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How NBA Players Are Keeping the Skinny Jean in Fashion

Bootcut pants are allegedly making a comeback. But try telling that to Russell Westbrook.

Pants have finally taken their rightful place at the center of the fashion universe in the last few years — becoming wider, shorter and weirder with every passing season. What might be the apex of this eccentric trouser trend, the delirious moment when conservatively dressed American men finally said “enough,” is the raging controversy over the Balenciaga bootcut jeans. GQ planted its flag on Bootcut Island on Monday, blessing the would-be trend from the mind of designer Demna Gvasalia. The Balenciagas flare just enough to be noticeable and awkwardly bunch up on the model wearing them with black dress shoes. They aren’t quite full-on bell bottoms, but they’re a real choice.

Balenciaga’s taste-making ability and credibility within the ever-fickle fashion world is unquestioned. Whether you accept bootcut or not is irrelevant. It’s coming. All your fit gods (Jonah, Shia, John Mayer) will be rocking these things soon enough. Just don’t wait around for NBA players to adopt this look. Generally, the evolution of pants keeps missing the NBA’s style titans. And so, skinny, ripped jeans and elevated sweatpants continue to dominate American pro sports’ most fashionable game.

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SkinniesXgreatsunlight= ? #whynot

A post shared by Russell Westbrook (@russwest44) on

You might be blabbering to yourself, “Oh, who cares about pants?” I do, and you should, too. The men in your life all have varying opinions on what’s the most crucial element of their wardrobe: shoes, shirts, accessories, a gaudy logo screaming at passersby and declaring brand allegiance. Those people are all wrong. Pants demand more of your attention, care and style expertise than any other garment you will put on. Pants hug some of the most sensitive areas of your body. They can accentuate your positives or shine a harsh light on your negatives. They’re cruel and without remorse. A bad pair of pants can obliterate you and cause the human race to run screaming in the other direction.

Ask your father. He probably wears wrinkle-free Dockers.

The vast majority of athletes, however, can pretty much wear whatever pants they feel like. They have finely toned bodies and can afford the best tailors to craft bespoke trousers that hug their frames perfectly. The slight imperfections that I begrudgingly accept — too tight on my large ass, a far too generous break at the ankle, buttons where a zipper should go — are no concern to rich, famous people in perfect physical condition. The skinny jeans trend was insufferable for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it meant conforming to a certain body image that was unattainable for some people who were not nearly skinny enough.

That, though, is probably why skinny jeans continue to be seen around the bowels of NBA arenas. The pant legs might get shorter. They might include patterns. Still, they hug the body in ways that you might not see as often on runways now that guys like Virgil Abloh and Ralph Lauren are sporting roomier pants. Younger players like the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Jordan Clarkson or the Brooklyn Nets’ D’Angelo Russell continue to stan for skinny jeans when discerning eyes turn to double-knee Carhartts, billowing corduroy and the dreaded bootcut.

In fairness, the weird pants movement remains highly niche, something that has only affected those in the know on both coasts. I still feel a bit suspect leaving the house in my blue wide-leg 18east cords, and I live in L.A. That kind of look really only exists here inside boutique stores like West Hollywood’s RTH, Culver City’s Magasin and Silver Lake’s Mohawk General Store. It’s rare to see dudes dressed with wide legs in the wild. We fear the silent judgment of our peers, so we hold back.

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Any high fashion move comes with a certain amount of trepidation, unless you’re possessed of unshakable self-esteem or only hang out with people who read Business of Fashion. For instance, Calvin Klein is embroiled in a bit of a complicated ideological moment, as its creative director, the iconic Raf Simons (favorite of hip-hop and sports stars) tries to push weirder pant styles onto a brand that’s known for selling uncomplicated basics to regular people. Not everyone, though, wants their pants to take them on an adventure. Most just want them to fit and not draw attention to themselves. Not to mention, a lot of athletes live in cities that are pretty restrained about fashion. Good luck wearing bootcut Balenciaga jeans in Milwaukee. Wide pants then remain a weird flex.

More generally, wide pants — though democratic in terms of body shape thanks to trendy accoutrements like elastic waistbands or self-belts — still feel highly Caucasian in their cultural perspective. When you think of the guys who end up fronting the various sub-genres of men’s fashion in 2018, they tend to be white. Look at the list of fit gods a few paragraphs up: Jonah, Shia, John Mayer. Each plays with a certain hip aesthetic:

What those of us in the fashion bubble, but especially those of us in the media who consume way too much Twitter, are looking at is a decidedly white idea of what’s cool. Wearing a suit without a shirt underneath might look fly from a distance when Russell Westbrook does it, but you’re not going to see Jonah Hill wearing that fit ever.

This isn’t to say that different types of pants are exclusively the domain of white men, but that we continue to live in a bifurcated universe, even within the lofty domains of fashion. So while there’s never been more crossover between white fashion and black and brown street fashion — when legacy fashion houses like Louis Vuitton hire designers like Virgil Abloh, you know walls are crumbling — we still also roam in different packs, and what works for one might not work for the other. The NBA’s fashion leaders might seem eccentric to the observer, but if you’ve been inside a locker room, you’ll see how the cultural ecosystem is a closed loop. Guys clown each other for their fits, slavishly follow the leader when a trend emerges and lustily chase their very specific idea of clout. That’s true of unremarkable dudes afraid to take risks with their clothes, too, but rich men in the spotlight are even more aware of their images.

Last year, the NBA was flooded with Gucci and tailored suit jackets with shorts. This year, you’re seeing more Balenciaga and Fear of God than ever. LeBron even rocked an A.P.C. jacket last week, which some of us can actually afford. Don’t be shocked if more of that starts popping up. All it takes for athletes to adopt wide-leg jeans is one trailblazer (not necessarily from Portland) to bless the trend: Russ, Harden, LeBron, even P.J. Tucker. But it can’t just be anybody. Steph Curry wearing bootcut might kill the trend completely by virtue of his being known as kind of a corny dresser. Even within the rarefied air of the NBA’s millionaire’s club, some dudes sling more clout than others. While LeBron and James Harden are mixing it up with fashion elites, Steph is playing golf.

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305 to my city!!!!!!

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It’s probably true thought that even if bootcut jeans overtake the real heads who demand their spot on the cutting edge, the Average Joe will always want the pants that fit and do nothing more. All this chatter about the width of your pant leg is really those of us who care talking to each other. The countless millions of people who buy pants as a necessity rather than a style move aren’t bothered. That’s really where the power of our athletes and celebrities lie — to open a closed mind and to push our aesthetics forward.

It’s the fashion circle of life, and it never ends. For now at least, we might think we’re moving forward, but eventually, we’ll end up with bell bottoms again anyway.