Rachel Johnson sashayed through the corridors of Florida A&M University with a blonde buzz cut and one-of-a-kind vintage clothing as if she was walking to her own theme music. Her style intrigued the student body of the historically black college.
Soon, she was capitalizing on the campus-wide interest and selling her exclusive styles to peers. Though majoring in English education, during her junior year she realized her passion for fashion could become a career.
More than a decade later, the 30-something fashionista from Englewood, N.J., is using the corridors of NBA arenas as her catwalk and the league's biggest stars are her models. Johnson is the league's fashion fairy godmother, improving the style of the league, one superstar at a time.
Before she became the NBA's makeover maven, players roamed the sidelines wearing oversized suits or trends from the latest hip-hop videos. Now, her fashion lineup consists of Chris Paul, Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire. From ascots to tailored suits and gigantic hipster bifocals, Johnson keeps the greatest on-court stars looking equally sharp off it.
"God's timing was just right for me to enter the NBA," Johnson said. "I came in when commissioner [David] Stern began to enforce the dress code. My fashion-forward efforts happened to align with what the league was looking for."
Johnson's choices for the NBA's elite have been influenced by street styles, art trends and classic Hollywood style.
"I draw inspiration from men like Sammy Davis Jr. and Marvin Gaye," Johnson said. "They were men who, no matter what was going on inside their personal beings, were viewed for their raw confidence and poise on the outside."
Prior to dressing hoopsters, Johnson had a booming career styling music industry notables, such as Pharrell Williams, Keyshia Cole and Jamie Foxx. It wasn't until 2005 when rap mogul Jay-Z introduced her to James' manager, Maverick Carter, that her NBA fashion reign began.
"That introduction helped me begin fusing fashion and sports," Johnson said. "The two worlds have seen each other and nodded to each other, but were never really fully exposed to each other."
Her slam-dunk moment came in 2008, when James scored the April cover of Vogue magazine alongside supermodel Gisele Bundchen.
Johnson said the Vogue photo shoot was beautiful and contained great synergy, where both sides received an education about their industries. However, the harmonious shoot was overlooked once the cover was revealed. It depicted the MVP roaring at the camera while gripping a helpless-looking Bundchen. The cover sparked an uproar, with some critics saying it perpetuated "gorilla-like" stereotypes.
"The public comments that resulted from that shoot showed me that ignorance still runs rampant in the world, and it's my goal to continue to integrate fashion and sports and be a champion for all people in fashion," Johnson said.
Johnson would not comment on the magazine's photo selection but did express her satisfaction that James was the first black man to appear on Vogue's cover.
"When I saw LeBron's [Vogue] cover, I cried," Johnson told the New York Post at the time. "He was there, too, and I was like, 'Do you understand what this means? Do you know how hard I worked for this?' It gives me a sense of accomplishment."
Since then, Johnson has attained other career milestones, such as seeing her style influence draftees at the 2011 NBA draft, an event that was once a Pandora's box of fashion accidents.
"That was my first draft ever, and when I saw some of the guys walk on stage, I said, 'That looks awfully familiar,'" Johnson said.
Johnson has been able to gain her clients' trust because of her all-star résumé and the common background she shares with them.
"We are all people who have the same views as far as work ethic and wanting to be the best in terms of our field," Johnson said. "We both feel that where we are is a direct result of our hard work."
Once a self-proclaimed tomboy who played football in the streets as a girl, Johnson is probably one of the few stylists who could also hold her own on the court. Her demeanor and statuesque physique command respect from the shrewdest business clientele.
When the towering stylist glides into a room, she owns it, just as she did the corridors of her alma mater. Johnson has gone from piecing together vintage wear to scoring fashion points with the NBA's biggest and brightest.
"When I'm working, I'm like LeBron James," Johnson said. "I'm well-rounded and can hit the jumper work in the post and shoot the 3. You name it, I do it."