On Thursday, NFL free agent Victor Cruz joined Sports Illustrated’s Jamie Lisanti at the Michael Kors store at Westfield Century City for a discussion about his football career, athlete fashion, his passion for style and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jamie Lisanti: After struggling with injuries, getting signed for a period of time with the Chicago Bears and ultimately playing out of majority of the season as a free agent, what has this year been like for you?
Victor Cruz: This year has been a little tricky for me. This is my first year away from the game. From little league to high school, for 20-some-odd years I played football. So this is the first year of me not being on a team, and it’s a little refreshing to kind of take a deep breath. You’re like, “OK, this is new for me.” How do I channel my energy? Where do I go from here?
But I’ve been doing some work with NFL Network, being an analyst, staying around the game. That was the biggest thing for me, just stay close to the game and stay connected. And that kind of gave me the energy to go on week to week to watch the games and just to be a part of the claw for the league.
Aside from that and being in the football space, just being in fashion, doing collaborations, having those meetings, and just dipping my toe in every water that I possibly could.
I just want to be able to set myself up in different avenues, so that once football is done, which I don’t think its done by any stretch of the imagination—I’m still working out 3-4 days a week making sure I stay ready for if and when that phone rings. But besides that I just want to be able to set myself up long term in many different avenues.
JL: Is there a moment or period in your life you look back on now where you weren’t very fashionable?
VC: There was an era of my fashion that I wish I could take back. On the east coast, we wore these 4X white t-shirts that probably went down to our kneecaps. That was just the thing to do. My normal waist size was a 34 but I was wearing a 38—it was just baggy and all over the place. And I look back at photos and I’m swimming in clothes and my hat is two sizes too big. I could literally Frisbee my hat, if I flip it that way it would go around. So that era, although in the moment it was the right thing to do, looking back I’d much rather be in a suit or something tailored or something that fits you the right way. But I guess it took me to grow up and be in rooms like this to respect the tailored situation that has been storming throughout the leagues.
JL: How did growing up in Paterson, N.J., help shape your style and appreciation for fashion today?
VC: Growing up in Paterson, there is such a level of grit, such a level of pride in your city and your town and where you’re from—our clothes and our fashion represented that. We always wanted to be the first ones wearing something, we wanted to come to school and take pride of being the first one with a pair of Jordans or being the first one to have the Avirex jacket which was the thing at the time.
That city just molded me. Especially my mom, being a single mom, working an hour to and from work just to put food on the table, those things made me appreciate the clothes I got, the things she was able to afford for us. So whenever I look back at those moments in Paterson growing up with my sister and my mother, it just helps me appreciate everything that goes on now. Without that Paterson upbringing I don’t know what type of person I’d be today.
JL: Is there any athlete, celebrity or person that provides style inspiration for you?
VC: There’s a couple guys. Obviously guys like LeBron James, Tom Brady and Russell Westbrook, those guys always do it right. But I also love James Bond. Daniel Craig. Pierce Brosnan. All those guys. I have every single outfit pinned up on this vision board on my phone. Aside from me wanting to be the first black James Bond, I just love the style in every James Bond movie. For him to be kicking some ass in a tailored suit and nothing happens to his suits ever, he just dusts the suit off every time. Obviously Hollywood is a part of that but I just love the style of James Bond and its something that I’ve always carried with me from when I was a child. I always wanted to embody that style whenever I was in a suited look.
Johnny Depp is also up there. Jake Gyllenhaal. Guys like Deion Sanders always changed the mold with his earrings and his chains and jewelry. All those guys inspire me day to day.
JL: We see a bunch of different pieces throughout the Michael Kors store tonight, including bomber jackets, velvet blazers and other styles. What are your thoughts on these particular trends or looks?
VC: I love winter fashion, fall fashion, whatever it may be. I know you cant do it as much in L.A. but on the East Coast we get to layer up, with hoodies and sweaters and blazers. I’m definitely a fan of the bomber jacket, so I put a hoodie under a bomber jacket, and a good pair of pants and a pair of boots for the winter time—you cant go wrong.
JL: You currently work with Rachel Johnson, who helped create the 2017 Fashionable 50 list. Can you give us some insight into the role and relationship of an athlete and his stylist? How did your relationship with Rachel come to be and how does it continue to grow?
VC: I met Rachel right after the Super Bowl, when I did a New York Post Page Six magazine shoot and she styled the shoot. I heard about her because I knew she worked with LeBron James at the time, and I was like, “She’s gotta be my stylist. I am not leaving here without her being my stylist. “
From then on, she just became a fashion godmother to me. Our relationship is very much her presenting things and showing me new trends, and us bouncing ideas off one another. It is very much give and take. It’s not so much her “you need to wear this” or “this looks good” or “put this on.” We meet somewhere in the middle and have a constructive conversation. And she goes out there and has conversations with different brands from a fashion perspective. She’s very much a liaison for myself and designers and brands and fashion houses and creating those relationships that I didn’t have before or continue to cultivate as the years go on.
JL: What is it about athlete fashion that makes it different or more interesting?
VC: When guys look at athletes they emulate us, they want to be us. Everyone was an inspiring athlete at some point, so when they see myself or Russell Westbrook or LeBron James or guys walking into arenas, they remember being that guy walking to the game or that athlete walking into the stadium or the arena. And they admire what we are wearing because fashion is a part of us now—it is part of everything that we do.
Seeing the fashion trends, seeing what people are wearing, critiquing what people are wearing—that’s what people look forward to is creating that storyline and emulating their favorite stars or favorite athletes. And I think that’s what makes it so much fun, is that the athletes have fun with it. Russell Westbrook is wearing things that only Russell Westbrook can wear and he’s having fun with it. You just enjoy watching it because it’s him. It’s very relatable—I think that’s the biggest thing that bridges the two gaps.
JL: Speaking of Russell Westbrook, are there any of your athlete peers that you commend or try to emulate their style?
VC: It’s a little bit of everyone. Don’t tell them this, but every time I see LeBron or Russell Westbrook or someone, I try to take little things from them. Even guys like Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul. Those guys are more subdued but the pieces that they wear are always stylish.
Cam Newton came out with his brimless hat. I commend him for that because he takes risks. He was reading the Andre 3000 GQ cover and was talking about it his feeling towards it and I respect the storyline of it—although I would never wear a brimless hat. But I do respect the storyline.
JL: Has your style evolved? What have been some things that you have learned along the way?
VC: I think what I’ve learned through fashion and through Rachel and just through my experiences over the years is: tailoring is so important. Whether its your normal day to day clothes or a suit or whatever is may be, tailoring and how the clothes fit you is the most important part.
Knowing your fit and your look is the biggest thing for me. And then I just like doing little things that are different, like wearing a collar bar instead of a tie. I just like taking risks. Except for a brimless hat.