Studio Stories: Creating the T-Wolves Prince Uniform

The Minnesota Timberwolves figured they had a hit when it came to Prince-inspired uniforms. They didn’t expect the popularity would garner such attention and devotion, but more than two years before the purple threading hit the lights of Target Center in Minneapolis, they knew it’d be a hit.

“Internally we felt it had the potential to be special, to be unique and different,” says Ted Johnson, Timberwolves chief strategy officer. “You never know, though. Fans are fickle.”

When the NBA’s Timberwolves took the court back in November wearing the Purple Rain-styled uniforms for the first of their several scheduled appearances it signified the culmination of a more than two-year project to honour the life of local hero Prince, who passed away in April 2016. But wearing purple in November — of course, November — didn’t mark the end of a program that will continue throughout the year with the extra dates, including tonight’s game against Dallas, additional retail activations, a white version of the uniform as part of the “Earned” uniform series and then to likely live beyond the season in some form.

The Prince-inspired look goes all the way back to Nike signing on as the new uniform supplier of the NBA and the brand’s plans for the annual City Edition uniform. That Adidas-to-Nike changeover happened to coincide with a complete rebrand for Minnesota.

“Nike pitched us the concept two years ago, but in the process of rolling out a brand-new logo and uniforms, we didn’t want the Prince concept to be lost in the larger roll-out of our identity,” Johnson says. “We wanted the blue, white and green jersey to be heroes with the new logo and new brand. But then we came back to Nike and said for the second year of the identity we want to revisit the Prince concept.”

That was a year and a half ago and that original concept presented to the team ended up being the one that survived the design process. Once the Timberwolves approved the Prince-themed idea, Nike put together five different concepts, all of them embracing some element of purple. The team selected the original concept and used that as a baseline for making tweaks and adjustments along the way, all while working with Trevor Guy, Prince’s design go-to, and the Prince estate to pull off what turned into not only a uniform, but an entire retail program to surround it and in-arena activations for the eight nights the players pull on purple.

From the start, the Timberwolves wanted buy-in from a variety of sources.

“We don’t always do this, but we felt it was important to show the players very early on in the process and they got really excited,” Johnson says. The team built upon their relationship with the Prince estate — Johnson is personal friends with a lawyer who works with family members and was able to make a quick connection. Prince, who was a true fan of basketball and the Timberwolves — he sat courtside in early years, played high school ball at Central High in South Minneapolis and even invited the championship-winning Lynx to his Paisley Park for a concert — made the connection more authentic and the program build-out more natural.

“That is one of the things that is special and different,” Johnson says. “Yeah, it is a kick-ass uniform and, I think, hands-down it is the best City Edition in the league and I think Nike believes the same, but what is unique and makes it special is building out an entire platform and program around it. It feels more substantial than just a Prince night.”

The font and purple were the main reasons the original concept was chosen — rejected ideas included differing and brighter purple bases, uniforms that were too close to the current Timberwolves uniforms in terms of branding and striping and some that were more asymmetrical in their design. The deep, dark purple base was there from the beginning, but Johnson says it took multiple iterations — “the shades of purple were work” — to determine the two other purples used as accents across the uniform.

“Where we landed was a nice blend of a lot of those concepts that clearly and succinctly spoke to Prince and were instantly recognizable,” Johnson says.

The “Purple Rain” script on the album cover inspired the T-Wolves jersey wordmark

But it was that font that really drew people to the original concept. Based on the style of the Purple Rain album cover from 1984, the font was instantly recognizable. The number font, a truly distinct part of the uniform, also took cues directly from Prince, using Prince’s fascination with the Love Symbol as the backbone of design. “The numbering system went through a number of changes,” Johnson says. “Early on it took on a bit of a life of Prince’s symbol. There were various concepts and iterations of that font as it developed.”

Another key concept that survived from the original concept was the asymmetrical right shoulder that played off the metal studded jacket Prince wore. Nike’s lead designer on the project, Cyrus Coleman, tried multiple ways of making it three dimensional or using differing materials. “It took their engineers to figure out what they could and couldn’t do but still have the same effect of a studded shoulder,” Johnson says. “It went through a number of iterations as they tried to explore what they could do in the shoulder.”

From there, the Easter egg elements were largely done in cooperation with both Guy and the Prince estate. The MPLS, which harkens to the Minneapolis Sound movement that Prince served as the godfather of, came from them. It shows up on the shorts. The Minneapolis Sound moniker hovers over the jock tag on the uniform too.

The paisley on the inside of the left short vent, which you don’t necessarily see unless the short opens, was the estate’s way of paying homage to Prince’s retreat at Paisley Park.

A paisley inside the flap of the shorts

Johnson says the uniform design went relatively smooth, especially in terms of design. Nike’s largest challenge was representing the metal studding on the shoulder. From there, though, the team really worked to get as many stakeholders on board with the program as possible so the uniform was much more than an on-court presence. From tie-ins with Prince charities to playing only Prince songs throughout the arena the night the uniforms are worn all the way to waves of related retail gear that will roll out throughout the season, the robust program supporting the uniform was in place.

“The City Edition is great in that you can develop a platform that is more than a single game, but doesn’t span multiple years,” Johnson says. “There are no doubt certain local stories are stronger than others. I think next year’s City Edition will be great, but it won’t be as wildly popular as this year’s. This is meaningful to Minnesotans, to music lovers, to Prince fans. This is one of those stories that stands apart and is different.”

So, as the Timberwolves embrace this season’s success, what will the future hold for the Purple Rain design? “Our hope is to learn over the course of the season what the future may be,” Johnson says. It is no different than knowing that the activation surrounding the uniform by nights six, seven and eight will be vastly different than games one, two and three.

“Let’s see where it brings us and then have a conversation of how do we keep this alive in the franchise’s history and keeping these two great brands aligned,” he says. “Does it mean retail applications in the team store (beyond this season)? Possibly. Does it mean we bring it back as a throwback in a couple more years? Possibly. Do we do a celebratory shooting shirt on a regular basis on an anniversary date important to Prince? Maybe. All things we will look at and explore. The uniform has resonated with the public and we would love to find a way to keep that alive.”

Studio Stories is a monthly column from Tim Newcomb that explores the stories behind some of the designs dominating the sports landscape. Follow Tim on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.