When LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2018 NBA playoffs, he enlisted outside help to give his teammates a little extra boost, albeit from a rather unusual source: fashion designer Thom Browne.
Browne suited up the entire team in custom versions of his signature shrunken gray suits, turning their walk through the tunnel into an unofficial Thom Browne runway show. The tunnel has since become a valuable photo op for basketball players to showcase their fashion sense and for brands to reach new audiences.
The occasion marked a significant shift. “Historically, luxury would not have played in the realm of basketball,” says Pauline Brown, founder of Aesthetic Intelligence Labs and marketing professor at Columbia Business School.
While luxury brands have long since partnered with more exclusive sports like tennis and polo, they’re now turning to sports with more mass appeal like basketball, American football and soccer, which were previously the playing fields of performance or sportswear brands.
“Luxury and even broader-than-luxury premium brands have always been about creating desirability,” Brown adds. And those paths to desirability are changing.
It’s no longer just Rolex sponsoring Wimbledon or Adidas sponsoring soccer players. Luxury fashion brands and the biggest sports organizations such as the NBA and the English Premier League are finding themselves to be mutually beneficial partners in boosting each other’s brands and connecting with consumers on a global scale.
Last month, luxury conglomerate LVMH announced a partnership with the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. That same week, beauty giant Estée Lauder signed a deal with Manchester United to reach the soccer club’s Chinese fanbase. And leading up to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, currently being contested in Australia and New Zealand, British designer Martine Rose outfitted the US women’s team in custom suits in collaboration with Nike.
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Tapping into those sporting events and teams can allow luxury fashion brands to connect with consumers on a level that clothing and watches can only dream of reaching.
“It’s the level of intensity and the level of pride, that’s why they want to be associated with those events,” says Thomas Serrano, founder of luxury events planner Exclamation Group, about the appeal of a World Cup or Olympic-level sporting event. “[Brands] know it goes beyond where they can reach on their own.”
Same game, new rules
Part of what has made sports teams or organizations more compatible with luxury fashion is the evolution of sports teams into global brands unto themselves. “The leagues are treating themselves as luxury brands that are marketed with sophistication,” says Brown. “They weren’t that sophisticated as marketers before. They were more like television networks, just trying to reach as many eyeballs as possible.”
“The leagues are treating themselves as luxury brands that are marketed with sophistication. They weren’t that sophisticated as marketers before. They were more like television networks, just trying to reach as many eyeballs as possible.”
In 2020, the Cleveland Cavaliers hired artist Daniel Arsham as the franchise’s first creative director. That paved the way for a Tiffany & Co. collaboration in 2022, including a $575 basketball in the brand’s signature blue. In April of this year, Major League Soccer tapped streetwear designer Guillermo Andrade as creative advisor. And earlier this month, London-based football club Crystal Palace hired sports marketing veteran Kenny Annan-Jonathan as creative director, making it the first team in the Premier League to name such a position.
While athletes are typically bought and sold for their skills on the court, they are also becoming powerful influencers that can boost a team’s prestige and fashion credentials.
“The players have to be fans of the brand, and usually are customers long before the partnership is formed,” says Robert Burke, founder of New York-based consulting firm Robert Burke Associates. “Adidas and Nike’s relationship with athletes is traditionally just a shoe deal, what they wear on the court or field during games. But with luxury brands and athletes, it’s about what they wear outside of the game.”
Those players now command the global celebrity once reserved for film or music stars. When the reigning FIFA World Cup champion Lionel Messi visited China earlier this year for a friendly match against Australia, he inspired such “Messi Mania” that he and his teammates were unable to leave their Beijing hotel. A clip of a fan rushing the pitch to hug Messi went viral on Chinese social channels.
That sort of frenzy makes Messi a valuable entity for not just Adidas, his longtime sponsor, but also for the likes of Louis Vuitton, who tapped him for a campaign opposite his career rival Cristiano Ronaldo last year, as well as luxury watch brands. The soccer star, who recently joined Inter Miami from Paris Saint-Germain, was one of many top players sporting high-end watches at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and previously collaborated with watchmaker Jacob & Co.
Brown also predicts that the stadiums will soon become luxury hubs to match the prestige of their players. While Messi’s Inter Miami currently counts the Fort Lauderdale DRV PNK Stadium as its homebase, the team’s future home stadium of Miami Freedom Park, slated to open in 2025, promises to be a community gathering spot with public green spaces and restaurants.
“I’m seeing more and more stadiums become almost like what malls were in the ’70s and ’80s,” Brown says. “I think we’re in a very early stage of the evolution of those major arenas.”
Shared heritage and savoir faire
But a sports and luxury crossover needs more than just a series of big names to be successful. “A successful partnership oftentimes involves a history and authentic relationship between the brand or designer with the city of the sports team,” says Burke. “If the collaboration seems forced or not authentic, fans will pick up on that and reject it.”
European soccer teams have found luxury fashion brands to be valuable partners owing to their shared cultural heritage. Dior signed a two-year partnership in 2021 to act as the official outfitter for Paris Saint-Germain, the first time the French label had partnered with a sports organization. Loro Piana, meanwhile, created formalwear for Italian club Juventus in 2023, celebrating their shared Italian roots.
And with fashion savoir faire a major part of Paris’ cultural heritage, it only made sense for a fashion entity to step in when the city was announced as the 2024 Olympics host. “The Olympics always celebrate the values of the host countries,” says Serrano. “I think for LVMH it is important because they do have that attachment to made-in-France and French values.”
On the other hand, the NFL has proved a trickier partner for certain brands and figures. Rapper Jay-Z faced criticism when his company Roc Nation announced a partnership with the league to advise on Super Bowl performances and social justice initiatives, owing to the NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick and prevalence of domestic violence among its players.
Although singer Rihanna faced similar criticism for agreeing to perform at the 2023 Super Bowl Halftime Show, her ensemble of a custom Loewe jumpsuit, Alaïa coat and MM6 Maison Margiela x Salomon sneakers nonetheless helped catapult those brands to countless headlines and garner social media attention.
The soft power of sports has proved a valuable conduit to reaching audiences even in the face of criticism around human rights and social justice. Saudi Arabia has offered record-breaking salaries to recruit top talent from Europe to play in its growing soccer league in what some audiences have called “sportswashing.” (Huge sums of money aren’t always enough to build a world-class soccer league, however, as China learned with the collapse of the Chinese Super League in recent years.)
Part of sports’ power comes from its meritocracy, Brown says. Particularly in sports like soccer or basketball, anyone with talent can rise to become a global superstar no matter their origins.
“[Sports] make people dream,” she said. And if they’re dreaming of Louis Vuitton at the same time, all the better.