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Michael Jordan, Unsung Master of the ’90s Power Suit


There’s an urban legend from Michael Jordan’s rookie season—the one that says Isaiah Thomas convinced the 1985 Eastern Conference All-Stars to freeze MJ out and not give him the ball. There was some sentiment why. One account said some players thought Jordan “was showboating by competing in the dunk show with all his gold chains glittering around his neck,” while another blamed the Bulls rookie for not saying hi to Thomas in an elevator. Whatever the story, Jordan, who showed up in “black baggy sweats, a Brink’s truck’s worth of jewelry and big black sneakers,” stuck out. The freeze-out has since been mostly debunked, but the outfits and the legacy are confirmed. After the All-Star Game Jordan faced Thomas’ Pistons and dropped 49 points and 15 rebounds in an overtime win. A little later Jordan stopped wearing sweats and went full formal. The six championships would follow.

Jordan, of course, is the megastar who both needs no introduction and deserves even longer than a 10-part ESPN documentary to explain what he was about. A giant on the court, he was dependably stylish off it, which is fully on display in The Last Dance. As a player, he started a litany of trends—shaved heads, a single hoop earring, berets, baggy shorts, Carolina blue—which varied in their lifespan. His college years look like something out of Take Ivy, with gold chains and Gucci thrown in, and his Jordans, 34 and counting, are so much a part of American life that it’s hard to imagine the sneakers having ever been designed for one guy to wear on the court. His real style legacy, though, might have been his suits.

Jordan was so stylish in pants and a jacket that his stylistic decisions can be divided up into periods: Early Jordan, right out of college, in a 60s-cut number with slim lapels; Early Modern, sophomore year, in a classic-fit peak lapel pinstripe number and a foot brace; Pre-Modern, scoring title era, about to cash a check, slightly looser. And then there’s Later Jordan, in the early and mid-90s, which holds up better than ever.

Michael Jordan on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in New York September 16 1997.
Michael Jordan on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in New York, September 16, 1997.NBC / Getty Images

Jordan, the face of the league for almost all his career, tells the one-man story of growth of the NBA from a mid-tier sport to a giant, sweeping business. Having entered a league with a $3.6 million salary cap and retired (for the first time) with it nearly 10 times that amount, Jordan helped its style evolve, too, leading the charge from forced formal to purposeful dressing in the ‘90s. The players who wore short shorts stuck to ties, but Jordan, Tinker Hatfield said, “would take an Armani suit and restructure so it would drape differently.” Jordan mostly agreed. “I’m a suit guy,” he said in a ‘90s interview with GQ.

Many were from Alfonso Burdi, a Chicago tailor who did much of his custom work. Rino Burdi, Alfonso’s son, tells me the relationship started when they surprised him with a one-measurement custom suit prototype: “baggy pants, jackets extra long and extra full,” with the idea that they’d adjust the fit to a traditional slimmer cut on future fittings. But Jordan liked it enough on first wear—all his other suits, he’d later confide to Burdi, felt way too short—that he left the suit as is, and ordered 13 more that day, all cut a little big, creating a new baggy style his tailors had generally avoided. Jordan told GQ at the time, “I have about 100-150,” and Burdi told me they’d make him “5-6 suits a week,” over the length of their relationship, which began around his second year in the league. Jordan was comfortable enough in formal clothing that he ordered Hatfield, who designed most of his Air Jordans, to design the XI to look like it wore a pair of spats, and wore suits so often and to so many different functions that it looked effortless, as natural as shorts and a jersey. Jordan wasn’t exclusive to suits that decade—there’s this incredible suspenders, short-sleeve shirt ensemble he wore to Arsenio in 1990—but would favor them more, getting baggier by the year, sometimes choosing wild colors, sometimes more conservative cuts.

