FORMER NBA star Kevin Willis found it a tall order to find stylish clothes that would fit his strapping seven-foot frame during his playing days.
But he quickly became the height of fashion after co-founding premium fashion brand Willis & Walker, which caters to men ranging from six-foot-three to seven-foot-seven.
Kevin Willis played 21 seasons in the NBA, most prominently with the Atlanta HawksCredit: Getty
Willis now works full-time in the fashion industryCredit: Getty
Over the years, numerous NBA superstars have become clients of Willis & Walker, which was established by the former Atlanta Hawks center and his business partner Ralph Walker in 1988.
Customers who have bought tuxedos, business suits, and high-end denim jeans include the likes of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Oakley, Tim Duncan, Steve Smith, Dikembe Mutombo, David Robinson, and Patrick Ewing.
The ’80s and ’90s were rife with a lack of stylish clothing for faschion-conscious tall men, so these NBA stars made it a point to stop by the flagship Willis & Walker store in Atlanta, Georgia, when they came into town to play the Hawks, sometimes buying 10 to 12 different pairs each time.
Now Willis & Walker pieces, ranging from $125 V-neck T-shirts to $1,500 suits, are sold at Saks Fifth Avenue stores across the US.
The company also partnered with the NBA Players’ Association to create custom bags for each All-Star in 2018 and with Italian brand Milano 140 to create neoprene track suits.
Willis, 60, played an incredible 21 seasons in the NBA, sharing second place for longevity alongside legends such as Robert Parish, Kevin Garnett, and Dirk Nowitzki, winning an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003.
Yet throughout this time, he developed his interest in the fashion industry after recognizing a void in the marketplace during his time with Michigan State.
“When I was growing up, ‘big and tall’ meant taking a suit cut for a regular-sized guy, and making it bigger,” Willis told CNBC. “It wasn’t tailored, it looked like you were wearing a box.”
When Willis broke his foot during the 1988-89 season, the NBA league office enabled the fashion and textiles graduate to work as a fashion intern.
He spent four consecutive summers working to learn the ins and outs of the business from fabrics, design, purchasing, production, and shipping.
When the former NBA All-Star eventually retired in 2007 at 44, he seamlessly moved into a second career to continue to expand his efforts with Willis & Walker.
“Although the NBA has definitely opened doors for me, and I truly am grateful, if I had the education and resources that kids have at their disposal today, I probably wouldn’t have gone pro and would have become a fashion designer,” Willis told CROSSxOVER.
Willis spotted a gap in the market while as a student-athlete at Michigan StateCredit: Twitter/@KevinWillis42
A snapshot of the Willis & Walker clothing rangeCredit: Twitter/@KevinWillis42