‘Fly is fly’: Inside the WNBA’s thriving fashion scene

WNBA star Jewell Loyd, right, meets with stylist Sydney Bordonaro to pick out clothing.
WNBA star Jewell Loyd, right, meets with stylist Sydney Bordonaro to pick out clothing for the upcoming WNBA All-Star weekend.
(Meg Oliphant / For The Times)
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Clothes blanket Jewell Loyd’s perfectly made king-sized hotel bed. Black pants, charcoal pants, striped shorts, a long white jacket that looks like a high-fashion lab coat next to a light gray zip-up. A white, short-sleeved button down top decorated with red poppy flowers screams in the center.

“What are we feeling?” stylist Sydney Bordonaro asks Loyd.

On any given day, WNBA players can offer a wide array of answers to the simple question. They’re feeling cozy. Sometimes swaggy. Other times sexy.

Always ready.

Loyd is feeling “mafia in the summer” as she looks at herself in the mirror dressed in black pinstripe pants, the red floral shirt she hesitantly grew to like and low-top Dior x Air Jordan 1 sneakers that retail for more than $8,000. She’s only worn them once, but this outfit is for a special occasion: the WNBA All-Star Game.

A close-up view of Jewell Loyd's Dior x Air Jordan 1 shoes.
(Meg Oliphant / For The Times)

The Seattle guard walked the orange carpet in her prized sneakers on Friday as the WNBA gathered in Chicago for All-Star weekend. The league’s brightest stars showed off their best looks. All-Star team captain A’ja Wilson stunned in black leather shorts and thigh-high boots. Candace Parker, welcoming the midseason event to her hometown, rocked an olive green silk suit.

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Gone are the days of the stuffy pant suit or simple blouse and pencil skirt. For a league that pushed a traditionally feminine and heteronormative image in its early years, the WNBA has grown to embrace androgynous fashion and streetwear alongside gowns, mini dresses and heels.

Simply put: “Fly is fly,” Bordonaro said.

The change that brought the WNBA to the top of fashion-savvy social media feeds is “like night and day,” Seattle point guard Sue Bird said.

The 21-year veteran who will retire at the end of the season remembered a “limiting” dress code that was lifted almost verbatim from the NBA when the top men’s league was trying to replace streetwear with suits on the sideline. Similar to the NBA’s strict guidelines, WNBA players were discouraged from wearing T-shirts and jeans. The league wanted collared or button-down shirts, despite the women playing during the height of summer.

Despite the restrictive dress code, NBA players turned the tunnel walk into a high-fashion runway in recent years and the dress code relaxed. The phenomenon trickled down to the WNBA, where social media teams take photos of players arriving in everything from vibrant blazers and wide-leg pants to denim cutoffs and tall boots. The photos earn as much social media attention as game highlights.

The primary fashion rule for WNBA players now is no hats or bandanas on the sideline. Everything else is fair game.

“That’s how it should be,” said Loyd, a four-time All-Star. “Everyone should be able to be comfortable in their own bodies, feel comfortable in what they wear and they shouldn’t have to explain themselves.”

Jewell Loyd and stylist Sydney Bordonaro check out a shirt in the mirror.
(Meg Oliphant / For The Times)

Popular social media feeds like League Fits, Protrending or GQ Sports highlight WNBA players walking into games wearing ensembles that go between masculine and feminine or casual to dressy. On the same night that Connecticut Sun guard Dijonai Carrington walked into an arena wearing bright pink shorts and a matching crop jacket over a yellow bikini top with strappy sandals, teammate Courtney Williams followed in an oversized lime green leopard print shirt with matching sneakers and black pants. Players might also use the spotlight to advocate for social issues, like wearing “We Are BG” T-shirts to support Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner or flip the U.S. Senate with “Vote Warnock” shirts in 2020.

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Celebrating the league’s diversity through fashion is “low-key part of being a role model,” Bird said. “[It’s] showcasing different parts of yourself so little kids can see that and maybe see themselves in somebody.”

Bird, who earned first-team All-Drip from Slam Magazine’s League Fits in 2019, stepped up her tunnel game this year by working with stylist Courtney Mays, the fashion mastermind behind NBA players Chris Paul, Kevin Love and DeAndre Jordan. The stylists of the WNBA are a blend of fashion gurus, personal shoppers and psychologists.

Before any clothes come into play, stylists study a client’s personality. Are they bold enough for bright colors? What about chopping the sleeves off a shirt? Kesha McLeod, whose client list includes Parker, Serena Williams, James Harden and P.J. Tucker, even went as far as to notice a former client who never looked at the top shelf of his closet, signaling to the stylist that he was a laser-focused dresser who wanted no-fuss outfits that wouldn’t take time away from focusing on his sport.

“You get into their minds and you understand them,” said McLeod, who styled Parker’s orange carpet look that included a unique cut-out in the back of the jacket. “I don’t take them out of their element because what they’re known for is playing. I just elevate that with fashion.”

Chanel Robinson-Hill immediately clicked with Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale after the reigning All-Star Game most valuable player messaged the part-time stylist and full-time bioprocessing engineer on Instagram. Robinson-Hill styled Ogunbowale for her high school jersey retirement ceremony last year. To capture the moment, Robinson-Hill chose a hoodie with the iconic 1991 photo of Michael Jordan clutching the Larry O’Brien Trophy after winning his first NBA championship, a nod to Ogunbowale winning her high school’s first Wisconsin Division I state title.

