How a 25-year-old former college baseball player became a leading fashion designer for women’s sports stars

John Thomas (right) and Sabrina Ionescu on the dais at the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game.

Sabrina Ionescu (left) and John Thomas address the media during the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game.Courtesy of John Thomas

  • John Thomas is an up-and-coming designer who has made waves in the world of women’s sports.

  • The 25-year-old has created pieces for WNBA superstars, Olympic medalists, and coaching legends.

  • Thomas told Insider about his rapid ascent and his journey from college baseball to the design studio.

John Thomas is quickly becoming the preferred designer of women’s sports’ biggest stars.

The 25-year-old designer behind “JT Made That” makes garments — most notably varsity jackets — that have found their way to WNBA Drafts and All-Star Games, the backs of Olympic medalists, and on the small screen by way of prominent sportscasters. Thomas has outfitted some of the biggest names in women’s sports, from Sue Bird and Alex Morgan to more than 30 of the head coaches in this year’s record-setting NCAA tournament.

But the former college baseball player’s rapid rise in the world of women’s sports hasn’t been a matter of happenstance. He’s been diligent about honing his craft, intentional about investing his time in women in sports, and unwavering in his commitment to connecting with the right people to make it all happen.

Thomas (right) with Diamond Miller, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2023 WNBA Draft.

Thomas (right) and Diamond Miller, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2023 WNBA Draft.Courtesy of John Thomas

Thomas realized in college that he was ready to trade a life on the baseball diamond for a life in the design studio

When he first arrived on the University of Southern California’s lush, green campus in the heart of Los Angeles, Thomas hoped to build up his already-impressive baseball chops and embark on a career in the pros. He suited up for the Trojans that first season and, after hitting .222 over 21 games, spent the following summer chasing that dream all the way to a baseball team in Alaska.

It was during a stint in one of “these really remote cities where all you have is baseball” when the LA native “realized that baseball isn’t something I want to do after school.”

He had some soul-searching to do regarding what, exactly, it was that he did want to pursue after college. Thomas had long been into clothing; he recalled his fascination with the “ridiculous outfits” then-Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook wore throughout the 2012 NBA Playoffs.

But it took meeting and, shortly thereafter, working under NBA player-turned-fashion designer Patrick Christopher for Thomas to realize his calling: the intersection of sports and fashion.

“I met him my sophomore year and that summer shadowed him, and that’s when it really started,” Thomas said.

The ‘2 pandemics’ of 2020 marked a turning point for Thomas

But mere months before he was set to step into the “real world,” the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and shut everything down.

Thomas’ real passion — the why behind his work — emerged when the sudden halt forced him to sit with his own thoughts and emotions instead of playing what was supposed to be his final season at USC.

He struggled to continue on with school, baseball, and fashion as the “two pandemics [of] COVID and racism” hung over everything like a dark cloud.

“It became hard for me to understand why winning or losing a college baseball game mattered,” Thomas said. “You would be at the field, you run around the bases the most times, you win the game. Then you go home and you see Jacob Blake got shot seven times in the back.”

wnba jacob blake strike

WNBA players participate in a demonstration after the shooting of Jacob Blake.Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Across the sports world, players, teams, and leagues were grappling over whether to play on.

The WNBA was “at the forefront” of those discussions, as per usual. And that wasn’t lost on Thomas, who found a new affinity for the league and its players years after growing up as a fan of the Los Angeles Sparks.

“I really identified with the way that the WNBA handled things in that their platform and how they use it to push what’s more important than basketball always felt more important than the games,” Thomas said. “Especially in the bubble or the ‘Wubble,’ all of those things that happened that summer in terms of activism, the WNBA was at the forefront.”

He cited that 2020 campaign, when the WNBA’s 144 players flocked to Bradenton, Florida, to play within a strict quarantine campus. The athletes devoted that season to Breonna Taylor — the 26-year-old EMT who was shot and killed in her apartment after a trio of Louisville officers botched a no-knock warrant — by wearing her full name under their own surnames on their jerseys, sporting “Black Lives Matter,” “Say Her Name,” “VOTE!,” and “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” T-Shirts during warmups, and speaking out against the lack of charges in her high-profile case.

“They’re just leaders,” Thomas said. “Who wouldn’t want to be associated with real leaders? I mean, when you look at Tasha Cloud sitting out that season and forfeiting her salary, you look at Maya Moore giving up her career, you look at everything that Nneka Ogwumike has done — those are the people that I wanted to be associated with.”

“And those are the people that, more specifically, I wanted to invest my time in.”

wnba breonna taylor

WNBA players pay tribute to Breonna Taylor ahead of a 2020 game.AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

Thomas laid the groundwork for a fruitful sports fashion career at the 2021 WNBA All-Star Game

Thanks to his work with Christopher, Thomas knew plenty about the design process. What he didn’t know was how to ingratiate himself into the league he so admired.

“I knew nobody in the WNBA; knew no media, no players, no coaches, no agents, nobody,” Thomas said. “I went to [the 2021 WNBA All-Star] game by myself, drove to Vegas, and just said ‘I’m gonna be as social as I can. I’m gonna try to make as many friends as I can in one day.'”

One of those soon-to-be friends was Ari Chambers, the do-it-all force behind HighlightHER, the iconic catchphrase “The WNBA is so important,” and countless other initiatives across women’s basketball and sports at large. Thomas sent her a message on Instagram to introduce himself.