Michael Jordan in New York October 23 1996.
Michael Jordan in New York, October 23, 1996.Steve Granitz / Getty Images

In the mid-90s, as Jordan won three in a row, left the sport and came back and did it again, he evolved, going even bigger. Burdi, Jordan’s tailor, said the pants were cut wide for Jordan’s bowed legs—Rino told me they adjusted his pants’ patterns so they’d hang straighter. Jordan, who considered himself a “petite-type person,” liked what wide styles did for him. Drawing his influences from women’s magazines, and occasionally using fabrics from the womens’ lines that Burdi would carry, Jordan hid his skinny body behind “clothing that draped,” and, at the height of his fame, became even better at hiding, widening his lapels to 1930s gangster proportions and taking impressive chances with colors.

There’s a rich legacy of looks. In one photo, Jordan laces up some sneakers before a game, with a cup of deli coffee at his feet. It’s 1998, he’s smiling ear to ear, and has on a perfect outfit: lots of drape, a matching palette and a Yohji-like tie. Everything— the coat in the background, the equipment bag—adds up to a tableau that looks less like a sports photo than a Polo or Perry Ellis ad. (A similar kit on a 1994 Upper Deck card, with suspenders, is even better.) That same year, ranging out in an Orlando hotel, his tan suit matched his chair, the carpet and his socks. It’s an uncanny shot, and begs the question whether he packed it on purpose, knowing the lobby, for the photo. (He probably did.) There’s a Leno appearance, on a preseason promotional tour, with a grey suit that flowed like a caftan, and a simple black shirt. Does baggy clothing always look this good? Where did this come from?

He didn’t always succeed. Some of the looks got pretty baroque, but even when Jordan ventured into high-cut lapels or Zhongshan suits, they came off casual, and without affect. These were byproducts of Jordan going for it, growing out of the slim suits he wore in his 20s and expanding the boundaries of his style. While Jordan wasn’t the first player to amass a league-leading wardrobe—let us now pause and pay tribute to Walt Frazier—his suits, like his sneakers and bald pate, started a movement. (Scottie Pippen, A-Rod and the Kings of Comedy were among those Jordan sent to his tailor.) The Michael Jordan effect, said Hatfield in 1999, was that “15 years ago [players] dressed very poorly … now … everybody dresses well.” Jordan, older now, still seemed to best his colleagues, wearing everything first, casually, and without affect.

Dana Carvey and Michael Jordan during a Saturday Night Live skit in New York September 28 1991.
Dana Carvey and Michael Jordan during a Saturday Night Live skit in New York, September 28, 1991.NBC / Getty Images

In 2005, the NBA, then defined by a post-Jordan allegiance to the same baggy sweats from his rookie season, instituted a dress code that required business casual shirts and pants, and forbade jerseys, headgear, shorts, chains, and sunglasses. Players felt targeted, and the code indeed singled out a handful of athletes who, like Jordan during his heyday, dressed how they wanted, albeit at the other side of the spectrum.

Fifteen years later, suits are as much a feature of the NBA as the three-point shot. Players go for them unprompted; Thom Browne outfitted a team. It’s a stylistic evolution that’s far enough from its origin to exist on its own: whether the dress code was kosher or not, there’s self-expression again, and a swath of outfits that are as worth watching as the game itself. It also shows how massive Jordan’s footprint was. Having outgrown sweats and chains—which looked really good!—he set the pace with suits, and then grew from that. It’s the kind of freedom that comes from being at the top. The league, richer than ever, finally got its wish for its players to be like Mike.

Jordan’s wardrobe devolved a little—that’s an understatement—when he was finished playing. Photos of the GOAT in tube-like jeans, pants with no breaks, and chintzy leather blazers abound. They’re outfits that hurt to see. Was Jordan hiding even harder under that extra denim? Unable to compete on the court, had he given up everywhere else? Maybe. Aging out of being the best athlete in the world to just another rich guy is a hard fall, whether there’s money to pad the landing or not. As a player, Jordan wore suits to distance himself from shorts and a jersey, to “get away from the stigma of being an athlete.” With no uniform to play in, they were just things he had to wear. But it doesn’t matter that he seems to have given up on wearing suits. It’s more that he kept it going for so long.

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