First the NBA, Now F1: A Study in Athletes Making a Stylish Entrance

Collage of athletes including Dennis Rodman, David Beckham with Victoria Beckham, Zhou Guanyu, Lebron James, and Lewis Hamilton.
(Image credit: Margaret C. Norton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images; Justin Goff\UK Press/Getty Images; Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images; Vince Mignott/MB Media/Getty Images; Mark Thompson/Getty Images; Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

Four months ago, I stood alongside a crop of photographers, videographers, and fans outside of the Formula One paddock in Austin, waiting to document my favorite drivers' outfits for day two of the U.S. Grand Prix. Though most of the sports' 20 professional pilots still haven't followed resident darling Lewis Hamilton's lead in the style department, a handful of them have, including Zhou Guanyu, Pierre Gasly, Yuki Tsunoda, and George Russell. I was determined—despite the 100-degree Texas heat—to capture their looks in 4K. 

Hamilton arrived at the paddock in a margarine-colored sweater and brown jeans, the former plucked from Loewe's F/W 23 collection and the latter from Namacheko's. On his feet were $1140 Marsèll boots, and red Ahlem sunglasses protected his eyes from the relentless sunshine. I know all of this because of @HamazingLew, an Instagram account that IDs every one of the 39-year-old's paddock 'fits. Rashi Gaur, the creator of the account and a fan of Hamilton's since 2013, has accrued over 23,000 followers on the page and is but one of many people who, like me, have caught wind of the fact that fashion and sports share a strong bond. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the entrance of each league's respective stadiums, tracks, and arenas.

As far back as you can go in modern sports history, you'll find athletes experimenting with their personal style. From David Beckham and Dennis Rodman in the '90s to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamilton today, players have always played around with fashion, daring to wear designer labels and out-there trends in a primarily uniformed environment. In the '50s, there was Wilt Chamberlain in the NBA. In the '60s, there was Jochen Rindt in F1. In the '70s and '80s, there was Yannick Noah, the French tennis player whose snug David Bowie T-shirt and satin short shorts from a practice match in 1983 live rent-free in my head. Clearly, the ties between fashion and sports are long and intertwined. Still, when looking around at the current landscape, it's evident that their enduring relationship has hit its peak in modern times.

Collage of stylish professional athletes throughout history, including Wilt Chamberlain, Dennis Rodman, David Beckham with Victoria Beckham, Michael Schumacher, and Yannick Noah.

(Image credit: Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images; Margaret C. Norton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images; Justin Goff\UK Press via Getty Images; Mark Thompson/Getty Images; Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images)

In more ways than one, we have the NBA to thank for that. The "tunnel fashion" phenomenon really began at the start of the 2005–2006 season when the National Basketball Association instituted a dress code across the league that mandated players wear strictly business attire to games, according to Leah Faye Cooper, Vogue's digital style director and the author of Vanity Fair's "On Point," a feature story on NBA tunnel 'fits that ran in 2021. "[The dress code] was criticized for its ban of baggy clothes, do-rags, and other styles largely associated with Black men," Cooper explains. "Amid the backlash, players started getting more inventive, taking a page from earlier NBA fashion enthusiasts like Walt 'Clyde' Frazier and Dennis Rodman. Suits became more tailored, colors became bolder, and players began to lean into accessorizing with sunglasses and oversize designer bags." In the nearly two decades since the code went into effect, fashion's role in the sport has grown exponentially.  

These days, pretty much every player in the league experiments stylistically, many of whom get help from personal stylists and a Rolodex of impressive tailors. When the result is successful, athletes may find themselves featured on @LeagueFits, an Instagram account founded by Slam magazine editor and stylist Ian Pierno with the help of his former intern Joe Williams. The account has been documenting NBA fashion since 2018. Prior to it, Pierno tells Who What Wear that players and their pre-show looks got maybe three seconds of airtime on TV. "Social media provided a place for these pregame tunnel moments to last and be shared," he says. In his mind, the 'fit pic means nothing if no one sees it. "LeagueFits is an audience of over a million people that care intensely about what these guys and girls are wearing," Pierno says. "Sure, the teams will post the images, but 95% of people that follow the Houston Rockets are following because they want to keep up with the games." In other words, they're not going to the team's social media page for its players' outfits. For the past six years, they've gone to LeagueFits for that.

For brands, that's a level of exposure that's hard to quantify, if not priceless.

