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The Black Women Who Rule Basketball Fashion

Last Updated: March 27, 2024
Boardroom is giving flowers to the Black women and A-list stylists who have dressed some of basketball’s best in Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, the late Kobe Bryant, and more.

Remember when Chris Paul began using fashion as a platform to celebrate HBCUs when he famously wore a varsity jacket with all 107 crests and emblems from each historically Black college and university? Or when Dwyane Wade debuted a crisp white Louis Vuitton ensemble with a sash at the 2019 ESPY Awards?

In these two examples, Courtney Mays was styling Paul, while Calyann Barnett was tasked with getting Wade red-carpet ready. On the court, athletes are relegated to matching uniforms, often only leveraging their sneakers as a form of self-expression. Entering the arena pre-game or during an off-court public appearance is when fans are treated to a player’s style, and it’s true when they say it takes a village.

A wardrobe consultant is more than someone assigned to be an athlete’s personal shopper. They’re tasked with developing a part of a player’s identity, curating an authentic aesthetic that mirrors each client’s personality. Even 20 years ago, the idea of an athlete having a stylist on retainer was unheard of. However, these days, those aforementioned looks and more are carefully curated by veterans of style, and they all happen to be Black women.

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Barnett’s career started in music, but she credits DWade as being her first client in the athlete space. The two met at a Louis Vuitton party for Kanye West‘s 30th birthday in 2007, and Wade was coming off winning the NBA Finals in 2006.

“I went up to him and said, ‘You need a stylist,'” Barnett told Boardroom. “I explained to him that he’s a superstar and should look like a superstar and shouldn’t look like an athlete because he is bigger than an athlete.”

The late Kobe Bryant‘s stylist, Paige Geran, began working with the Los Angeles Lakers legend around the time Bryant won his final NBA title in 2010 and, before then, got her start in television. However, her small screen work would take a backseat in 2007-08 due to the writer’s strike. To expand her portfolio and reach, she pivoted full-time to athletes. Due to her lengthy resume in entertainment, Geran was the OG of West Coast stylists. She had briefly worked with athletes in commercials, which led to making connections quickly within the space and subsequently becoming the blueprint.

Before she arrived, Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, was the mastermind behind his outfits. Kobe and Geran were connected via a trusted friend.

“He was trying to figure out ways to incorporate using a stylist for games,” Geran explained. “I don’t think he knew what it all entailed, but he was like, ‘I think I need someone. I need help.’

Ironically, the first thing Bryant’s team called Geran to enlist her help for had nothing to do with dressing him. Around the time Bryant changed his number from 8 to 24, Lil Wayne happened to be performing in LA. Bryant wanted Wayne to be the first person to wear his new jersey, Geran said.

“So I remember his team contacting me saying, ‘Hey, can you help us with this?’ It started with small things here and there, and then eventually, Kobe did a cover and had a big launch to celebrate, and that’s when he finally decided he wanted to branch out and hire a stylist,” she recalled.

Developing a Personal Aesthetic

Fashion and sports have always been synonymous, but thanks to these stylists, we’ve seen a cultural renaissance through the years. These women are an unsung heroes, as these athletes transition into bona fide icons. While their personal aesthetics might contribute to the final look, it’s ultimately reflective of the client’s taste.

Take, for example, Jimmy Butler. Khalilah Beaver met him at a Jordan shoot in 2016 and simply told him, “You need help.” What followed was years of taking the Miami Heat star from fun to watch on the court to a must-attend at fashion shows.

Beaver recalls the first time people looked at Butler as more of a trendsetter was the 2017 NBA All-Star Weekend. It was their first year working together, and she put Butler in a multicolored button-down shirt with a large King of Spades card on the front. It was daring, but it proved to be a success because, according to Beaver, “Everybody loved it.”

For Mays, whom DeAndre Jordan trusts with dressing him, she likens her client’s aesthetic to the late Jimi Hendrix, whose influence on pop culture is still prevalent to this day nearly 53 years after his passing. Mays cultivates Jordan’s wardrobe based on the type of music he listens to and the art in his home. Jordan’s wedding suit, which Courtney expertly selected, bears some resemblance to hippie couture.

