Everything in the NBA builds to the playoffs. Coaches have retooled lineups and experimented with schemes, while players have plugged holes in their games. Stylists, too, have prepared, coordinating with brands and poring over online shopping sites to get the fits just right. That’s real: stylists and players save their strongest stuff for the nights they’ll be on national TV. And last night, as his Boston Celtics geared up to take on the Washington Wizards in the NBA’s first-ever play-in tournament, Kemba Walker was dialed in: a lemon-lime color scheme flowed from head to toe, with matching green-and-yellow hat, shirt, and sneakers. One unfortunate snag: Walker’s outfit was giving off some unintentionally dark signals.
On the back of his jacket was a coiled hissing snake above the phrase “Don’t Tread On Me”—also known as the Gadsden flag, a Revolutionary War-era symbol that’s since been co-opted by gun-rights activists, white supremacists, and the alt-right. The flag has ties to the Ku Klux Klan and frequently appears in hives of white supremacist activity, like the rally in Charlottesville in 2017 or the storming of the Capitol earlier this year. Walker was likely the first player to ever match hyped Nike Dunks with a “Don’t Tread On Me” insignia.
Before the game, Boston’s Twitter account shot out an image of Walker in the shirt with the caption “Locked in for the Play-In.” The tweet didn’t survive long as people pointed out the meaning of the imagery on the back of Walker’s shirt.
The shirt isn’t right-wing merch—it’s the product of the brand Vetements, which brandishes irony and cynicism like a razor-sharp weapon. The bare-bones copy for the product across every retailer reads, “It’s crafted in Italy and features the recognizable snake print along with the Don’t Tread On Me text underneath.” However, anyone familiar with Vetements and its founding designer Demna Gvasalia’s ethos knows there’s more to this than pumping up a recognizable snake print.
As Rachel Tashjian wrote in a recent review of a Balenciaga show, where Gvasalia is also the designer, “Demna Gvasalia is our contemporary master of runway discomfort.” Vetements has toyed with symbols before in similarly biting ways. A previous runway show featured similarly blown-up and slightly tweaked logos of corporations like PlayStation, Bose, and Heineken. Vetements now seems to be playing with the Don’t Tread On Me symbol in the same way: finding fashion buried inside bad taste.