When you put one on, you're representing something.

Although plenty of menswear staples are rooted in sport—Rene Lacoste designed the pique cotton tennis shirt to help his on-court game, the button-down collar was invented by Brooks Brothers to keep polo players' shirts from flapping around, and you already know what Michael Jordan and Tinker Hatfield did for sneakers—what makes the jersey special is that it represents more than a player on a team, it stands for a whole fanbase, sometimes an entire city. Within that niche, standing out from the pack or representing a specific set meant your jersey game had to be next level. Every '90s kid remembers the custom jerseys prevalent in the hip-hop world at the time—Mobb Deep's "HENNESSY" joints got homage from Supreme in 2011, and the Ruff Ryders' hockey jerseys are iconic in their own right.

In the capricious world of men's trends, fashion designers are aiming to take athletic apparel off the courts and onto the runways, giving a literal meaning to "sportswear." Designers like Alexander Wang are tapping into the athletic world for inspiration—creating a suede baseball jersey in Spring 2013 worn by A$AP Rocky, and following it up with an orange and white take on the hockey jersey for fall. London up-and-comer Shaun Samson also kitted out the rapper in a hockey jersey-inspired sweater with exaggerated details like flared arms and a baggy fit. But it's not just designers getting in on the action—it's their fans too.

LPD New York took Tumblr and Instagram by storm with its jersey-inspired T-shirts. The back of each of their tees is emblazoned with the last name of a fashion designer, juxtaposed with his or her birthdate, or in the case of Phillip Lim, a "3.1," an overt reference to the designer's label. Started by NYU graduate Benjamin Fainlight, the label pays respects to these lauded fashion figures, while falling way underneath their price points. An LPD New York T-shirt costs $85, while its new mesh jerseys run for $120. Fainlight thinks that the current, more casual state of menswear has been a boon to his brand.

Modern men still want to look good, but want to feel comfortable while doing it. - Charlie Casely-Hayford, Casely-Hayford

"Contemporary menswear has become more and more accepting of streetwear," says Fainlight. "There's been a gradual movement where people don't want fashion they can't live their lives in, and consumers like that because the clothing is more versatile."

Hearkening back to the days when Stussy's linked "S" logo subverted the cachet of labels like Chanel, streetwear has a long history of aping luxury brands as aspiration. In fact, the fashion parody has become a genre of streetwear itself, with brands like Conflict of Interest and MALA NY putting out T-shirts emblazoned with designer name flips like "Mar Ghell Uh" and "Ballinciaga."

However, Fainlight frames LPD New York as appreciation, not imitation.

"With the jerseys, there's no distinction between menswear or womenswear—just an easy way to show your love for a brand," he says.

Charlie Casely-Hayford thinks that sporting gear is more than just a trend, it's the subculture uniform du jour. 

"The disillusioned youth of my generation have chosen sportswear as their uniform in the way that punks had the biker jacket or skinheads had the bovver boots and MA-1," says Casely-Hayford. As sharp as a guy looks in a suit, it's not the most practical thing to wear 24/7. Casely-Hayford believes casual clothes can still make a man look smart, but also decidedly more relaxed. "Modern men still want to look good, but want to feel comfortable while doing it—sportswear bridges that gap."

His latest collection reinterprets the hockey jersey into colorblocked button down shirts and cozy marled knit sweaters. The back of one of the shirts has the number 24 on it with "Kingsland" right above, a reference to inner city London. But can slouchy silhouettes and athletic-inspired sweaters eclipse a perfectly tailored jacket and trousers? Hayford thinks so, and he's not alone.

Danish designer Astrid Andersen has been in the game since 2010, and got on our radar for her collection inspired by hip-hop and basketball. Rappers like A$AP Rocky and Odd Future's Left Brain have already co-signed the designer, as well as up-and-comers like Ian Connor, who modeled some of her latest gear. While LPD New York's tees and jerseys barely break the $100 range, Andersen's designs run up to almost $500, putting the prices well within the realm of luxury brands. Andersen suggests that the sports-meets-fashion trend has long been brewing, and is finally reaching fever pitch. 


"It's been growing for years now," she says. "[Louis Vuitton menswear designer] Kim Jones started it as a serious movement within high fashion." Before his current gig at Louis Vuitton, Jones built a name for himself with his luxurious, casual designs. In his past lives, he brought storied British brand Dunhill into the new millenium, and elevated Umbro gear to a runway-worthy level, so it makes perfect sense that'd he be the progenitor of fashion's athletic bearing.

Or perhaps, it's just the cyclical nature of style. '90s nostalgia is everywhere, especially clothing trends.   

"From a young age I was obsessed with Michael Jordan, Nike, Starter, and Champion," admits Rav Matharu, designer of Clothsurgeon, a London label that specializes in high-end clothing made from leather, suede, snakeskin, and all sorts of luxurious materials. "There was a stage in my life where my favorite items were all LA Raiders pieces," he admits.

As outsiders we still long to be part of something. We are creating our own misfit team. - Austin Bjorkman, Sir New York

Matharu recently celebrated the first anniversary of his brand with a collection titled "My Freshman Year." It consists solely of pieces inspired by sports, each given a high-fashion twist. Basketball jerseys are done up in gray perforated goat suede, and ink black hockey jerseys are given an exaggerated length and finished with Nappa leather details. A former professional soccer player, Matharu's foray into sportswear knocks it out of the park, because it's designed by a genuine fan. The average price of a Clothsurgeon piece? Around $400. If that price makes your eyes boggle, Matharu thinks it's just a matter of time before trendhumpers come along and produce lower-quality, lower-priced versions.

"Once the higher end brands do something and it becomes desirable, the smaller brands and high street shops quickly replicate it," he says.

Pardon the pun, but hockey and basketball aren't the only two sports getting play in the fashion world. Soccer kits are gaining steam amongst New York City cool guys. Baseball jerseys from French brands like Sandro have achieved cult status in street style photos, and Sir New York's recent spring collection featured enough pinstripes to make a Yankee fan consider copping a piece or two. What's with all the team spirit? Sir New York designer Auston Björkman thinks it may have to do with a sense of membership.

"It's an element that everyone can relate to, whether or not you were ever into sports," he claims. "I like the relaxed fit of  athletic gear, and the concept of a team. As outsiders we still long to be part of something. We are creating our own misfit team."

Björkman also thinks it's got a little bit to do with menswear's current climate. The slim suit has made way for looser cuts, while guys who learned the ins and outs of finer clothing found themselves wanting stuff that was comfortable, but made to higher standards. The old stuff just isn't gonna cut it anymore, they want the kind of sporting gear that speaks to their elevated taste level. "We went through the dandy phase, then the classic heritage workwear, and now we've moved into the sportier side of fashion."

The super-tailored menswear dude of a few years ago begat the "cozy boy" draped in slim sweatpants and hoodies. The casualization of menswear means there's plenty of overlap between the guy that shops at Supreme, J. Crew, and Suitsupply. Case in point? Los Angeles-based label The Windmill Club recently dropped a couple of club-collar oxford shirts with two twill zeroes sewn on the back, an obvious sports reference that instantly made the rounds on Tumblr. The high/low aesthetic men have started to embrace has birthed the idea that "dressing up" doesn't always mean being on your suit and tie shit. When it comes to looking cool, rocking sports-inspired gear is fair game.


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