Mays also produced the ensemble Kevin Love wore to his 2022 wedding. Unlike Jordan, Mays describes Love’s style as more All-American.

“My goal is to always bring out the best in each client and not put my imprint. Other than that, I’m trying to elevate or make [them look] better. I don’t want anyone to look like me necessarily,” she said to Boardroom.

Nchimunya Wulf, Kevin Durant‘s personal stylist, started her agency in 2013 and has since expanded her empire through the DesigNCHIMUNYA Interior Design firm. She says her partnership with Durant functions as a collaboration in which he takes the lead, and her job is to make life simple.

“I add my signature touch, and he usually remixes to his liking at the moment! He’s more freestyle and doesn’t feel the impulse to coordinate as much, which I love and works so well for him,” Wulf told Boardroom. “He’s very creative and brilliant, which makes my job so buoyant and boundless.”

When James Harden won the NBA MVP in 2018, he accepted the trophy wearing a Neil Barrett patterned overcoat with matching trousers, a statement pendant, and some shiny lace-ups. His stylist Kesha McLeod explained that the look came together in Milan weeks prior, and she developed an entire itinerary based on the occasion.

McLeod, who also stacks Myles Turner, PJ Tucker, and Serena Williams as clients, first got the chance to work with athletes when Serge Ibaka recruited her for a Paris trip. After attending numerous shows, the pair ultimately decided on a casual pinstripe button-down with a matching bomber jacket and all-black pants. Appropriate enough for a children’s ceremony, chic enough to be remembered a decade later.

“To bring an athlete to Paris and pull a look off the runway and then have him wear it on a red carpet, that’s like Hollywood shit, absolutely what red carpet stylists do,” McLeod joked. “Serge is like 6-11, he’s huge. So, to pull a sample-size outfit for an athlete off the runway was something unheard of before. At that moment, it clicked, and I thought, ‘I’m just going to turn athletes into the new actors and actresses.'”

Assembling a capsule could best be described as hours of shopping for the perfect fit that encapsulates an athlete’s personality. However, it’s more complex than that.

Barnett interprets her role as building the person’s style from the ground up, ultimately pushing him out of his comfort zone and building something cohesive for all moments of said athlete’s life.

“Sometimes you see a person who looks the same across the board like Steve Jobs. That’s cool, too, but we’re playing Barbie and having a little bit of fun. You don’t want someone to look the same all the time,” Barnett said. “I think women sometimes do a better job dressing men because men tend to dress men how they dress. So when you see a lot of men’s stylists, they look the same, and their clients look the same. I also try to avoid trends. I think I’ve done a good job at making sure my clients never wear the same thing and don’t get caught in the who wore it better situation.”

Suits are the go-to uniform for men in most semi-formal settings. So, imagine Geran’s surprise when Bryant shared that he wasn’t a fan of suits. Rather, the five-time champion felt more comfortable in custom leather jackets, denim, and sneakers, pieces that were just an extension of himself.

“You see him in the latter part of his career wearing suits. But it was by default because people couldn’t mess that up,” she explained.

“Kobe was a person that didn’t enjoy fittings at all,” Geran continued. “So I had to master the art of measuring things. A lot of the stuff I gave him — which is not traditional — he wouldn’t know what he was wearing until game day. He liked to feel good, but he did not spend time on the details of his clothes. That was my job. He was very much focused on his game. That was his job. My job was to make sure he was good with taking up a minimum amount of his time.”

Misconceptions, Challenges, Rewards

From sitting front row at Fashion Week to having access to the season’s hottest pieces before anyone else, being a stylist certainly has its perks. But there are misconceptions in any career, and the ladies would be remiss if they weren’t candid about valid fallacies.

“I think people generally believe celebrities receive boxes and boxes of free products,” said Mays. “When I have a new client, remind them that that’s not always the case. It’s sort of like a 50/50 situation and sometimes 80/20 situation where you’re purchasing a lot of it and developing yourself as a style influencer. You have to get the eyes on yourself as somebody who influences style and culture before people send you boxes of product”

Beaver echoed those sentiments, adding that contrary to popular belief, nothing about her role is easy or glamorous.

