Former KU basketball player Justin Wesley has a new game - fashion designer

Former KU basketball player Justin Wesley, in his new role as fashion designer, posed for photos at Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters in Kansas City.
Former KU basketball player Justin Wesley, in his new role as fashion designer, posed for photos at Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters in Kansas City. The Kansas City Star

I first met Justin Wesley outside Allen Fieldhouse one muggy night in August 2012. He was making a movie, filming a scene in costume as a young Wilt Chamberlain, his hair cut short and tight like guys used to wear in the ’50s.

I remember that he couldn’t stand wearing that stage makeup.

The movie was “Jayhawkers.” Filmmaker Kevin Willmott cast Wesley, then a junior forward on KU’s basketball team, based on coach Bill Self’s recommendation that Wesley, who had no acting experience, could pull off the performance.

All of which I bring up first because 23-year-old Wesley, who graduated from KU last spring, has moved from rebounds to runways: He’s a fashion designer.

I did a double-take when I saw his name on an early lineup for Kansas City Fashion Week, taking place Thursday through Saturday at Union Station. Back to that in a while.

The Fort Worth, Texas, native — brother of former KU basketball star Keith Langford — is in the process of moving from Lawrence to Kansas City to work on his business, which he calls JUSTINKC.

Since he hasn’t moved into his new home here yet, he’s been using Thou Mayest coffee shop in the east Crossroads as his “office away from home.” He has become such a regular there over the past eight months that he and owner Bo Nelson are now friends and potential business collaborators.

Maybe you’ve seen Wesley there. He’s the lanky, 6-foot-9-inch guy hunkered over a table littered with sketches. He might even be signing an autograph for or taking a selfie with a KU fan. He has quite the male-model smile.

“I like to work in public places, so I can see people walking around, examine what they wear and get a grasp on what people of my city like,” he says.

He’s designing “classic American wear” for guys ages 23 to 40 — not the collegiate beer-and-pizza crowd but hip professionals in the city. Guys like, well, himself. There will be outerwear, one of his own personal style obsessions — Rock Chalk Carhartt! He’ll also offer classic button-down shirts and a few denim pieces.

“In the grand scheme of things, I’m designing for Kansas City,” Wesley says. “I’m trying to introduce and share the style of the Midwest. So many fashion influences are from overseas, East Coast and West Coast. Someday I want people of the fashion industry to feed off of us. We have great style, and our culture speaks volumes, in my opinion.”

“He’s got a very interesting eye,” says Chase McAnulty, chief executive officer of Charlie Hustle vintage T-shirt company and one of Wesley’s business mentors. “He has a level of talent that can’t be taught. There’s definitely some passion there.

“He’s trying to get into building another Kansas City brand. And that’s what this city needs — young entrepreneurs who are passionate about what they’re doing. I think he has a lot of resources and a lot of talent around it to utilize.”

Starting any business is no slam dunk. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Take the Fashion Week disappointment.

Organizers liked his clothing sketches so much when he applied for the show a few months ago they added him to the lineup. It was something of a leap of faith for them — he didn’t even have a website or social media presence at the time. But in the end he decided that the first clothing samples he ordered weren’t good enough for the runway, so he had to pull out.

“They understood,” he says of the fashion show folks. “They encouraged me to showcase in the fall and also wanted me to attend and meet other up-and-coming designers.”

In the fashion world, designers can’t easily get by without the ability to put their creations down on paper. That is certainly not an issue for Wesley, a self-taught artist.

“I think just from the raw talent perspective, he’s got some drawings that you only see coming from the fashion institutes, and obviously he didn’t take that route,” McAnulty says.

Wesley started drawing when he was growing up with his two older Langford brothers, Keith and Kevin, in Fort Worth and later Houston. They were his first idols in life. They played basketball, so he did, too.

“Since my father died when I was very young, my two brothers were my father figure, my idols, my everything,” he says. “I always wanted to be like them and make them proud in whatever I did. They’ve been very encouraging of my dream and really want to see me succeed.”

Wesley especially liked sketching athletic shoes, because “shoes were a big thing for me and my brothers, especially watching Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. So when I was into basketball, I had this dream of having my own shoe line.”

Their mom indulged his passion for sneakers, buying him every new pair of Jordans that came out. “So you can blame her for my taste of shoes,” says Wesley with a laugh; he owns about 40 pairs of sneakers.

(Side note: He was named Justin after his father’s favorite cowboy boot store, Justin’s Boots. That’s what happens when you grow up in Texas and your father watches Western movies all the time.)

His attention to detail with clothing started to develop when he switched schools after his mother remarried and the family moved to Houston.

In Fort Worth, “I lived in more of an urban area … baggy jeans, oversized jerseys and shirts. But when we moved to Houston, I went to a predominately white school — Hollister, boat shoes, fitted polo shirts. I was kind of developing my style, what worked for me, in high school. I guess you could say those were my awkward years.”

It was always his plan to make it in the NBA, a dream he nurtured growing up. But midway through the 2012-13 basketball season he began to seriously consider a future without basketball.

“When I figured out that the NBA wasn’t going to work out, I thought: ‘Where do my other interests lie? What do I like to do?’” he says.

