Jerry Cohen talks to David Hellqvist about reproducing 20th century sportswear, Canadian Broadcloth wool and the most stylish baseball decade
Portraits Pelle Crépin
In fashion, like any other creative field, authenticity is key. It doesn’t really matter if you create something new from scratch or reproduce existing designs as long as what you do is the real deal and completely in line with the original. Of course, birthing a new concept is tough but to painstakingly recreate someone’s intricate designs can sometimes be equally difficult, at least for different reasons. If you add to the equation, like in the case of Ebbets Field Flannels (EFF), that the gear you are working with has historical and sport cultural value, then the work is all of a sudden in a whole new ball park.
The Seattle-based firm specialises in baseball uniforms from the turn of the last century all the way up to the 60s – you won’t see the famous contemporary New York Yankee logo on one of their wool caps. Instead, founder Jerry Cohen will have researched a vintage design for his collection. For Cohen, Ebbets’ foundation is easily summed up: “Every garment has to have a thread of authenticity that takes you through to something real. We don’t create out of thin air, that never existed. We just happen to believe that the middle-decades of the last century were the best for graphic sports design and clothing; original, natural fabrics – not polyesters or other fabricated materials from the 80s or 90s. That doesn’t interest us.”
Jerry Cohen set up EFF in 1988. The US has always been obsessed with baseball, and the need for merchandise has grown over the years, alongside people’s increasing disposable income. But for Cohen and co-worker Lisa Cooper, Ebbets is definitely not just a money spinning machinery, cashing in on people’s thirst for throwaway fashion. “We ensure these styles won’t become extinct – that’s exactly how I see my role. I’m sort of an archivist, more than a designer anyway.” But it’s key to keep the craftsmanship alive, as well as the designs: “One of our main missions is to preserve a certain style of design that isn’t used anymore because nobody draws these days.” The logo lettering used to be made in wood, cardboard or metal. It was a manual process that went hand in hand with the design, driving a lot of the fonts used. “The scripts were beautiful because someone sat down to draw it – the Dodgers one is still used today. But when a script is created today it’s awful, done on a computer. We’ve gone back and recreated fonts from sports catalogues from the 20s and 30s, and those fonts are not in any typography book, nor on any computer software.”Jerry Cohen was born in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of 15, his family moved to Arizona and in the mid-80s, Cohen moved to Seattle to pursue a music career – “I was playing in a Rockabilly band at the time, the Seattle grunge scene hadn’t burst yet, I kind of missed that by two years!” – and wanted to find oversized woollen baseball shirts to wear when playing live. There were none around and Jerry set about researching the garment and its history, developing his obsession with the style along the way.
Like all the best collectors and designers, Cohen’s career started as a consumer. “Over a two year period I gradually became more and more obsessed with the idea. I eventually located some of the old fabric in a warehouse and started to make shirts for myself, and other people wanted them and one thing led to another.” Exactly 25 years later, Ebbets Field Flannels not only make and sell baseball shirts, jackets and caps all over the world, but also collaborate with everyone from BAPE, Our Legacy, Supreme, YMC and J. Crew, to mention but a few.
But, to be fair, Cohen’s immersive attitude towards vintage baseball gear goes deeper than his need for stage costumes. “Yes, my Dad was a big Jackie Robinson fan and used to go to Ebbets Field stadium – then home to the Brooklyn Dodgers – and he told me stories… before I could even walk I was listening to stories about baseball in the 40s and 50s, and that really got into my blood.” The love of the game, an appreciation of quality wool and family memories are good starting points for an adventure such as EFF, but for Cohen there’s a fourth dimension to his work; history.”At the time, I felt like there was a lot of history that wasn’t talked about; everyone had heard about the Yankees or the Red Sox, but in the US there were these strains of history that were really different, what I call ‘alternate universes of baseball’. The obvious one was the Negro Leagues, which no one had really acknowledged in a wide way in the 1980s. So I thought there was an opportunity to talk about some things that interested me and that maybe they would interest other people, too – telling those stories through the garments seemed like a natural way to do it. I didn’t want to do something that had already been done so this enabled me to do something completely authentic yet completely original in terms of the apparel world.”
And Ebbets Field Flannels sure is original. There are three types of baseball clothes out there, the generic fashion styles inspired by loose ideas of fit and colour ways, plus the corporate merchandise put out by teams for supporters to wear. And then there’s Ebbets. Cohen’s brand isn’t necessarily about wearing the emblem of the team you support, and it certainly isn’t about fashion. “We were the first to really take a team logo and make it something other than about being a supporter of that team. In the States, the mainstream teams are very well-known but we don’t do any of those. So the hat I’m wearing right now is from Cuba’s national team in 1971. It gives the customer a little bit of cache because they’re wearing something that’s like a cognoscenti thing, and they see each other and go, ‘Oh OK, that’s the Brooklyn Tip-Tops form 1914′. It’s a bit more like a club, y’know? We don’t think anyone needs another Red Sox or Yankees hat, we’re not in that game at all, because there’s plenty people that do that.” EFF is about is honouring the teams, the players, the fans and the designers that sold, wore and made those products at that time.To achieve this Ebbets early on turned to the premium wool suppliers for material. Using 100 per cent virgin wool, Cohen is able to produce a hat with supreme fit and longevity, something many of his competitors are jealous of. “Our wool is not contaminated or blended with other yarns. We have two or three wool sources, depending on what colours the customer wants – some have all colours available and some have a limited palette. This wool is what we call our Wool Broadcloth and it is Canadian. People try to imitate our hats and use wool-flannel but it doesn’t have the fineness of the weave.”For Cohen, there’s a definite point in US mainstream baseball when the focus shifted away from qualitative wool fabrics to cheaper materials. “Yes, in the late 70s and the 80s the uniforms became very ugly. Aesthetically, they were very offensive to me because I grew up with the end of the wool era in the 1960s. Later, they wore these polyester v-neck, elastic pull-overs, with three-coloured waistband, hats with very high and structured crowns.”
Looking at it from another, more positive, point of view, Cohen has no problems pinpointing the more stylish decades. “There are things about each of the decades from 1900 to the 60s that are great. My personal favourite is probably the 1940s, I think it was the peak of the design that I like. But I love the 30s, there are good things from the 1920s – earlier than that and things tend to get a little fussy! We were talking the other day in the office about the 1960s and the Space Age, and that’s exciting too, in a different way.”
And in terms of what teams wore the best uniforms, well it was never going to be an easy question to answer. Cohen, of course, has many favourites. A few stand out, though: “The most imaginative and innovative were the teams on the West Coast, form the old Pacific Coast League. The Oakland Oaks, the San Francisco Seals – those teams had a new uniform design almost every year. And even in the 30s, when Major League baseball was very conservative, on the West Coast there was lots of colour: different coloured sleeves, block colour uniforms – things that you didn’t see in the Major Leagues until the 1970s!”
Small steps have been taken to create newly designed sportswear in the Ebbets HQ – “We can move emblems and logos around and put them on garments they didn’t necessarily exist on back then” – but they will always be anchored in history. So for Ebbets Field Flannels the quest continues; more authentic baseball clothing is coming your way. The well seems to be never-ending. “When we started, 25 years ago, I thought, ‘What am I going to do when I run out of stories and that there are only so many baseball jerseys to make?’ Turns out there’s no bottom. You have to get more creative and dig deeper and you have to be able to tell people a story they haven’t heard before but really, that’s no different to what we did at the beginning.”Amen to that.
More info on Jerry Cohen and Ebbets Field Flannels here