Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player in history, is famed for his stats, his records and his matchless aura, but let’s not forget that his sense of style also contributed to the Jordan legend. During his career, he showed a soft spot for suits crafted by an Italian tailor that were way too large for him. Was it an accident or was it intentional? We return to Chicago to discover the untold story of Jordan’s style.
Words by Raphaël Malkin.
Article originally published in L'Etiquette issue 2.
In the heart of Chicago, on East Walton, a street lined with luxury boutiques, Burdi Clothing’s storefront looks rather dull. There are no sophisticated displays or images of brand muses in the windows, just a few mannequins dressed in velvet. The interior is just as uninviting, with racks of suits covered in plastic lined up near the walls, as they would be in a wholesaler’s space. Yet Burdi Clothing is an institution in Chicago.“We've always dressed the city's doctors and bankers,”says owner and chief tailor Alfonso Burdi with a big smile on his face.
On the pages covering the late 1980s to the mid-’90s in Burdi's order book, one name that does not fit the profile jumps out: George Koehler. Always groomed with a full goatee, he would show up at the store every week without fail to pick up a batch of suits, load them into his sedan and take them to the upscale neighborhood of Highland Park in the heights of Chicago, where he would stop in front of a large gate emblazoned with a huge number "23" (Jordan’s jersey number). Who was Koehler? Michael Jordan's righthand man, driver and concierge – and the link between the basketball star and Burdi Clothing. By the sound of it, it was a time-consuming business.“Michael bought hundreds and hundreds of garments from us," says Rino Burdi, Alfonso’s son. “He swore by our suits because he had very particular desires. Michael invented his own look and created something unique.”
Alterations ? No need
When it came to style, Michael Jordan always knew what he wanted. He once told InStyle magazine:"I'm a pretty conservative person. I like suits. Wearing a suit always gives you attitude.”When his career with the Chicago Bulls took off, Jordan noticed the suits worn by his trainer and friend Tim Grover and asked where he bought them. Grover was reluctant to answer.“Tim didn't want to give away his secret,” says Rino Burdi proudly, “but Michael was very insistent, and, after a while, he finally broke down and gave him our address. That's how Michael found us.” On his first visit, Jordan left with several leather jackets, then returned for more over the next few weeks. Alfonso and Rino were delighted, of course, but they had bigger ideas: they dreamed of seeing him in a Burdi suit. At the time, Jordan was in the habit of buying his formal clothes at Bigsby & Kruthers, Chicago's chicest boutique, so he always said no."We had to be crafty," says Alfonso. “In a way, we tricked Michael.” One day, when Jordan was in the shop, he seized the opportunity to take some of his measurements and, without Jordan’s knowledge, started making a jacket and pants for him.
The Burdi’s workshop is reached via a long, steep staircase. Here, among columns of fabric and a collection of bronze scissors labeled «Weiss and Sons, Newark, New Jersey» the Burdis crafted a suit in taupe gray Loro Piana wool for Jordan. The star was six feet, five inches tall, but the Burdis made a suit that was too large, too long, too everything.“We didn't have all his measurements, so we couldn't be very precise,” recalls Rino. “The idea was to do alterations later, after the first fitting." He taps the Plexiglas on his counter with his fingertips and laughs."We tried our luck, but nothing went as planned!”
When Michael Jordan returned to East Walton Street to buy a new batch of leather jackets, Alfonso and Rino told him that they had made a suit for him. Jordan tried it on. When he looked at himself in the mirror, he saw that his shoulders gave him the shape of a refrigerator, the jacket reached the middle of his thighs, and the pants crumpled on the floor in a pile of folds. The Burdis told him that alterations would, of course, be necessary, but Jordan interrupted them; he liked it and wanted it as it was. “He was adamant," recalls Alfonso. “He told us that up until then, he had never really felt comfortable in his suits because he always found them too short. He would even try to lengthen the jackets by pulling on them. He finally felt at ease.” In the 1996 InStyle interview, Jordan had said, "I think I'm skinny, and I hide it by wearing large sizes and materials that drape around my body. I have also always thought that my feet were too big. Wide trousers make them look smaller.” Jordan immediately ordered 17 exactly like the one he had tried on. The tailors begged him to at least shorten the trousers. “For us, it was unthinkable to wear a suit like that,” Alfonso says. “We agreed because it was Michael, but we were worried. Those suits would have our name on them, and it wasn't the Burdi family style at all.”
