Odell Beckham, Jr. is the style icon the NFL needs

Inside the halls of New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, a horror movie villain appeared. Hours before the New York Giants met the division rival Washington Redskins for a late October game, an upscale Jason Voorhees arrived to haunt the competition in a custom, all-over print Fendi mask, complete with matching bucket hat, jacket, and shirt. Halloween was the occasion, but it was barely more than any given Sunday for star receiver Odell Beckham, Jr

Since pulling off an impossible one-handed catch late in his rookie season, the NFL’s highest paid wide receiver hasn’t let the spotlight fade. Off the field, he consistently wears the most hyped pieces in menswear, along with his trademark bleached hair and dangling earrings. In a league that still skews older and more conservative, 26-year-old Beckham — known simply as OBJ — is the NFL’s foremost embodiment of youth culture, his boldness and earnestness breathing fresh air into the often-stuffy sport.

“Football’s view of the collective tends to follow the military model of top-down deference to coach and, especially, owner,” Mark Leibovich wrote in “Big Game,” an unwavering look inside the league. “NFL owners tend to have a greater need to flaunt their place atop the sports hierarchy than owners in other sports. They feel the need, for whatever reason, to reinforce the Tex Schramm ‘You guys are cattle and we’re the ranchers’ sensibility.'” The NFL is flush with spectacular athletes, but Beckham has set himself apart by becoming not only one of its star players, but also one of the sport’s most marketable faces, a rarity for non-quarterbacks. Beckham’s unrelenting personality has made his every action, from getting dressed to addressing the media, just as memorable as his acrobatic displays on the field.

This brashness makes him a constant source of controversy while also putting him in a small club of NFLers who can actually sell shoes. The NBA talent pool is always being replenished with the perfect mixture of talent and personality required to sell sneakers. Breaking the same ground is much harder in football. In the past 30 years, only 17 NFL players have been deemed worthy of their own sneaker. With the Nike SF AF-1 Mid “OBJ,” a tactical take on the Air Force 1 in an NYC taxi colorway, Beckham joined the likes of Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Randy Moss. In basketball, a signature shoe is a sign that you’ve made it. In football, it shows you’ve transcended the sport.

“Being popular in the NFL is such a difficult proposition,” GQ style features writer Cam Wolf said in a phone interview. “Walking down the street, he would not be able to get past crowds of people like Deandre Hopkins and Antonio Brown, who are both big fashion guys but are much more anonymous. You have to be a much more diehard fan to know what their faces look like.” Basketball players, from bona fide stars to role players, are duking it out nightly for the most memorable outfit, turning the NBA tunnel into another runway. NFL stars only have one game a week, one regular day for high-profile displays of style. The only player taking the opportunity and running with it is Beckham. Cam Newton is equally daring, but his taste is severely misguided. Tom Brady has the biggest spotlight of all, but his muted, heritage style diverts attention instead of welcoming it.

Beckham isn’t stylish in the sense of putting together disparate pieces into a cohesive, aesthetically pleasing outfit. Victor Cruz, Beckham’s former teammate and predecessor as the NFL’s style king, was much better at that. The crown’s new bearer simply knows what he likes and can afford to max out his indulgences. Fashion today is centered on highly covetable pieces, and Beckham is aspirational style incarnate, stacking the most Instagrammable items — often all from the same collection — on top of each other. He still has room to grow but being “in the know” makes him a hot commodity. “There’s a passion there that makes getting dressed come naturally for him,” Wolf said. “I don’t think it’s forced. He’s always dressed sort of wackily.”

Earlier in October, Beckham showed up to a game wearing a black Off-White x Nike jacket with black pants and black sneakers from the same collaboration. Was it a difficult outfit to put together? No, but it was classic Beckham. Fashion at its worst is too self-conscious and shallow; at its best, it’s about having fun and representing who you are. “You see him, and you see a young man,” Jordan Page, the vintage archivist, stylist and brand strategist the @veryadvanced Instagram account, said over the phone. “If he weren’t in the NFL, that’s what he’d be doing. He’d probably be an Instagram influencer doing the same exact thing.”

While Beckham is a trailblazer for the NFL, his choices also signal fashion’s recent embrace of streetwear. The demand has been prevalent since at the least the ’80s, when Dapper Dan outfitted a generation of gangsters, rappers, and athletes by putting high fashion logos onto bespoke pieces more tailored for the streets. His Harlem store was shut down in the early ’90s after the houses whose logos he pulled without authorization took notice. Fast forward to 2017, when Gucci was being called out for ripping off one of his bootleg designs, leading to an official collaboration, and the Italian house backing his own atelier.

Louis Vuitton had its own key collaboration last year, linking with Supreme, another brand that once found itself in hot water for riffing on the company’s iconic monogram. Unattainable for the masses at Louis Vuitton’s price point, the collection targeted the likes of Beckham as its demographic. He posed with his Lamborghini in both the hoodie and jeans (the latter of which he cut off himself) and wore the box logo tee under a custom blazer at the 2017 ESPY Awards. He even donned a custom Supreme x Louis Vuitton walking boot as he nursed a fractured ankle.

Hyped luxury pieces are now the norm, as shown by Louis Vuitton appointing Virgil Abloh — Off-White founder, Kanye West confidante and ultimate translator for the youth — as men’s artistic director. His debut collection hit stores in January and puts streetwear staples like hoodies, graphic tees and sneakers alongside more typical menswear fare. It’s only a matter of time before you see Beckham clad in one, if not many, of the pieces.

“This hypebeast thing is only recent,” Page said. “But as far as people who are flashy and wanted to be seen, (Beckham is) part of that cult. Joe Namath and Terry Bradshaw wore fur coats on the sideline, talked slick and had a personality beyond football that was very contagious.” As far as American professional sports leagues go, the NFL still dominates in terms of revenue and viewership, but its forecast is spiraling. The league needs to empower more of its strong personalities, or it’s only a matter of time before the upwardly growing NBA overtakes it. As far as the zeitgeist is concerned, that shift has already been made.

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