“When you wear this piece, I want everyone else to understand this is how you felt without saying a word,” said Robinson-Hill, who styled Ogunbowale in a lightweight two-piece suit for the orange carpet event Friday.

WNBA star Arike Ogunbowale of the Dallas Wings walks the Orange Carpet.
WNBA star Arike Ogunbowale of the Dallas Wings walks the orange carpet on Friday at 2022 WNBA All-Star weekend.
(Kena Krutsinger / NBAE via Getty Images)

Robinson-Hill scours the internet to find unique pieces for Ogunbowale. With players traveling almost nonstop, working with a stylist makes life simpler for fashion-savvy, but time-crunched pro ballers.

Loyd doesn’t like shopping and would often buy online, but when something inevitably didn’t fit, she didn’t have time to return it. Bordonaro takes care of it all now.

The L.A.-based stylist who works with players from Seattle to New York searches for pieces online and in person, gets them sent to her clients’ homes, delivers them by hand when they blow through L.A. on a road trip or even overnights packages to different hotels while players are on the road. To finalize Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum’s All-Star outfit, Bordonaro drove to Las Vegas with a trunk full of clothes and spent the day with the former No. 1 overall pick who walked the orange carpet in a crisp white blazer, white bodysuit and beige pants.

Plum, a popular face on League Fits and GQ Sports this year, said she naturally lacks style, but wanted to “come with a little bit more oomph.” She enlisted Bordonaro, whom she met through mutual friends.

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Plum’s “personality is just through the roof, but she never really dressed like it,” Bordonaro said. “So it’s like, alright, let’s just dress how you feel.”

Plum is spunky, but structured. She wants everything neat and clean-cut. Although they’ve grown close, Bordonaro and Plum sometimes disagree over outfits. The 25-year-old stylist who often wears her long blonde hair in buns on top of her head loves bright colors. Plum would live in all black if she could. She hates pink.

WNBA All-Star Kelsey Plum of the Las Vegas Aces walks the orange carpet.
WNBA All-Star Kelsey Plum of the Las Vegas Aces walks the orange carpet on Friday during the 2022 WNBA All-Star weekend.
(Mary Kate Ridgway / NBAE via Getty Images)

Yet after some light-hearted argument, Plum carried a fuzzy pink purse into an arena last month to complete an outfit of loose black pants, a gray John Geiger T-shirt and white sneakers. The internet loved it.

“I never thought I would say this,” Plum said, “but you feel good, you play good.”

Plum has done just that, earning her first All-Star appearance while averaging 19.9 points, 5.7 assists and 2.7 rebounds, all career highs.

Bordonaro, who started with Loyd, a longtime personal friend, and now works with players including New York Liberty teammates Michaela Onyenwere and DiDi Richards and Sparks rookie Rae Burrell, never intended to start a styling empire. The Pittsburgh native aimed to work in marketing and become a sports agent after earning her master’s degree in sports management from Long Beach State. Yet styling athletes has shown her it can be a one-stop resource for fashion, marketing and branding. She hopes opening Plum’s closet, along with the guard’s blossoming play, will help turn her into one of the most popular professional athletes in the world.

“The clothes are just a platform really for them to show who they are, what they’re about,” Bordonaro said, “and then just expand into marketing.”

As her business grows, Bordonaro hopes to secure more deals with brands to support her clients with not only free product but payment for social media posts. Sponsored posts can earn thousands of dollars based on an athlete’s online following.

For female athletes who have long struggled to attract sponsorships at the same rate of their male counterparts, social media is a direct line to brands. But it requires extra work.

“A James [Harden], he just wears it, he doesn’t want to tag [on social media], he don’t want to do anything and brands are like, ‘Oh my God, I gotta send him more,’” McLeod said. “For us, women especially, we go the extra mile, and I think it’s very important also to set the blueprint for other years to come that they don’t gotta work so hard.”

Stylist Sydney Bordonaro checks the suitcase of Storm forward Jewell Loyd for the WNBA All-Star weekend.
(Meg Oliphant / For The Times)
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Among the armfuls of clothes Bordonaro brought to Loyd’s hotel room at the J.W. Marriott in L.A. Live during their initial All-Star Game fitting was a suitcase of gifted items. After they finish planning Loyd’s All-Star outfit, they cracked open the swag bag to find T-shirts from John Geiger, brightly colored Bristol Studios shorts — fitted to Loyd’s liking so they graze her knees — and sweatpants from Seattle-based Sky Blue. Loyd won’t have to shop for the rest of the year.

An oversized Styxx tan hoodie caught Loyd’s eye. As Bordonaro started organizing the fashion tornado, she asked what Loyd wanted to pack with her now and what could wait. The Seattle guard motioned toward the heavy sweatshirt.

She’s feeling that one.

Stylist Sydney Bordonaro gives the peace sign as she poses for a photo with WNBA star Jewell Loyd pose for a photo.
Stylist Sydney Bordonaro and WNBA star Jewell Loyd are all smiles during a styling session at the J.W. Marriott.
(Meg Oliphant / For The Times)