Why Athletes Are SO Lucrative for the Fashion Industry

When you walk into a fashion show today, you’re just as likely to see athletes in the front row as you are editors and It girls. Although this goes for both genders, it’s become most notable with male athletes, who have taken to fashion in droves over the last few years. Guys like Dwyane Wade, Tom Brady, and Amar’e Stoudemire are some of the most prominent on the fashion scene these days, while tennis stars Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters take the cake for the female contingent.

What could account for this growing relationship? According to Steven Kolb, CEO of the CFDA, it comes down to the fact that fashion is a useful form of expression for athletes. “It [gives them] an opportunity to show their personalities off the court or field,” he told me. In other words, they’re not resigned to the en masse associations of a team or a sport—fashion allows them to forge their own path. "Since I was young, the artistic expression that fashion embodies has inspired me," Sharapova has said. "It's a way to communicate oneself." She’s been doing just that since 2008, with a successful shoe line for Cole Haan (and all the resulting press that helped expand her reputation). However, the benefits of these pairings are even greater for the designers involved.

As Kolb explained, the presence of athletes at a show or the sight of an athlete in a certain brand can connect to untapped customers. After all, there isn’t commonly a lot of overlap between the sports and fashion crowds. But when these much-idolized athletes show interest in fashion, they help legitimize it in the eyes of any skeptics (many of whom are men). Elaborating on the same subject, GQ Vice President Chris Mitchell told Bloomberg“Men don’t look at male models and say, I want to be that guy; men look at LeBron and say, I want to be that guy.” And it’s likely that this applies to women not consumed by fashion too. While they may not identify with (or know of) the Karlie Kloss or Alexa Chung types, the name of a famous tennis player or soccer star is likely to be more recognizable and, so, their brand relationships more persuasive.

The fashion world has grown less and less shy about capitalizing on this reality. “Designers love athletes because athletes … embrace [fashion] in a way that is authentic,” Mitchell told Bloomberg, and that was proven at New York City’s first Men’s Fashion Week earlier this month, where athletes like Wade and Victor Cruz were brought on as ambassadors while others simply showed up to show their support (in the designers’ latest pieces, of course). Notably, athletes also make up a third of GQ’s current cover stars due to how well they drive sales.

Larger brands have caught on as well, as many now collaborate with athletes on special series or ongoing collections. Along with the Cole Haan/Maria Sharapova relationship (which one can assume is doing well as it’s been around for so long—by fashion standards), Wade has worked with Air Jordan and Stance socks, while Serena Williams designs a namesake leisurewear line for HSN. That’s a mere handful of all the athletes turned designers. “Celebrity association is always a good thing, whether you’re an athlete, musician, or actor,” Kolb admitted. “It creates visibility amongst a [wider] fan base.” Lucky for brands, its also a prime way for athletes to invest in their futures.

Scroll down to see what our favorite athletes wear in the front row, and shop their designs!