Leah Faye Cooper, Digital Style Director at Vogue

It took a while, but eventually, fashion brands started to catch on. Rather than athletes and their stylists having to justify to brands why their sought-after pieces should go to them as opposed to other celebrities, brands today seek out players, wanting them to wear their designs to games, collaborate on collections, and attend their runway shows. "Pregame style started as a trend, and now, it's a business," says Pierno. Brands are now all too aware of the benefits that come from getting a piece of theirs on one of the NBA's best dressed players. With more and more publications covering fashion in sports, these athletes aren't just being regularly featured on LeagueFits, either. GQ Sports' Instagram page as well as platforms such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN document outfits worn by the likes of Kyle Kuzma, Devin Booker, Tyrese Maxey, and more. If an athlete in the NBA shows up to their game in a good outfit, you can bet that the masses will see it. 

"Millions of people tune into NBA games and follow players and their fashion choices on social media," says Cooper. "For brands, that's a level of exposure that's hard to quantify, if not priceless." Because of that, it's not surprising that athletes in other leagues have caught wind of the advantages that come with dabbling in pregame style. The NBA has become the blueprint for fashion and sports, a case study for NFL, MLS, and ATP athletes to look to and copy in their own unique ways. As F1's exposure grows, so does the presence of fashion within its walls.

A collage of well-dressed NBA players, including Russell Westbrook, P.J. Tucker, Kyle Kuzma, Lebron James, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

(Image credit: Michael Reaves/Getty Images; Mark Blinch/Getty Images; Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

When it comes to fashion and F1, Hamilton is the driver leading the charge. "He is just as [big as], if not bigger than, the sport," says Williams Racing driver Alex Albon about the seven-time World Champion. That isn't an exaggeration. On Instagram alone, Hamilton boasts 10 million more followers than the sport he's dedicated his life to, and a large part of his fame comes from his interests off the track. "Lewis's impact when it comes to showing off his style has been significant," says Gaur. According to the content creator, with F1's growth, Hamilton's signature style has become more and more recognizable and lauded in the fashion world. In 2021, he was given permission by Anna Wintour to purchase a table at the Met Gala, which he filled with rising Black talent in the industry. A year later, he became the first male ambassador for Valentino's Di.Vas (Different Values) campaign, starring alongside Zendaya. He's designed collections for Tommy Hilfiger and regularly sits front row during fashion week at Louis Vuitton and Dior. If all of that wasn't enough, Hamilton also shows up to every session at all of the F1 season's 20-plus races in meticulously put-together ensembles by designers such as Versace, Rick Owens, Loewe, and Miu Miu. 

It's like this: You can't talk about paddock 'fits without first crediting Hamilton and his stylist Eric McNeal. The duo—as well as Hamilton's former stylist, image architect Law Roach—catalyzed the current "paddock fashion" movement, which is slowly but surely picking up steam among F1's other 19 drivers and attracting the attention of the world. 

"We did not hear drivers speak about their personal style before Lewis started openly talking about it, giving others in F1 a platform to highlight a new side of themselves apart from being an F1 racer," says Gaur. Stake F1 driver Zhou Guanyu immediately turned up to the paddock in the likes of Prada, Thom Browne, and Dior during his first season in the sport, leading to a Dior ambassadorship in 2023. "In the past, maybe 20 years ago, racing drivers were just about racing," Zhou said in a 2022 interview. "Obviously, [Hamilton] was the first one to be open in that way, and it wasn't easy. I fully remember the first time he did that. A lot of people were saying, 'Why is he wearing that?' And I was one of the guys who liked his fashion sense." For Zhou, following Hamilton's lead meant being able to express himself in ways that F1 drivers hadn't utilized in a long time. "When I arrived in F1, I just really wanted to be myself, either on track or off track, so that was what I tried to do," Zhou continued. "It's great that now we have more people using their own clothes in the paddock."

A collage of well-dressed F1 drivers, including Pierre Gasly, Lewis Hamilton, Zhou Guanyu, and George Russell.

