Suits Him Fine

Jay Lombardo designs sports' spiffiest uniforms

He's coached in the NBA Finals. Worn two Olympic gold medals. Won NFL Most Valuable Player. Been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And this Saturday he'll be picked in the top 10 of the NFL Draft, twice.

All, mind you, by merely playing dress-up.

From rugby player to Dallas clothier icon, Jay Lombardo has nurtured his niche into a dapper dynasty. As Nike is to feet, Lombardo's Custom Apparel is to fashion. In this weekend's draft more than 40 players will be wearing suits and accessories from Lombardo's. And when Notre Dame's Brady Quinn shakes hands with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as the first quarterback selected, Lombardo will accompany him head to toe.

Jay Lombardo helps Avery craft his larger-than-life image.
Jay Lombardo helps Avery craft his larger-than-life image.

"When guys walk across that stage it's their chance to create a bigger-than-life image," says Lombardo, who last year dressed both Vince Young and Matt Leinart and in '05 outfitted five of the draft's top 10 selections. "It's the moment they become famous. Their window of opportunity to capitalize on their celebrity and endorsement opportunities starts right there, and we make sure they dress the part."

Dream Team be damned; Lombardo has built himself an empire led by Avery Johnson, Michael Johnson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Troy Aikman, Rayfield Wright, Michael Irvin, Dirk Nowitzki, Mark Cuban, Roger Staubach, Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo.

I know, Irvin wears suits with garish colors that are more hallucinations than hues and Cuban wears jeans and Romo always has on a backward cap and...Don't take it from me, a dork who actually wore leg warmers in college and whose closet is lined with the latest from Oscar de la Madison. Get it straight from a vogue voice powerful enough to tell Calvin Klein to shut the hell up while he ranks Dallas' best-dressed.

"Right now no one's out-dressing Avery," Lombardo says.

Not bad for a native New Yorker who not long ago was pleading with sports writers to prop open doors at Valley Ranch so he could hawk ties to Kenny Gant out of the back of his '87 Jeep Cherokee.

"Back then I was still trying to figure it all out," Lombardo says with a laugh. "I was selling wholesale and had landed stores on Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive. But I needed something to help me pull it all together."

Image was everything. And Lombardo is rooted in the classic, no-nonsense vision of his well-dressed parents. More stand-up guy than stand-up comedian, he's all Jay Lombardo without a twinge of J. Peterman.

Raised in Queens, he remembers his father never being out of a suit and has hanging in his North Dallas Parkway store a copy of a 1959 Elle magazine cover featuring his Australian-born mom, Patricia.

"That's probably where I got my fashion sense," says Lombardo, who designs, manufactures and tailors his own line of attire. "The stuff she wore is still in style today."

After a short stint playing rugby in Australia, Lombardo moved to Texas, graduated from Richardson High School, got a business degree from UNT and refused to follow his friends who were waiting tables. Instead, he drove to the Apparel Mart, talked his way into the building and then into a job wholesaling clothes off the rack.

"I always liked clothes, always liked the feeling of being dressed up," says Lombardo, who these days lives in Dallas with his wife and two children. "I didn't want to waste time working for tips. I started in a small consignment deal with Calvin Klein and built business from there."

First an Addison store in '91, then a shop in old Prestonwood Mall in '95, a place at The Ballpark in Arlington (where he used to design suits for a dude named George W. Bush) and finally, since '05, in the cozy location at the Tollway and Trinity Mills Road. There's an espresso bar for women. Patio Thursdays for men who like cigars, Sinatra and Maseratis. And the likelihood you'll bump into someone more famous and better-dressed than you.

"I love this place," Romo said back in November as he and Jason Witten browsed during Wright's Hall of Fame party. "Obviously I'm a jeans and T-shirt guy. But sometimes you have to dress up. Nowhere better than this to get that taken care of."

So, like, stop trying to land the sweet job in the Sears suit. Hear that, Bill Belichick?

"You can't buy off-the-rack, because it's stupid to think everyone fits into just 12 sizes," Lombardo says. "Plus your only choices are safe blue or safe grey, and two buttons or three. You've just got to go custom. It cracks me up to see guys spend all that time in the gym working on their bodies, but when it's time to get dressed they throw on clothes that fit them so bad it ages them 10 years. Just because this spring Armani says the hip suit is a high-stance three-button doesn't mean it works for everyone."

Not that Lombardo is immune to the occasional wardrobe malfunction. In one of his first sales—to a wealthy Dallas oil man in the '80s—Lombardo meticulously took measurements, choreographed a look, collected payment and, in the end, delivered a conservative number featuring 30-inch pants to a client with a 40-inch waist.

"I was winging it the whole time and thought I had pulled it off," Lombardo says with a giggle. "Until the guy couldn't get his pants above his knees."

But for every embarrassing moment—like having to Scotch-tape together two measuring tapes around Nate Newton's considerable waistline or borrowing a stepladder to properly size up Yao Ming—there are the Michael Johnson moments.

"The kid was still in his 20s, but he went to the ESPYs and out-dressed everyone," Lombardo says. "For him to pick a style that helped with his confidence and aura, it's very rewarding."

Come Saturday Lombardo will begin doing for high-end rookies what he's done for high-profile veterans in the past: Possibly get them on the cover of GQ. Definitely keep them off Mr. Blackwell's notorious list.

"People want you to stand out and to stand for something," Lombardo says. "Deion Sanders was too flashy for some, but he appealed to young kids and younger markets, so the folks at Pizza Hut and Pepsi thought he was perfect. Troy Aikman started out in boots and jeans, but we gave him a more upscale, All-American look, and next thing you know Kroger was giving him a lot of money. All these guys have a perfect fit and an appropriate image, and we can help them find it."

And with his first pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, Brady Quinn selects...Jay Lombardo, clothier, Dallas.

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