“Before I ever met JT, he DMed me and just really wanted to work with women’s sports,” Chambers told Insider. “He was very intentional and explicit about wanting to work with women’s sports in particular.”

 

Once Thomas went to Las Vegas, he met Chambers and her agent, Erin Kane. After watching the game from his seat and meeting a few players, Thomas was ready to drive back to Los Angeles.

Instead, he ran into Diamond DeShields. He introduced himself, and within minutes, the then-Chicago Sky star had invited Thomas to join her and a few friends out on the town later that evening.

It was an offer Thomas would’ve been foolish to refuse.

“So I found myself out in Vegas with two guys who played for the Bulls and then 15 WNBA players — that was the group,” he said. “I knew nobody, and I had just met Diamond, so I didn’t even know her.”

The experience tested Thomas socially. But the players made an effort to include him, he said, and they “could not have been friendlier.”

Diamond DeShields.

Diamond DeShields was crucial to Thomas’ entry into the WNBA.Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

He thought he didn’t have anything to offer them from a fashion standpoint at the time. But he had a vision and a lot of passion, according to Chambers.

“JT isn’t somebody you can ignore,” she said. “He’s persistent; he’s consistent; he’s very, very focused on his mission of making women in the sports realm feel seen, amplified, and empowered.”

In a year, Thomas went from designing giveaways to curating pieces for the WNBA’s All-Stars

Once Thomas had a handful of contacts in and around the league, he knew it was time to kick off his brand and find   a staple piece to set him apart.

At first, he remembered clients reaching out for “garments that needed to fit really well to look good.” But without their specific measurements — or the means to visit each client in-person — it was difficult for Thomas to execute on those requests.

He looked to circumvent issue by creating a piece that was suitable for a variety of sizes and body types.

That’s when former WNBA star Renee Montgomery — now a sports broadcaster and part owner of the Atlanta Dream — reached out with an ask that doubled as a solution. She got a custom varsity jacket, and Thomas got his signature product.

 

“The varsity jacket, fit wise, is very forgiving,” Thomas said. “I could do a small, medium, or large. They would all technically fit, they would just fit different.”

“It also needed to be something that people could see multiple times in a row, in a short span of time, and realize it’s from the same person,” he added. “And so I think the jacket checks all those boxes.”

Shortly thereafter, Thomas started making jackets for many of the friends he’d made that fateful night in Las Vegas. He’d show up, give them the garment at no cost, and say “If you want to wear it, that’d be great. If you want to post it, that’s even better.”

Chambers — the recipient of one of those early giveaways — remembers being struck by Thomas’ attention to detail.

“I started seeing him at every women’s sports or women’s basketball tent pole event, and he handed me a custom jacket that he had made me unprovoked, just random, and knew my sizes,” she said. “He just really pays attention to people’s personal style and makes everything custom to them, and I think that’s really cool.”

John Thomas and Taylor Rooks pose with one of his custom varsity jackets.

Thomas (left) and broadcaster Taylor Rooks pose with one of his custom varsity jackets.Courtesy of John Thomas

Soon, he was getting paid requests from players he didn’t have personal relationships with.

WNBA players, NCAA Division-I women’s basketball coaches, sports media personalities, and some big-name women’s sports stars outside of basketball — including Alex Morgan and Chloe Kim — have all donned his varsity jackets.

By July 2022, when it came time for the WNBA All-Star Game in Chicago, Thomas was a known entity in the women’s sports space. What came next was, perhaps, the most surreal moment of his young career so far.

Thomas worked with the league to create jackets for each of the All-Stars. He presented them to each player in-person, and shared the stage with New York Liberty star Sabrina Ionescu during a press conference.

“I did the interview with Sabrina and there was some event afterwards and I just had to skip it;  I needed to just go and sit in my hotel and just make sure that I was acknowledging what had gone down that day and how I felt,” Thomas said.

John Thomas poses with A'ja Wilson.

Thomas (left) poses with 2022 WNBA All-Star captain A’ja Wilson.Courtesy of John Thomas

His next goal is to become a ‘creative director’ for a team

Even with WNBA superstars and Olympic legends wearing his work, Thomas doesn’t feel like he’s made it just yet.

Next, he wants to replicate a trend that’s emerged on the men’s side of sports, where several major franchises have brought in fashion designers to serve as creative directors for their brands.

The Bulls hired Chicago native Don C — creator of Just Don — to create merchandise for their in-house retail label. The New York Knicks brought in Ronnie Fieg of Kith for as their first-ever creative director, while the Phoenix Coyotes called in Rhude founder Rhuigi Villaseñor as a creative strategist.

“So if you see where I’m going, I want to do that for a women’s team,” Thomas said. “I think it’s a position that’s needed.”

 

 

Chambers said she’s not surprised to see Thomas succeed.

“It’s expected; anybody who’s that determined; anybody who’s that gifted; anybody who’s that well connected and makes sure he stays present has no choice but to shine,” Chambers said.

“Everybody wants a JT Made That jacket now, so his impact and his influence and his legacy is building right now within the space,” she added. “But he’s necessary. He’s necessary to the combination of sports and fashion. He’s necessary for the culture. He’s really loved here and his impact is already so strong.”

Read the original article on Insider

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