(Image credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images; Backgrid; Kym Illman/Getty Images; Mark Thompson/Getty Images; Vince Mignott/MB Media/Getty Images)

Following suit, Alpine's Pierre Gasly has become a regular attendee at Louis Vuitton's menswear shows and often dons Supreme and Ralph Lauren at races. Scuderia Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc, who used to exclusively wear his team kit during race weekends, changed course at the end of the 2023 season when he started wearing Dior, Nahmias, Armani, and Ferrari's namesake fashion brand during race weekends. He's also an ambassador for the jewelry brand APM Monaco and starred on the December cover of L'Officiel Italia. Meanwhile, Mercedes pilot George Russell and the team's reserve driver Mick Schumacher have transformed into two of Tommy Hilfiger's best dressed representatives, with the former showcasing the Americana fashion brand at races while the latter attends and promotes its events during New York Fashion Week.

As their interest grows, so too does the number of brands interested in joining in on the hype surrounding the sport. "Many fashion brands are now inspired by racing, which is evident through the collaborations that you see, such as Palm Angels x Haas or Awake NY collaborating with Tommy Hilfiger and Lewis," Gaur says. A$AP Rocky was recently handed the title of creative director of Puma's F1 division. Ahead of the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix, Mercedes-AMG teamed up with Japanese label Sacai on an exclusive capsule collection for Nordstrom. Clearly, there's no shortage of fashion brands interested in taking the leap into F1. If Hamilton—whose Burberry, Bottega Veneta, and Valentino looks from the 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix each amassed media impressions valued between $780,000 and $830,000, according to Business of Fashion—is any indicator, their growing investments in the sport aren't for nothing. 

Like in the NBA, it's the drivers who make all of the difference in these deals. "Charles [Leclerc] and Carlos [Sainz] are the perfect embodiment of success, strength, and energy and represent the values in which young and older people alike recognize themselves," Rocco Iannone, the creative director of Ferrari's namesake luxury brand, told Who What Wear in 2022. "It makes them two top players able to influence consumer choices as well." Perhaps more than any other form of celebrity, athletes are the most aspirational. Sports are something that a majority of people grow up playing. They might not be at the level to go pro, sure, but anyone who's played a sport in their life has told themselves at least once that maybe they could. It comes as no surprise that fans look to professional athletes for inspiration—not just for their fitness routine, mental strength, or celebrity status but also for their style.

Fashion is something we can cling on to that isn't as boring as points per game or a bland postgame interview.

Ian Pierno, Founder of LeagueFits

For other fans, analyzing their favorite athlete's personal style is yet another way to discover who they are off the track, court, or field. "Fashion is something we can cling on to that isn't as boring as points per game or a bland postgame interview," says Pierno. "We may not know our favorite athletes in real life, but at least, we can get a sense of their vibe from what they wear." For Gaur, Hamilton's vibrant fashion choices on race weekends signal something to her about the side of his life that isn't broadcasted live on race day. "As a fan, I interpret this as his personality being very outgoing and free," she says. "Consequently, I am inspired by these qualities of his."

What people wear is one of the primary ways that others identify who they are and what they're interested in when conversation isn't involved or, in this case, even possible. Since the chances of meeting your favorite athlete are slight, fans oftentimes have to rely on nonverbal cues to get to know those people whom they watch on TV every week. Their choice of shirt or pair of shoes might seem trivial to some, but for others—people who have spent a significant amount of time admiring someone—it's a hint at what their idols are like when their uniforms are off. According to Cooper, the outfits that NBA players and F1 drivers alike choose to wear as they mentally prepare for their respective competitions is often a window into who they are outside of being athletes. Capturing a photo of that firsthand like I did in Austin or even just scrolling past one on an Instagram account like LeagueFits is as close as we might ever get to actually knowing our idols. "And that," Cooper says, "is interesting to observe."

Senior Fashion Editor

Eliza Huber is a New York City–based fashion editor who specializes in trend reporting, brand discovery, and celebrity style. She joined Who What Wear in 2021 after almost four years on the fashion editorial team at Refinery29, the job she took after graduating with a marketing degree from the University of Iowa. She has since launched two monthly columns, Let's Get a Room and Ways to Wear; profiled the likes of Dakota Fanning, Diane Kruger, Katie Holmes, and Sabrina Carpenter for WWW's monthly cover features; and reported on everything from the relationship between Formula One and fashion to the top trends from fashion month, season after season. Eliza now lives on the Upper West Side and spends her free time researching F1 fashion imagery for her side Instagram accounts @thepinnacleoffashion and @f1paddockfits, running in Central Park, and scouring eBay for '90s Prada and '80s Yves Saint Laurent.