Alfonso’s accent is that of his birthplace, Bari, a city on a limestone cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea, where he grew up in a family of tailors. “In those days, everything was done by hand, without machines," he says. “People relied on tailors like my father to look good. What he did was a respected art form.” At the age of 17, Alfonso chose to follow in his father's footsteps. He was initiated into the trade in Lugano, Switzerland, where he worked at Rosenstein Customs Tailors, a house frequented by Swiss bankers. After that experience, he was accredited as a tailor by the guild of Bari. Alfonso wears light-colored suits in summer and handsome polo coats in winter. He likes to smoke and is in the habit of holding his cigarette in his closed fist. In 1963, in the company of his charming wife Rosa, he set off for America. When he arrived in Chicago, he quickly found a job with the city's best tailor, Celano. While working in the wood-paneled store on North Michigan Avenue, Alfonso was already dressing some big names, including Salvatore "Sam the Cigar" Giancana and Tony "Big Tuna" Accardo, godfathers of the local Mafia. Later, he opened his own business, Alfonso, in a small space furnished with a dusty old mirror. In the shop window was a neon sign announcing "Italian Custom Tailor." Alfonso Burdi swells with pride as he looks back. "People knew that Italians were the best tailors. That sign helped me make a name for myself!” As he became more successful, he moved into a bigger space, and Burdi Clothing was born..
In search of the perfect red
Back to Michael Jordan’s 17 suits. A bit warily, the Burdis worked flat out to make them. As soon as they were delivered to Highland Park, the basketball player asked for more. And not just once – time after time. Jordan’s newfound passion for Burdi suits amounted to what might almost be called a sartorial fetish. He often went to East Walton Street to check out the fabrics available. Player number 23 was particularly fond of the wool from vicuñas, a type of short-haired llama. He also had a soft spot for cotton by English manufacturer Holland & Sherry. Each of his suits carried the Burdi’s discreet signature on a single button on the cuff.
Subtle adjustments to Jordan’s favorite cut were made over time."After watching Michael's games, I noticed that he had bowed legs, so I changed the bottom of his pants so that it wouldn't show," says Alfonso. Sometimes, during fittings, the tailor became so engrossed in his work that he didn’t notice he was pricking His Majesty's legs with his pins. “Michael reprimanded me gently, saying, ‘Pops, be careful. I’m playing tomorrow!’" Suddenly, Jordan’s look was being noticed and acclaimed. Once, he sent Rino Burdi to New York on his behalf to collect an award celebrating his personal style. In Chicago, some of his teammates (like his loyal lieutenant Scottie Pippen and the Australian Luc Longley) went to the Burdi’s store and asked for suits like Michael’s. “Like it or not, he created a style," says Rino. “The extra-large Jordan look was everywhere within a few months.”
Michael Jordan likes to push limits. One day, he ordered a new blazer from the Burdi family in the exact blood-red shade found on the legendary Chicago Bulls logo. To fulfill his request, Alfonso and Rino had to ask Loro Piana to make a special roll of fabric. “They had never made a red like that before. To produce it, they had to clean their machines and tanks in and out to make sure that nothing would contaminate the red,” says Rino. Every time he appeared on the world stage, Michael Jordan was dressed in his Burdi uniform. When he announced his retirement on October 6, 1993, he wore a cream-colored Burdi suit. On March 19, 1995, when he told the world that he would return to the basketball court, he was dressed in a gray Burdi suit with a Prince of Wales pattern. To announce his retirement once again on January 13, 1999, he sported a midnight-black Burdi suit, one of the last made for him by the family. A few months later, Jordan left Chicago for Washington, D.C., to do one last stint on the court. Nothing on or off the basketball court would never be the same again.