If you’re a man over 6’3” and/or 250 pounds, you know that shopping for clothes can be a trying ordeal. There’s not much that fits you. And when you do find something in your size, it’s usually boxy, uncomfortable and not the least bit stylish.
But NBA All-Star and champ Kevin Willis (above center, with fellow former NBAers Tracy McGrady and Clyde Drexler) has been working to change that since 1988. He studied style in school, then founded Atlanta-based clothing business Willis and Walker with former Michigan State teammate Ralph Walker while still playing pro ball.
Willis, who tallied nearly 18,000 points and 12,000 rebounds, retired in 2007 at age 44, the oldest player in NBA history to see action for more than one game (a 45-year-old Providence Steamrollers coach activated himself for a single lackluster performance in 1948). Now 52, the seven-footer’s throwing all his energy into changing the world of what he calls extended sizes. So we asked him all about it.
“I wanted to give that same classic, modern, stylish, sophisticated look and feel to a guy who was 6’3” or even seven feet tall. He now has choices. He can buy a pair of jeans that look like G Star or Diesel that have that same fit and wash or style.”
Tell me about how Willis and Walker got started.
My major in college was fashion and textiles. I started the company in 1988, four years into my pro career. There was a void in the marketplace for taller and in some cases bigger men. That was a great opportunity to introduce a certain type of consumer to clothing that fit properly, had the right silhouette, great colors and offered more in terms of options and styles.
Why did you study fashion?
There were two reasons. First, coming out of high school, after my growth spurt, I could never find clothes that fit me. I couldn’t afford to go shopping, but even if I had money, there wasn’t anything offered in my size. I wasn’t just going to go for anything because I’m seven feet tall, so I ended up having to wear team-issued sweats or shorts. But I became very interested in fashion because I wanted to dress really well in addition to being a basketball player. I would be sitting in auditoriums with a hundred girls, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone.
What is different about big and tall? I mean, obviously there’s the size issue, but there has to be more to it.
There’s more to it than just making it bigger. I just spent two-and-a-half hours looking at fabrics. When you talk about fabrics, you’re talking about textures and qualities, and it has to feel good up against your body. When you’re in that big and tall space, that’s never factored in. They just find some cloth with waffle print or some dots or some stripes or some windowpane and say “that’s enough style or patterns to offer this gentleman.” The color selections I used to see were grey, brown, blue and black. There was nothing sexy about it and bigger men had to make due.
Bigger and better: A Willis and Walker display at Saks.
What was missing in the existing big and tall space when you started your company?
Everything is made boxy. People don’t want to take the time to focus on measurements or fit or the symmetry of someone’s body. They just make it longer by two or three inches and then make it wider. That’s what goes into a big and tall mindset. I didn’t want to continue on that path. I wanted to give that same classic, modern, stylish, sophisticated look and feel to a guy who was 6’3″ or even seven feet tall. He now has choices. He can buy a pair of jeans that look like G Star or Diesel that have that same fit and wash or style.
I’m really into high-end denim, which mostly comes from Japan. Bigger guys complain a lot that they can’t find anything in their size.
I buy a lot of selvedge denim from Japan. The biggest waist you can get a lot of times is a 33. So when we do denim, even basic raw fabrics, I try to find stuff that has a pattern in it, or has a certain texture that makes it more of a statement, more of a fashion piece.
After you left the NBA, why did you go back to fashion? Why not just retire?
I never stopped. I was doing it as I played. Especially in the off-season. During the season I would do it on days off. I would go to factories when I was traveling. I was working on the road. I’m passionate about it and that’s what drives it. I love basketball and it’s opened a lot of doors for me. It was seamless. There was no transition because I was always doing it. I just had more time to do it and learn my craft.
You spent a lot of time studying the industry while you were playing pro ball. How did that work?
Every year we have meetings with the NBA and one of the meetings is about how if anyone wants to go back and get a degree or dive back into the field he was in when he was in school, they give you that opportunity. After my fourth or fifth year in the league, I decided to take advantage of that. So I put my ticket in the hat and did an internship that summer. And I did that for the next four summers. I wanted to learn the business of fashion. It’s one thing to love dressing and to love fashion, but it’s another to know the business. That was difficult for me to transition into, going from being Kevin Willis the NBA player to being Kevin Willis the fashion guy. It wasn’t my peers in the NBA, it was the people in the world of fashion. I didn’t want to just lend my name and my likeness to something. I wanted to build a brand and that’s what I’ve done for the past 26 years.
Willis starred with the Hawks for a decade before winning a ring with the Spurs in 2003.
Anyone can stick their name on something, but how do you build a brand?
Being seven feet tall and saying that you want to get into fashion, the first thing people think is that you want to lend your name to an existing brand or do a collaboration. Sometimes that works, but it wasn’t going to work for me. You first have to understand the nature of the business. The language, the right personnel , the actual business, the first samples, the second samples, measurements, shrinkages. All these things have to be in place. Who’s your core customer? You have to understand all of this before you’re going to build a brand. You don’t see a lot of 6’3″/6’4″ guys shopping back then. It didn’t exist. Their wives or girlfriends would do it. Now you can buy it online. But I wanted to build a team of people who understood business, who were passionate about business, who were trustworthy and who were diligent in what they do. That’s how you build a brand. You can’t just say it, because it won’t happen. I took some of the things I learned playing pro ball. It took me 19 years to win an NBA championship. I played with some of the best guys in history, but it wasn’t until we had the right chemistry of players, owners and coaches that we won a championship. It’s the same in business. You need the right people doing the right things.
How do you sell men fashion? Most guys like dressing up and looking good, but they don’t like shopping for clothes and it must be even harder when they’re already in a niche like big and tall.
I have to understand who my target customer is. And once I know that I have to learn what their spending habits are. They want fashion, they want choices, the want to be able to feel like they’re in the mainstream. They want to be able to go to the store and buy something off the rack if they want. You have to understand the customer. But I’m fortunate, having been in the NBA, those are my customers. We share the same common thread. We can’t find anything that fits properly unless it’s custom made. Once you understand that, you can make something that they want and need. Every man needs a nice pair of denim in his closet. That’s the go to. So I wanted to be able to make some dressy denim, a fashion piece—once I made the right fit and the fabrics are unbelievable, it sells itself. They come in and see it, they try it on and then they want to know how many colors and washes it comes in. It sells itself because I found out what that need was.
Where do you want W&W to go in the future?
In ten years, my goal is to have other freestanding brick-and-mortar locations. In New York, LA, Chicago, Michigan, places like that, where you have another six or seven stores across the country. That’s for our premium line. But the other goal is to build my relationship with Dillard’s. It’s a large retailer with 300-plus stores across the country. They do tremendous business in big and tall. We don’t call them big and tall, we call them “extended sizes.” I’m currently selling in Dillard’s now. My goal is to continue to work and build an incredible relationship with Dillard’s and go from there. And I have my flagship store here in Atlanta as well. I truly believe that this will be to the go-to brand, not only for athletes from baseball to football and basketball, but just gentlemen that want something different, that they’ve always wanted but didn’t know where to get it or who was making it. Everyone thinks they forgot about them. I want Willis and Walker to be where they feel at home.