As a free-agent linebacker anxious to revive his football career
with a defensive-minded team that could get him back to the
Super Bowl, Carl Banks figured the Cleveland Browns to be a
perfect fit. But as an up-and-coming clothing designer, he knew
that the team he chose last year was the fashion equivalent of a
polyester leisure suit. "The Browns have the worst colors and
the worst logo to work with," says Banks, who designs a line of
leather jackets in NFL team colors. "Orange? Brown? Those are
the ugliest colors in the world. As a designer I see those
colors and just want to throw up my hands and say, Come on."
But as any NFL offensive lineman will tell you, Banks never
gives up that easily. He went back to his drawing board during
the off-season and designed a coat that would make even
Clevelanders wish for winter. That coat is now part of a line of
casual jackets and suits created by Banks for big and tall men.
These leather designs run in sizes up to XXXXXL and are priced
between $300 and $450. Banks also markets vests and pullovers
and expects sales of more than $5 million this year. Quite a
step up for someone whose last job outside of football was as a
grave digger during college. "Retailers saw my Browns jacket and
said I designed the best, ugliest jacket on the market," says
Banks, 33. "I've found a niche because big guys like me can't
find fashion that fits."
Before tackling fashion, Banks made a name for himself during a
nine-year stint with the New York Giants. Two Super Bowl titles
and a trip to the 1987 Pro Bowl secured his reputation as a
bruising tackler and the league's preeminent defensive leader.
But it was when he showed up dressed to the nines in his own
design at a heavyweight fight in Atlantic City in 1989 that he
began to build his reputation as a clothier. The 6'4", 235-pound
Banks's ensemble--a blue leather coat with matching pants--drew
rave ringside reviews from celebrities such as Dave Winfield and
Natalie Cole. That response gave Banks the nerve to show his
sketches to several design houses in New York's garment
district. Banks eventually hooked up with G-III Apparel Group,
one of the largest activewear companies in the U.S.
Banks sketches in pencil before refining his ideas with a
computer program geared for fashion design. When he runs into
trouble he rings fellow designers Tommy and Andy Hilfiger, who
just happen to be Browns fans.
Cleveland coach Bill Belichick is also a fan--of Banks's brand of
football, if not his fashion statements. Three years ago Banks's
gridiron style was suddenly passe in the Big Apple. He spent '93
in Washington, where he clashed with the Redskin defensive
scheme like tube socks with an Armani suit. In 1994 Belichick, a
former Giant defensive coordinator, brought Banks to Cleveland,
where he quickly became the emotional epicenter of the defense.
While earning praise for tutoring the Browns' younger players,
Banks's effect on their fashion sense hasn't been quite as
dramatic. Particularly with center Steve Everitt, the team's
"Everitt, sheesh, that guy is a designer's nightmare," says
Banks. "Forget how he looks in brown and orange. Just getting
that guy to wear a shirt can be a big hassle."
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE With his line of leather jackets, the Browns' linebacker is smashing off the field as well as on it. [Carl Banks]