Fly Eagles: Our Birds, of all people, are having a fashion moment
THE FIRST TIME Eagles wide receiver and return specialist Brad Smith admired a nicely tailored suit, he was a young boy sitting in the pews of his Youngstown, Ohio, church. Now, he's a regular at New York Fashion Week.
Smith has worked as an intern for Men's Health, studying with its fashion editors, and as a contributing editor to the magazine, acting as a correspondent at New York Fashion Week. (Think of it as fashion's Super Bowl).
And Smith isn't the only Eagle with fashionable aspirations. Many players on the team have stepped it up as of late, redefining the way they present themselves when they're not wearing helmets and pads.
Tight end Brent Celek prefers simple clothes with a single piece of peacock flair. "One thing that pops," he said.
Cornerback Brandon Boykin and linebacker Mychal Kendricks follow trends to a T.
Offensive lineman Todd Herremans is so large that he can't buy off the rack, so he prefers the custom-suit stylings of Saks Fifth Avenue. "I always try to match my shirts with my socks, or my pocket square with my socks," he said. "It's the little things not everyone will notice."
New safety Malcolm Jenkins calls his style "street prep" but his formal looks make him seem more likely to teach a literature class than go clubbing. If only because not many dudes are wearing pocket squares and bow ties to the club.
It's change for a town not known for its stylish athletes. Unless John Kruk Chic is your thing.
Allen Iverson certainly brought a street sensibility to his game, daring to wear cornrows and baggie shorts - looks that have been copied by young players entering the league since. But Iverson was never known for dressing up.
It's also a change for football, a sport not known for churning out style icons the way that basketball does with its good (Dwyane Wade, himself a Fashion Week regular), bad (Michael Jordan's penchant for acid wash denim) and ugly (looking at you, Dennis Rodman).
Football has had its style moments. Few men could wear a full-length fur coat (or a pair of panty hose) like Joe Namath. But just because Broadway Joe could wear the fur coat doesn't mean he should have worn the fur coat.
"It's a sport that's so far from fashion, just with the concept of us running into each other. It's a meathead sport," said Celek. Also, it can be hard for NFL players to dress nice when they're training. "When I'm lifting," he said, "sometimes my legs don't fit into pants."
Big boy pants
But Celek and his teammates are trying to change those images. They regularly show up at events looking fly, wearing well-tailored suits that put a polished veneer on the hulk underneath.
"When I first got into the NFL, I thought it was the greatest thing in the world that I could wear sweatsuits. I would go to Torre's down on Broad Street and get the biggest clothes I could find. I would wear sweats and hoodies all over the place," Herremans said.
"I don't know, I just grew up a bit and I didn't want to look like a slob."
Celek and Jenkins not only want to look good but have started their own companies so that you look good too.
Then there are guys who are bucking the conventional notions of what a football player is supposed to look like. Like linebacker Connor Barwin, who demonstrates his hipster leanings through his haircut - shaved on the sides with mop of curls on top - something that wouldn't be foreign to the kids wearing beat up Chuck Taylors, worn band T-shirts and riding their bikes through Fishtown.
It's a little more daring than the Johnny Unitas crew cut.
"People find their own niche," said Herremans, whose main goal isn't to follow trends but to find something that fits (skinny jeans, for instance, are a no-go). "There's more of a variety and all of it looks good and sharp."
Mr. Smith goes to Fashion Week
For this fashion-conscious squad, the clothes aren't about acquiring stuff. The idea is to craft an individual image, in Smith's case, precise tailoring.
Before he was a wide receiver and return specialist for the Eagles, Smith was just another gap-toothed kid growing up in Youngstown. Church was for spiritual enrichment, something he still holds dear, but he was getting an education that he didn't expect every Sunday.
He watched as men, pillars of his community, donned their finest to worship.
"They always looked nice," Smith said. "That's one of the biggest influences on me. Just their attention to detail."
He continued, "These good guys, strong guys, took care of their families. I figure that's why I like to wear suits."
And Smith looks damn good in a suit.
Earlier this year, he held a contest to find an aspiring designer to create a one-of-a kind suit for him. The winner, Cassie Hodgins, received an apprenticeship at a design house and the chance to see her look made real. Why Hodgins out of 60 entries? He liked her attention to detail.
A Linc to broader trends
Alphonso McClendon, an assistant professor of fashion design at Drexel University, sees two broad trends behind the Eagles' new attention to style.
First, the pendulum in menswear as a whole has swung from casual to more formal. "We're definitely in a trend cycle now where it's better to be polished and put together," McClendon said. "It's hip to dress up."
Second, pro athletes, like rappers or rock stars, positively manipulate their public image through style. Nicer clothes are part of a brand makeover for those looking to lose the bad-boy image that has dogged some sports celebrities.
"Athletes want to be viewed in a better light and a way to show that is through beautiful dress - beautiful ties, real leather shoes," McClendon said, comparing their act of redefinition to what jazz men in the early 20th century did to enter the pop cultural sphere.
Want to be respected? Start wearing a tie.
Herremans began his Herremans Foundation in 2012. He found it was difficult to ask people for money if he looked like a slob.
"If you're out trying to raise money for a good cause, you want to present yourself as professional. They'll listen to you a little more if you're dressed that way," he said.
"Brent has a business [Old City restaurant Prime Stache and accessories line Revisit], and he can't show up in gym shoes and sneakers," Herremans said. "They want him to look professional and respectable."
Celek wants to create a conversation too. His goal with Revisit (revisitproducts.com), the luxury accessories line he founded with partner Jillian DiIorio, is to get people talking about the National Parks system. A quarter of the profits from the business, which sells goods like a chocolate-colored leather backpack and unisex jewelry, goes back to the parks.
For Malcolm Jenkins, style means extending his staying power. "The average NFL career is three years. The way we should see it you have three years to market yourself as much as you can," Jenkins said.
"The way you present yourself is incredibly important to moving past the field," he said. "A lot of guys don't think past that, and it's a hard lesson to learn."
Jenkins started paying attention to clothes in his senior year at Ohio State University. He was getting ready for the draft and bought a couple of well-tailored suits. "I loved the way it fit and the way I looked. It opened my eyes," he said.
And bow ties are very important to him. He founded Rock Avenue Bowties (rockavenuebowties.com) last year, launching his first line in July. The name is a reference to the street he grew up on in East Orange, N.J.
"I pick every product that we have, I touch every fabric," Jenkins said. His mantra: If he likes it, it gets sold. "Worst-case scenario? We end up with a bunch of ties that I like."
So, why bow ties? "A regular tie will get you a compliment," he said. "But a bow tie will get you a conversation."
On Twitter: @mollyeichel