Thirty-five minutes before Russell Westbrook graces the stage with Fern Mallis, the celebrated creator of New York Fashion Week, there’s a line stretching down the street. The vibrant lot awaits Westbrook, standing underneath scaffolding that overhangs the 900-seat Kaufmann Concert Hall on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This month, the six-time NBA All-Star releases his Russell Westbrook: Style Drivers (Rizzoli), a toast to the NBA All-Star’s style at work and in life.
Westbrook himself has on casual athletic gear — a far cry from the pink sweatpants and tucked-in Gucci T-shirt he wore for an earlier taped appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. During a wide-ranging conversation, he and Mallis even squeeze in talk about his very specific preparation of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches: “toasted wheat bread, strawberry jam and creamy peanut butter, before slicing it right down the middle.” He definitely has an appetite for going against the grain.
And his talk with Mallis is sold out.
It’s a balmy September evening, and the crowd reflects racial diversity, age diversity, gender diversity and style diversity. Black pants are splattered with polka dots. Blood-red sneakers paired with pristine suits. Button-down plaid shirts and tan chinos are set off by Air Jordan XXXIs. Rabid NBA fans? Meh. Perhaps. This crowd challenges the traditional in favor of originality. Because that’s Westbrook.
Westbrook the two-time NBA All-Star MVP. The triple-double machine. The expectation is that he’ll lead the Oklahoma City Thunder back to the playoffs this season with new teammate Paul George. But looming larger than the elite athleticism that makes him a superstar is his game-night runway flair. Westbrook turns heads as much with his style as he does through his one-man fast-breaking ability.
Westbrook engaged the folks who came to see him, if from a distance. One click-clacked through the concert hall in sky-high Louboutin stilettos — with a 10-year-old in tow, in an orange OKC jersey. One hilariously booed as if on cue at the one mention of Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s former teammate. Westbrook revealed that he loves the postmodern mix of high and low — Topshop with Gucci, a thrift store find with Louis Vuitton. And he said he has no fashion regrets; he loved that kilt-over-slacks look he sported at last year’s NBA opener. But he’ll never, ever wear a romper, he says before laughing. A jumpsuit, yes. But no romper, ever.
Mallis, an NBA fan, rattled off Westbrook’s stats and boasted about his triple-doubles before dragging her glasses down her nose in mock dramatic flair. Westbrook was happily slumped down in a cushy chair. She looked up from the podium and quipped, “How many of my fashion audience even knows what that means?”
It was fun high fashion meets NBA elite meets new basketball fans and the most forward of fashion looks. Because of Westbrook, it all converged nicely.
“I’ll always tell [my son], like I tell everyone else, to be who you are,” he said the next day. “Everybody’s different in their own way … be who you are, and own it. That’s the most important thing for me. I’m going to continue to be who I am and own it. And be a role model to my son. And to some people around the world, as well.”
The next night, Westbrook was the special guest at a private cocktail reception on the third level (men’s ready-to-wear) of Barneys New York Downtown flagship before a book signing on the marbled main floor: bags, caps, jewelry. There the line of fans wrapped snakelike among the Want Les Essentiels purses and Louboutin backpacks, and down the sidewalk as well, waiting while he talked to a small group of fashion insiders.
The people who congregated at Barneys and at the 92nd Street Y’s Kaufman were mostly of the fashionable ilk, although the number of OKC jerseys and those rocking athletic streetwear were ever-present, and many marveled at Westbrook’s progressive, fashion-forward sensibilities. He dares to wear bright pink or printed shirts and other items that aren’t exactly code for straight male who earns his livelihood in what reads as the most masculine of spaces.
“I definitely didn’t encounter any bullying or anything,” Westbrook told a fan of feedback he’s received from his fashion choices. “I’ve definitely encountered people talking about what I was wearing, and what it may look like. And honestly, how I’ve dealt with it is, I’ve stayed positive.”
To say the least. And he can pinpoint the moment people realized how forward the guard is. “I had an outfit I wore in the  playoffs,” he saids while his listeners sipped on champagne or white wine and munched on caviar Bellinis topped with creme fraiche, deconstructed BLTs and bite-sized kale Caesar salads, “a Lacoste fishing [lures] shirt, red glasses. From that moment, it became a thing. And it progressed into other things.” In 2014, Westbrook cut his fashion-savvy teeth via a partnership with the Barneys New York. For his Westbrook XO brand, he worked in tandem with Public School, Del Toro Shoes, Tumi luggage, jeweler Jennifer Fisher and even a fragrance with Byredo.
In conversation with Barneys CEO Daniella Vitale, who hosted the cocktail party, he said the first time he was able to flex his creative muscles was with Barneys. He learned a lot, and it upped his creative confidence. Westbrook also announced that “soon” he’ll launch a streetwear line. “I’m in the process of starting my own stuff, my own line. I’m looking forward to finishing that up,” he said. “That’s my next project.”
And this is aside from a new NBA season in which all eyes will be on Westbrook as he follows the spellbinding season he had last year, when he joined the legendary Oscar Robertson as the only two players in NBA history who have averaged a triple-double for a season. Hours after his book signing, ESPN reported that Westbrook inked a lucrative 10-year extension with Jordan Brand — news the star athlete was clearly trying to keep under wraps.
But he’s constantly watching and working on both of his crafts: basketball and fashion. “I like to sit back and … watch each individual piece,” he said, “and see what the designer was seeing, and try to embrace that and understand the fashion. … I like to … watch the models go by and understand [the designers’] vision, what they were seeing and how they wanted to see the show play out. That’s what I’m trying to understand.”
He also understands that his fashion choices aren’t necessarily for everyone. And that, to him, is the beauty of fashion.
“I have a ‘Why not?’ motto and mindset,” Westbrook said at Barneys. “It’s what I stand by and what I believe in. It’s the name of my foundation. That’s just how I am. Who you are and what you believe in, your confidence and your swagger. It’s about you, regardless of what other people say or what other people think. If you believe what you’re wearing is OK, then go ahead and do it.”