How fashion is helping fuel Giants’ Saquon Barkley, 49ers’ Christian McCaffrey during 2022 rebounds

If the 2022 NFL season ended today, the Giants and 49ers would square off to open the playoffs. It sounds normal now, but it would’ve been mildly stunning in September: New York entered the year with a rookie head coach, a decidedly iffy first-round quarterback, and little financial wiggle room for improvement. San Francisco, meanwhile, lost QB Trey Lance to a season-ending injury, and would go on to lose backup Jimmy Garoppolo as well.

One of the steadying factors for both contenders: the ground game. Befuddled by injuries in back-to-back seasons, Saquon Barkley has resurfaced in New York as the explosive heartbeat of Brian Daboll’s offense. In San Francisco, former Panthers star Christian McCaffrey has put his own injury woes in the rearview, plugging in as a shifty Swiss Army Knife for Kyle Shanahan’s attack, and granting rookie QB Brock Purdy a true safety valve.

Resurgent running for NFC challengers isn’t the only thing Barkley and McCaffrey have in common. Behind the scenes, but still in front of the cameras, the veteran ball-carriers have tapped into a secret confidence-builder: fashion.

Joshua McPhearson isn’t naive to think his contributions have directly influenced the running backs’ on-field production. But as the new personal stylist for Barkley and McCaffrey, he can’t dismiss the possibility that fresh outfits are helping the Pro Bowlers take the field with heads held especially high.

“It’s more than just wearing nice clothes,” McPhearson tells CBS Sports. “It’s about feeling like the best you. When we work out, we try to hit peak performance. When we grow up, we might hit a peak age. I want that for these guys, for them to be their best at all times. From the moment you wake up till the time you play, when you put on clothing that makes you feel good and confident, it has some influence on your overall mood and outlook.”

McPhearson, 28, comes from a long line of notable names in the athletic space. All seven of his siblings, and both of his parents, played at least some college or professional sports. (His younger brother Zech is currently a special teams standout for the Eagles.) But venturing into a world of tailored suits and designer shoes was a personal endeavor.

After three seasons using his “God-gifted eye” to find running lanes as Barkley’s backup at Penn State, McPhearson was encouraged by close friends to redirect his lens off the field, where he’d already fostered an appreciation for creative apparel. Following a brief stint in the Canadian Football League, he began laying the groundwork for PEÆK, his own styling company.

“It’s a double meaning,” McPhearson says of the name. “The people I style, I want them to reach their peak in life, but I also want people to peek at them and what they’re wearing.”

Knowing Barkley had a shared interest in fashion, McPhearson approached the Giants standout about a partnership in 2021. He engineered his first pre-game outfit for the running back on Nov. 28, the same day New York upset the Eagles for just the second time in 10 matchups, and the same day Virgil Abloh, famed menswear director for Louis Vuitton, died at 41.

“To me it seemed as if a baton was being handed to me or a mantle being put over me,” McPhearson says. “Although I never met Virgil, his work, ideas and life have inspired and influenced me greatly.”

Barkley agreed, enlisting McPhearson as his chief stylist and enabling a colleague to turn his passion into a full-time job. In return, the former first-round pick has gotten almost two dozen personalized ensembles, and counting. McCaffrey came aboard later, connecting with McPhearson over Instagram this season, then commissioning some of his own outfits after an in-person meeting in San Francisco.

The fact that McPhearson played running back like both of his celebrity clients gave him a leg up in pitching designs for their body types, he said, even if the two are polar opposites in style, showcasing everything from Prada to Thom Browne to off-brands: “Christian is more of a plain, sharp and sophisticated look — not a lot of symbols or designs, whereas Saquon likes to try some different things, step out of what he usually does, go on the extreme a little bit.”

Joshua McPhearson’s designs for Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey, 2021-2022
Images courtesy Joshua McPhearson

An average week has McPhearson scanning weather forecasts and engineering different looks on a Monday, placing clothing orders and identifying backup options by Tuesday, consulting with the player and coordinating tailor adjustments by midweek, then finalizing plans for the games and weeks ahead. Each player tends to get two or three outfit proposals per week, and Barkley gets McPhearson’s help on in-person fittings throughout the year. These include accessory selections for everything from jewelry (“Saquon likes chains, earrings and rings”) to utility items (“Christian is more of a sunglasses and bag guy”).

It may sound like window-dressing — a way of simply accentuating the surface-level appeal of superstars. But for Barkley and McCaffrey, McPhearson is always aiming to convey something deeper through his work. Amid all the measuring and ordering and fitting, he is serving as a unique source of affirmation and encouragement during pivotal moments of these players’ respective careers. Wealthy or not, the running backs are human beings who have seen high highs and low lows as faces of their franchises. But when they are dressed by McPhearson, they are permitted to be themselves.

“One of my principles is, don’t be afraid and don’t be scared to wear what you want,” McPhearson says. “If you have it in your mind, it’s probably who you are, and it doesn’t hurt to test the waters. You are who you are for a reason. … Fashion is a way you can express yourself. Every day you have a chance to express that.”

And if Barkley and McCaffrey cash in with continued on-field success, will his outfits warrant even more praise?

“I don’t wanna take any credit for that,” McPhearson laughs. “Football is a team sport. Even more than that, the talent they have to do the things they do on the field is God-given. But I do know that there’s just something about looking good and feeling good. To be able to add to and enhance that on a game day is what I look forward to the most. It’s cool being a part of their story in a way. Because man, those guys are walking in confident.”