“There’s a lot of schlepping,” she added. “There’s a lot of back-and-forth calls and work that goes into pulling a look together. And when you look at the scope of things as far as your team is concerned, we are the ones who do the most work. It can be glamorous when you get to a certain level and have the budget to get things done in a certain way. But until you get to that point, no.”

There’s also the tricky scenario where overseas fashion houses don’t recognize who the stateside superstars of the NBA are. In 2011 during Milan Fashion Week, Barnett said she had to write an 11-page essay to justify Wade’s invitation to sit front row during the presentation. The first show he ever attended was Versace with McLeod’s client, Carmelo Anthony, and they were the only two athletes at the show.

“I was working with the designer and the PR teams to get Dwyane front row because they weren’t checking for them. Being an athlete didn’t necessarily have the best reputation,” Barnett explained. “It was a lot of, ‘I understand what you guys think of athletes, but this is who you want.’ And now they go after them. Whereas before, we were chasing the brands.”

For McLeod, it’s about performing under pressure or adjusting when things go awry. Or trusting that the outfit you’ve been carrying from Harlem to the airport that has to board a plane within the hour arrives unscathed and in one piece. However, the most exhilarating part of the process is watching your creation admired by others.

“I’ve traveled to Paris with Serena at least nine times in my career, but this time, it was different because she trusted me to build a trip from the ground up. All she said was, ‘I want to go to Paris, figure it out.’ So, to take someone to that level, build relationships, and introduce your client to new things, it’s a different kind of high and excitement.”

However, the business doesn’t come without its fair share of grievances, which is all too common in a male-dominated industry.

“As women, we can’t go to the club with players,” Geran explained. “We have to look a certain way and be professional at all times. Some major challenges are getting the sports agents, the marketing people, and the PR people in sync with the players. If they were more cooperative, it would help women stylists in sports grow even further in their careers.

“No disrespect to the men, but it’s because of women that a lot of things in this industry get done. Win, lose, or regardless of how that player performed, we have to have those difficult conversations with them because men don’t want to be on the receiving end of bitterness.”

What’s Next?

They’ve dressed basketball’s best, had their looks grace magazine covers, and achieved many more milestones along the way. So, it begs the question: Where do these A-list stylists go from here?

For Barnett, she’s already taken on her next challenge as Creative Director for the Utah Jazz‘s private apparel brand CounterPoint. After 13 years and appareling a slew of athletes (Wade, Chandler Parsons, Nate Robinson), she wants to capitalize on everything learned working one-on-one with athletes to a team.

“There’s more I can make pretty,” she said. “Ultimately, what we do as stylists is make things beautiful.”

Meanwhile, McLeod has been an advocate for her clients for so long that she wants to focus on herself as a brand while simultaneously working alongside her A-list roster.

“Who I am and who I’ve worked with helps because now I’m taking on bigger roles as a fashion and creative director. The goal is always working toward bigger and better moments,” McLeod said.

Geran’s next venture includes tapping into her creativity within the artificial intelligence space.

“AI will dramatically change the future of television and film, but not necessarily when it comes to personal styling. I’d like to embark upon more opportunities connected with that in fashion and now I’m figuring out how the two are connected.”

Finally, for Mays, she’s focused on broadening her range as an entrepreneur and figuring out her identity as a brand.

“I’ve spent the past couple of decades being defined by Chris Paul or Kevin Love, and that’s beautiful and has taken me far and I’m grateful to those people. They’re basically my family at this point. But now, I’m figuring out who Courtney is and what she loves, and if there is something that has Courtney’s name behind it without a picture of somebody else,” Mays said.

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Vinciane Ngomsi

Vinciane Ngomsi is a Staff Writer at Boardroom. She began her career in sports journalism with bylines at SB Nation, USA Today, and most recently Yahoo. She received a bachelor's degree in Political Science from Truman State University, and when she's not watching old clips of Serena Williams' best matches, she is likely perfecting her signature chocolate chip cookie recipe or preparing a traditional Cameroonian meal.