Then one fateful night he met rabid KU hoops fan Jason Sudeikis.

After a home game at Allen Fieldhouse, Sudeikis and his fiancee, actress Olivia Wilde, visited the locker room. Sudeikis was wearing the recognizable blue KC ballcap that has since become part of the actor’s signature look.

Wesley admired the hat, and Sudeikis told him he got it from Baldwin Denim.

“I have to pay homage to Jason. His style still influences me today,” Wesley says. “In my opinion, he’s one of the best-dressed men I’ve seen. He’s also a guy I look up to from a distance. He’s witty, charming, charismatic, funny. I like to think he’s a good guy to learn from and somewhat model myself after.”

(Hear that, Jason? Justin is a big fan.)

Wesley took a job at Baldwin Denim hoping to learn from the company’s CEO and founder, Matt Baldwin. “He advised me that I would learn the most working on the floor and seeing what people liked and disliked,” Wesley says.

One man Wesley can’t thank enough is local business consultant Mark Allen, who has become a mentor, “coach” and close friend of Wesley over the last couple of years.

He has been there and watched as JUSTINKC has morphed several times. Unisex clothing? Nope. Open a store? Not yet.

Allen is a senior counselor with UMKC’s Small Business & Technology Development Center, where he works with entrepreneurs and small-business owners.

He has also mentored several college and professional athletes in their post-sports lives, helping them become businessmen and charitable citizens.

Wesley “is on a entrepreneurial journey, and it’s such a great thing to see,” says Allen, who met Wesley through KU basketball.

Allen helped Wesley understand that people wouldn’t invest in his company just because he played college basketball. He had to learn the nuts-and-bolts of running a business.

Wesley doesn’t lack the passion, Allen says. “My job is to take people who are passionate about their business and what they are doing and turn it into a profitable business that can sustain it,” he says.

As much as Wesley liked the people at Baldwin and working there, he had a vision and was eager to execute it. He went back to campus last fall and took business classes at KU.

“I knew it was important for me to acquire as much knowledge as possible. Going back to school was the first serious step for me,” he says. “It’s like saying, ‘OK, let’s do this, let’s put everything I have into this to make this work.’

“It will work. I will live this dream by any means necessary.”

Part of Wesley’s research involved watching old movies: “One of my design concepts is inspired by a James Dean movie.”

He also started doing recon on existing and new clothing lines. So I asked his take on Kanye West, who debuted his collaboration with Adidas last month at New York Fashion Week. Reviews by fashion critics were decidedly mixed. The unkindest comment: What makes him think he can design clothing?

“Kanye West deserves gratitude and appreciation from me. He has influenced me in style, mind and spirit,” says Wesley. “He may not always say the politically correct answer, but one thing he vouches for that hits home with me is expressing your creativity and getting out your dreams no matter what people tell you.

“So many people said, ‘Play ball, stick to basketball, it’s what you were meant to do.’ And it really pissed me off. How can you tell me what’s best for me?

“Kanye raps, but he’s screaming and shouting out that you’re not going to put him in a box.… And I’m right there with him.”

After the setback with the Fashion Week samples, Wesley expects new ones to arrive within the next few weeks.

As for mass release of the clothing? He’s looking at early fall. But there’s still that pesky money issue.

“Part of the journey of being an entrepreneur is also not being handed the money, and going through the struggles and the sleepless nights,” Allen says. “He’s in that now.”

Trying to line up investors has been a roller coaster ride for Wesley. “I’ve pretty much done all I can financially, so I’m hoping I can finalize something within the next month or so,” he says.

Brother Keith Langford, currently playing pro basketball in Russia, has helped with some expenses, but little brother is determined to stand on his own two feet.

“A lot of people have told me to go to my brother for the money, but that’s not how I am. This is my thing, my creation,” Wesley says. “I’m a businessman now. It’s not his job to take care of me and provide.

“You can call it pride or whatever, but I believe this is the best way to learn how to deal with obstacles and work hard for what you want and believe in.”

Wesley has the advantage of having a supportive creative “family” in Kansas City, says McAnulty, whose T-shirt design with the letters “KC” inside a heart has become an iconic fashion statement. Paul Rudd wore Charlie Hustle to World Series games last fall.

“I think what you see in this market as opposed to other markets is the willingness to see others succeed,” McAnulty says. “I think that’s an important thing that can expedite the process.

“As far as what he’s getting into, it’s craziness. It’s like going off to college for four more years before you can even graduate on to the next step. There’s more work to come.”

Wesley’s basketball career at KU clearly sets him apart from the pack. “He has a cool fan base around him,” says McAnulty. “There are plenty of people at KU that would like to see this happen.”

Wesley, though, is careful about trading too much on his basketball past. For this story, for instance, he did not want to be photographed anywhere near a basketball court.

“It’s important for me and for people to know that was one chapter of my life. I had fun. It was great. Now it’s done. On to the next one,” he says.

“Now is the start of my legacy and my career in the clothing industry. A whole new different ball game, no pun intended.”

But don’t think for a second that he has left roundball far behind.

The photos we eventually took for this story? We had to schedule them around his attendance at KU’s Big 12 tournament games at the Sprint Center.

You might have seen him there, this time as a fan.