Rafael Leão is Riding a Whole New Wave
Effortlessly breaking down the boundaries between sport, music and fashion, the AC Milan superstar is the perfect player to launch adidas and Prada’s first-ever football boot.
After delivering virtuoso performances on the pitch for AC Milan, Rafael Leão has made a habit of capping off his post-match Instagram captions with a go-to emoji: a surfer. “Surfers sometimes get the wrong wave, but then they get back on the board and do well,” Leão told DAZN, back in 2022, “I think it’s the right way to think: you can try and make mistakes but you have to keep learning, find solutions in the face of mistakes.”
Just as his favoured emoji would entail, ‘Rafa’ is riding a different wave from everyone else in the building. Leão may have only just exited the UEFA Champions League (UCL) Semi-Finals following a Derby della Madonnina defeat to his side’s arch-rivals, Inter Milan, but breezing on to the shoot of
Confidently and charismatically, he pulls on pieces from the new collaboration, as well as upcoming apparel from adidas’ next instalment with Wales Bonner. He looks more like he’s been hand-picked to grace Prada’s advertising boards as you arrive in Milan Malpensa rather than the hallowed turf at I Rossoneri’s legendary San Siro stadium.
If you’ve tuned into Serie A or the UCL this season, it’s likely you’ll have seen this same, unflinching aura of the AC Milan winger on the pitch. “Craque”, “Jugador”, and “Baller”, are all comments the Portuguese sensation has been accurately labelled en masse by fans in recent years – because Rafael Leão is nothing short of a phenomenon.
Leão made 2022 his own, blowing up on the world stage after securing AC Milan a long-awaited Scudetto Serie A Player of the Year award before scoring two goals at his debut World Cup. In 2023, he showcased his superstar status with heroics against Napoli in the UCL Quarter Finals, and ended the season with 13 goals, 10 assists and May’s Player of the Month Award on his way to securing Champions League qualification for Milan.
But he’s not just been breaking new ground on the pitch, either: Leão is leading a new era of players showcasing how football, music and style are now totally inseparable in 2023. Modelling lookbooks for underground labels like Arte Antwerp and donning pieces from Corteiz is certainly unique. But dropping a 14-track album – scheduled to arrive next month – on a record label he helps run with his friends from Portugal, while delivering world class footballing ability week-in, week-out, is unprecedented.
“I want to talk about my struggle, my life, my family – how I’ve come a long way on my journey. ‘Way 45’ is me honouring that journey.”
It’s Leão’s incomparable off-pitch persona and unreserved individualism that make him the perfect player to front adidas and Prada’s new boot capsule, which blends luxury fashion and top-tier performance together in a way the world has never seen before. Naturally, due to his incredible speed and intrinsic dribbling ability, Leão will don the super lightweight adidas x
To celebrate the occasion, Hypebeast headed to Milan to sit down with Rafael Leão and discuss his journey from Amora to becoming one of the best young players in the world, what you can expect from his debut album as his music persona, ‘Way45’ next month, and how his family gave him the confidence to shine, stylistically, away from the game.
How did your upbringing in Amora, just outside of Lisbon, shape Rafa Leão, the player?
I’m from a neighbourhood where every single child wanted to live their dream to be to become a player – spending 24 hours playing football. After school, I would finish my days we went back to our new neighbourhood and I learned small things were important, like being humble and to really enjoy the game. When I was a kid, I think I spent most of my time playing football rather than with my friends – and I think this helped me to improve and become a top player.
What sort of mentality did you have from a young age growing up there? Did you always feel like you could make it as a footballer?
Yeah. My friends… they wanted to, as well – but sometimes they choose the wrong path. And I knew it – I could see that unfolding in their own journeys. I knew that God give me a gift to play football and become who I am today. At school, I was like an average student but I’d always put all my effort into football.
You’re a player and person that oozes flair and charisma. Have you always been that way since young?
Yeah, I think so, I’ve always been confident. When I was a kid at school and after school, all my friends who say “No, Rafa, you’ve got something different than us… stay focused.” I realised I couldn’t waste my time doing things I didn’t have to. They told me to stay concentrated – my parents, mom and father put me in the right way to grow up.
“My friends… they wanted to (play football) as well – but sometimes they choose the wrong path. I knew God gave me a gift to play.”
Do you have any rituals or routines that you have to do on a day-to-day basis?
My dad, when he was young, used to dress well. He still does! But he was a very confident man. When he arrives, everyone knows he’s in the room. So since I was I was a kid, before I go anywhere for dinner or go to school, he always prepared my clothes, my stuff… my overall look, you know? He would say: “you have to do it like like, this fits well, try it like this,” and I would slowly learn how to carry myself, from him.
Dressing well is a big part of your self-expression. How much time do you spend exploring trends and picking out outfits?
I actually have a personal shopper who sends me some stuff on WhatsApp, and I choose what I want from there. I think my issue is, in the morning I choose like one thing – then I go to the mirror, and I’m like “Yeah, this looks nice.” But then, when I go to the door yeah maybe I need to change one, time two times, three times! I always want to feel comfortable and make sure I look as on point as I can be.
What first inspired you to get into fashion, growing up?
Obviously my parents – but my friends as well. I wasn’t from a rich family, but I always liked to wear good clothes. When we went to a party or somewhere out and about growing up, I always wanted to look like one of the best dressed in the building.
How much does being in Milan like inform or kind of like help your style?
Milano is the home of fashion – and I’ve already learned a lot from being here, that two years ago three years ago. You see, the men and the girls have got something different here, and these type of fits have got me experimenting some more.
“When we went to a party or somewhere out and about growing up, I always wanted to look like one of the best dressed in the building.”
You’re now fronting the latest adidas and Prada collection. Is that something you always wanted to do growing up?
Oh yeah, 100%. Firstly, I’m grateful to Adidas to give me the confidence to put me in this, and let me work with huge brands I love, like Prada and Gucci. I want to do shoots like this – it’s really good for my image, and I’m confident enough to do it. It’s an honour to do so.
What do you think about the collection?
The collection is sick! I’m excited to wear it on the pitch, too.
You’re also big into your music When did you first writing and rapping?
During COVID. COVID came, and I was just stuck at home. I didn’t. I didn’t like to do some training outside. So I was like one moment in the home. So I used to write, on my phone, on my notes. And one day I just said, let’s try out rapping with some beats and start recording.
And you’ve got your debut album as ‘Way 45’ coming out soon, in June. Can you tell us a bit more about what will be on that?
I want to talk about my struggle, my life, my family – how I’ve come a long way on my journey. ‘Way 45’ is me honouring that journey. Way means “caminho” which also translates to “path” in English and 45 is part of my neighbourhood’s postcode which is 2845. So by putting them together, it’s about telling people to never forget where you’ve come from.
You’re a talented wordsmith, as well – and I hear you’re going to be rapping in several different languages on the album, too…
A bit of English alongside some Portuguese, yeah! You might even see some rappers from the UK on the album, as well…
We’ll be tuning in, for sure. Talk to us some more about your label, 608 Records – where are you trying to take things with them, in the future?
Yeah the manager, Leandro, is a close friend of mine, and YeezYuri is my producer – we share the same the same ideas. Away from playing football, my job is to try and help represent the label in the best way, and help celebrate Lisbon and Portugal’s music scene!