For Keyshawn Johnson, memory lane is a fashion runway. At least that’s what it transforms into every NFL draft season, as players, fans and reporters alike strut up to the receiver turned ESPN analyst and sashay him back down the catwalk of a sartorial choice that he still can’t shake. “People you run into, they’re always like, ‘Ah, man, I remember when you had that suit on!’” Johnson says. “I guess I was the first guy to really dress up or something.”
The year was 1996, long before Dante Fowler Jr. donned a pair of spiked golden loafers that could’ve been cobbled out of a medieval morning star, before Ezekiel Elliott bared his belly button in a crop-top tuxedo. Unlike today’s era of sleek, custom-tailored fits, the boldest statements on draft days then were either hilariously plain—see: Drew Bledsoe in jeans and a button-down—or plainly hilarious, as in Emmitt Smith’s mock turtleneck/yellow polka-dotted vest ensemble that one Cowboys executive later characterized as that of “a confused bumblebee.”
Then along came Johnson at Madison Square Garden, first overall to the hometown Jets out of USC, shaking the hand of professorial commissioner Paul Tagliabue while sporting brown alligator shoes; a brown alligator belt; and a brown pinstriped cream suit featuring a knee-length, double-breasted jacket adorned with gold lion’s head buttons. “People act like mine was so far out of the box,” Johnson says. “I don’t understand why. I guess it was just fresh.”
Not everyone agrees, at least judging by the outfit’s presence on such blogs as “The 40 Worst Draft Suits in Sports History” (GQ) and “The 9 craziest NFL Draft suits of all time, ranked” (USA Today)—both of which listed him first. And indeed it’s easy to see why some might poke fun at the wool sateen spawn of an executive chef’s uniform and a back-alley trench coat lined with knockoffs of the $300,000 Rolex that Johnson rocked on his wrist that April day in New York.
“It’s one of those really dated draft suits we often laugh at,” says Kesha McLeod, a personal stylist of James Harden, PJ Tucker and other athletes. “It’s a damn white suit with pinstripes.”
Regardless of taste, the story behind the getup—which one newspaper columnist on the scene reported as “stunning enough to stop a stampede of hungry sportswriters dead in their tracks”—is no joke. Just ask the man who made it. “It was an expression of who we are, where we’re from, what we represent,” Ron Finley says. “I wanted him to walk in already and be like, ‘I got this s—.’ That was the whole purpose. I wanted him to look like he was already there.”
Finley was then a popular tailor of NBA players, Gary Payton and Penny Hardaway among them. He was introduced via a mutual friend to Johnson, a fellow South Central Los Angeles native, and offered his services to style the wideout for the upcoming draft. Soon afterward, Johnson brought his closest family and friends into Finley’s shop, DropDead Collection, for private fittings. “My brothers, my mom, my sisters—he made clothes for all of us,” Johnson says.
Finley recalls Johnson offering little input in the creative process, instead trusting in Finley’s vision. And clearly Johnson was pleased, given that he later flew Finley out, alongside some 20 loved ones, to enjoy the moment with him in New York. There the Jets took just 10 seconds of their allotted 15 minutes to select a grinning Johnson, who brought his entourage onstage as the crowd chanted KEY-SHAWN JOHN-SON and reporters clambered for a quote from Finley.
“You guys say flashy,” the tailor told them then. “Where I come from, we say fly.”
“It looked like some mob s—,” Finley says today. “People loved it. He didn’t get clowned at all, because he looked like money.”
Immediate reviews were rave, with Johnson’s wardrobe held up in next-day local coverage—sample headlines: “Jets Get a Good Fit” (Newsday) and Tailor-made Jet (Asbury Park Press)—as a symbol that his personality was a perfect match for his new home. The Herald Statesman declared, “Keyshawn Johnson is fly. He is fresh. He is diesel. And he was made for New York.”
Added the Central Jersey Home News Tribune, “Joe Willie Namath is the ancestor of all Jets dreams. Keyshawn Johnson honors the lineage.”
More than a quarter century later, the suit’s legacy endures. “I get compliments all the time,” Johnson says. “They’d never seen that before. They’d never seen a three-quarter suit with gold buttons and brown gator shoes and someone who had swag. When you’re not used to seeing something like that, you’re like, ‘Damn, that looks fresh.’”
And to those who feel otherwise? “I understand GQ is a fashion magazine, but clearly they don’t know fashion when they see it. Do you know how many people tried to duplicate that suit after the fact for many years?”
McLeod, the personal stylist, knows at least one recent example: Rockets rookie Jalen Green, whose sparkling silver, double-breasted pinstripe jacket and flared pants stole the show at the 2021 NBA draft. “We can laugh all day at this idea, but to come full circle and be what the young boys are wearing today,” says McLeod, who is currently outfitting Mississippi State offensive lineman Charles Cross and Oklahoma defensive tackle Perrion Winfrey for next week’s NFL draft . “Keyshawn was ahead of his time with this.”
From his current perch on ESPN’s draft coverage team, Johnson has witnessed the importance that fashion plays for those getting picked. “People change with the times,” Johnson says. “They’re basically wearing suits now that look like if they moved the wrong way they’ll rip. I got skinny suits now, too. It’s just mine ain’t painted on my body.”
Then again, he admits, if he were a potential top pick in 2022, he probably wouldn’t have gone with the same look. “More with the times,” he says. “Maybe skinny, like GQ would want.”
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