By Cristina Bolling
The Charlotte Observer
NBA player Zach Collins panicked in his closet recently.
He’d scanned his racks and realized he’d run out of outfits to wear for his upcoming pregame stadium entrances, which, for the league, have become Instagram-feeding, red-carpet affairs.
Collins was having a busy month both professionally and socially, and he had had to postpone a housecall from his Charlotte-based stylist, Adri Zgirdea of AZSN Studio.
She flies to Portland every four to six weeks with a suitcase packed with fresh wardrobe pieces, and restocks Collins’ closet with labeled, head-to-toe ensembles for upcoming games.
For a 7-foot-tall guy with a size 19 foot, this was a problem that no quick trip to Nordstrom could fix.Collins, 21, who plays for the Portland Trail Blazers, made some attempts at mixing and matching some outfits, then texted Zgirdea.
She hopped on FaceTime to help him put together some looks from items he already had, until she could get there.”It was such a solid lesson that he learned: ‘These are responsibilities I have to take seriously, or there’s going to be consequences,’ ” Zgirdea recalled later, chuckling. ” ‘And I’m going to walk in with that all-black outfit two weeks in a row because I had no idea what I was supposed to wear.”
Zgirdea and her business partner, Suzy Niemann, have built, over the last two-and-a-half years, a business out of dressing pro athletes.
Many of their clients were still teenagers when they became overnight millionaires, suddenly thrust from their one-and-done, sweats-clad year of college ball into the Instagram-hungry jaws of professional sports.
Their clients come from all over the sports world, but they’ve got a soft spot for their NBA players, many of whom they link up with thanks to agents who hire them to dress young rookies and their parents for the draft. (That event, in and of itself, has become one of the biggest fashion shows in sports.)
Their affection for the young players is twofold: They’ve connected with the players’ families during the draft, and they sympathize with the intense pressure the young players are under at such an early age.
If the relationship during draft week clicks, the players hire the women as their stylists for a year at a time, and sign a contract for the pair to create outfits for all 82 games.
The stylists also become, they say, the players’ image makers, de facto therapists, parent-handlers and, sometimes, laundresses.”We want to take these kids under our wings, because so many people have their hand out and try to take advantage of them,” Niemann says.
“I was talking to one of our client’s moms at 8:30 last night after I put my kids to bed, because they were concerned about something.
Their families are our families.
Fashion is the biggest off-the-court competitive battleground for players in the NBA.
Teams churn out social-media stories of players arriving in high-level, designer street fashion and scoring their own clothing labels, front-row runway seats and spreads in top fashion magazines.
The league even started handing out an NBA Best Style Award, in 2017.
“We are in the age of the influencers, so a lot of money is made via Instagram,” says Zgirdea, which makes a great platform for pro athletes.
Collins shows up in every Trail Blazers Instagram post featuring players’ fashion. (Another AZSN client who’s gotten recent Instagram love is Kawann Short; the Carolina Panthers did a special story last year on the defensive tackle’s collection of custom pins.)
Niemann and Zgirdea point out to new clients, and their parents, that most pro athletes’ careers last only three or four years. So stylists can help hit the delicate balance of building a brand quickly, while not overspending.
And what pro athlete has the time to shop for nearly impossible-to-fit frames and bodies that are often still changing?
Collins says it was a no-brainer to sign on with Zgirdea and Niemann after they dressed him and his parents for the draft.
In turn, they’ve pulled off a full-fledged fashion revolution, taking him from a 19-year-old who didn’t own a single pair of dress shoes to a trend-setter who doesn’t shy away from sequins or splashy colors.”It’s fun to just finally be able to have clothes that fit me, and to know people that make clothes that fit me,” Collins said. “It’s definitely fun to try new things and to kind of step out of my comfort zone a little bit … It’s always fun to get up and get dressed for game day.”
His dad, Mike Collins, who oversees his son’s budget, says every penny of Zach’s wardrobe spending pays off, because “Zach should have to think about nothing but basketball right now.” (Collins declined to say how much his son spends on clothing or styling.)
“Imagine if you had to look nice all the time and you were our size. We can’t walk in anywhere in the country and buy shoes,” says Mike Collins, himself a towering high school basketball coach with a size 17 foot.”Nowhere in the country can (Zach) walk in and just buy pants.
You can’t go to Target in a crunch,” he says. “To have that done for you, so you’re not spending hours online trying to figure out where to get your next shirt? That’s a big deal. There’s no way people can understand it. We can’t even buy socks.”
Zach Collins says he’s never forgotten his middle school basketball coach’s mantra on fashion: “If you look good, you feel good, you play good.” And he’s feeling that these days, he says, in the high he gets being photographed walking into arenas, and later seeing those photos online.Zgirdea agrees.
“Our goal is to make them feel good off the court, so they get on the court excited, and perform.””When he walks in and gets photographed and he feels good about himself, that translates into how he performs on the court. It’s all about their state of mind, right?
That’s half of our job, to be their therapist.
Zgirdea and Niemann met while working at high-end Charlotte menswear boutique Tabor. They quickly found they shared backgrounds working in financial services and later, fashion, and Zgirdea had friends who worked at sports agencies, a combination of skills and contacts they figured would set them up well to style pro athletes.
It’s worked.Their clients include NFL players (a couple of Panthers are in the mix), as well as NBA and NASCAR athletes.
It’s a business that hinges not only on knowing where to buy the most coveted designer jeans that are long enough to fit a 7-footer (they rely on everything from fast-fashion labels like Asos to high-end brands like Amiri jeans, which run upwards of $1,000 a pop), but how to counsel 19-year-old rookies fresh off the draft who are navigating the scary world of big-league athletics and the media that goes along with it.
One morning last month, Zgirdea and Niemann packed a rackful of clothes into a black rolling suitcase for Zgirdea to take to Collins: a new patterned suit by Charlotte-based Ole Mason Jar; an assortment of shirts, pants, and a few pieces covered in sequins.
She’d spend the next day going through Collins’ closet while he was at practice, clearing out pieces he won’t wear again and organizing the new outfits in game-day order.
When he got home, he’d try on each piece and if anything needed tailoring, Zgirdea would mark it (she has professional tailoring experience) and bring it back to Charlotte for alterations
.A few pieces she was bringing had come from the closets of other AZSN clients, as both an effort to reduce fashion waste and to save money for players like Collins, who are still on their first contracts.
She brought tags to clearly label which specific garments formed outfits for which games, “2/12 against the Warriors” and “goes with jeans distressed on the right knee”, and a photo stream to share on Collins’ phone to rule out any confusion.
Niemann and Zgirdea laugh about the frantic texts they receive from players asking “What jeans do I wear tonight?” even though they’ve spoon-fed the fashion, and given the players no fewer than three ways to identify every outfit. (They can always answer, because they keep meticulous records.)
“All of their energy is going into their profession and that’s not a 9-to-5. It’s exhausting. They need every bit of that extra assistance,” Niemann says. “You’re flying to 41 games in six months. It’s grueling.”
For Collins, that panicked moment in his closet last month gave him a new appreciation for the art of fashion, and showed him how much he’s learned about style.”I really didn’t have much going on in my closet,” he said, “until I went to the NBA.”