The Last Dance, the Netflix show about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, scored 24 million viewers around the world within a month of its April release. An audience held captive by lockdown almost certainly drove those numbers up, but still, that is a lot of eyeballs for a documentary about basketball games that happened 23 years ago.
Which makes sense when you realise that The Last Dance isn’t really a sports documentary at all, but a blockbuster superhero movie, spun out over 10 instalments, just like Marvel do them. The Last Dance turned Jordan from a sports icon into a superhero, and it did it in part by rebooting his pre-athleisure 90s look as a costume.
Superheroes have to look the part. Without the lurid 70s tricolour T-shirt, Superman is just Clark Kent with wings. Batman doesn’t even have any superpowers, but his look and accessories have always been so on point (the mask! the car!) that fans barely noticed that he couldn’t fly or walk through walls without a gadget to assist him.
Jordan’s sneakers are his Batmobile. When Nike launched the Air Jordan 1s in 1984, it predicted sales of $3m; the shoes banked $126m. Brand Jordan was born, a Nike division in its own right, and with it the mythology of Jordan as not just a basketball court legend but a hero. With serendipitous timing, the Dior designer Kim Jones last year unveiled an ultra high-end luxury homage to the thinking sneakerhead’s favourite trainer, with his handmade-in-Italy limited edition Air Dior. The March 2020 launch date was postponed due to the pandemic; by the time they went on sale in July, The Last Dance had turbocharged the Jordan hype. Even with a £1,800 price tag, these shoes were harder to get hold of than Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
The original Nike Air Jordans were red, white and black, to match the Chicago Bulls uniform. But the resulting Jordan mythology soon soared way above the basketball court and slam-dunked their namesake into popular culture. Jordan became a larger-than-life character and a visual brand, mapping out a master plan that has been followed ever since, by athletes including Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Every great fashion brand is defined by a signature shape, and Jordan is no exception. Dior had the New Look, Chanel had the boxy skirt suit – and Jordan had the supersized silhouette. Basketball worships height – Jordan is 6ft 5in, and in his prime he could jump to bring his head level with the 10ft-high rim of the hoop. The aesthetic of the classic shorts-and-vest is oversized and airy. Jordan brought this height and volume into his spectacular off-duty wardrobe, which, in the 90s, revolved around oversized power tailoring and shiny leisurewear. The suits were there to make the point that Jordan was no sporting journeyman, but a bona fide business mogul. The quilted bomber jackets, the diamond hoop earring, the signature beret. This was the 90s and celebrities came larger than life.
Jordan wore his suit jackets extra wide across the shoulder, and extra long. What fits as a jacket on Jordan would be an overcoat on almost everyone else – a neat reminder that he is no mere mortal. His trousers were pleated for extra fullness and worn belted and high-waisted for added length. It is not just the sporting footage that showcases his elongated frame in The Last Dance. When he is filmed sitting down, his knees rise into the foreground of every shot. Set against the popcorny palette of televised sports events, where every available angle flashes advertising in the national colours of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, Jordan’s suits are notable for their muted colours. He wears taupe and stone-grey, tones that in the 90s helped him stand out against his environment – and which in 2020 make him look eerily contemporary, like a supersized Kanye West.
With his cartoonish swagger and a vintage leisurewear wardrobe that could unite irony-loving millennials and nostalgia-soaked generation X, in a year where big blockbusters were off the cards, Jordan was a stand-in superhero. And why not? After all, this man could fly.