Continuing the theme of the last post, another article I wrote a few years ago that never ran, this one for the New York Times business section, was about a really cool vintage athletic apparel company based out of Seattle. It was for a section in the times called 'Grassroots Business', profiling smaller companies. But they discontinued the series before my piece was published.
Although I never got to see this piece published, the owner of the company did give me a Soviet Union baseball hat that I still cherish to this day (pictured below). Meanwhile, here's the piece...
SEATTLE--It is somehow fitting that Jerry Cohen was born in Brooklyn the same year that the Dodgers baseball team moved to Los Angeles. As the CEO of Stall & Dean, a Seattle-based manufacturer of vintage sports jerseys and apparel, he is in the business of celebrating and selling history.
“I grew up learning baseball from my dad, who was originally a Brooklyn Dodger fan, but also taught me quite a lot about the Negro leagues,” Mr. Cohen recalls from Stall & Dean’s headquarters, a warehouse around the corner from Safeco Field, the Seattle Mariners’ stadium. “Even as a kid, the two things that I like most about baseball, as opposed to my peers, were the history and the uniforms.”
Today Stall & Dean is a leading manufacturer of vintage athletic apparel, which has become a $2 billion per year industry. “Retro or vintage licensed apparel has grown pretty nicely over the last twelve to eighteen months,” says Noelle Grainger, an apparel industry analyst for JP Morgan. “I think when you’re looking at any type of change in the growth rate over and above low- to mid-single digits [as the vintage market is today], that’s more a reaction to fashion trends than something driven by the fan consumer, because the fan consumer is fairly consistent,” Ms. Grainger agrees. “At some point that growth will wane, but there will always be a core base there.”
It’s no wonder, then, that Mr. Cohen says he is, “very uncomfortable with trends and fads, even when it benefits us. I never approached it that way. We always sold the idea of timelessness.”
Mr. Cohen’s company began in Seattle as Ebbets Field Flannels in 1987, offering hand-sewn, button-down wool flannel baseball jerseys in an era when most Major League teams were still wearing pullover polyester. A former rock & roll musician, Mr. Cohen’s company started modestly, with catalogues made at do-it-yourself copy shops and word of mouth the only promotion.
As sole proprietor, Mr. Cohen could not afford licensing contracts necessary to produce major league team apparel, so he began to make jerseys of old Negro League and Pacific Coast minor league teams, which at the time were public domain. But before he could make the jerseys, Mr. Cohen had to spend thousands of hours researching their look at libraries and the homes of collectors and former players. “I was a bit of a history detective,” he says.
The company’s name change, made official XXX years ago, reflects Ebbets Field Flannels’ purchase of Stall & Dean, an athletic apparel manufacturer founded in 1898 that once produced jerseys and shoes for Major League Baseball, but has in recent years been reduced to producing special-order uniforms for small amateur teams.
“We convinced them that their future was in their past,” says Stall and Dean’s current chief operating officer, Joe Cuff. By taking on the Stall & Dean name, Ebbets Field Flannels was able to claim a century’s worth of history and a moniker that better reflected its expansion beyond baseball jerseys into apparel from a variety of sports.
Stall & Dean occupies a niche between retro athletic apparel makers who are more fashion-oriented, such as Blue Marlin, and companies who make replica jerseys of major-league teams, such as Mitchell & Ness. The focus is more on quality than quality, with Stall and Dean charging as much as $300 for a single jersey.
“We don’t make 100,000 of every garment,” Mr. Cuff continues, “and you don’t find it on every corner across the country. The fabric and craftsmanship helps to drive our price up, but so does the fact that it’s special.”
Indeed, Stall and Dean has grown significantly over the last few years. In 1998, it reported sales of $1.68 million. This year, the company is projecting $8.73 million.
Although in the past Stall & Dean produced a small amount of jerseys and other apparel of major league teams, today the company has abandoned that side of its business entirely.
“The problem with licensing is it’s a dual-edged sword,” Mr. Cohen explains. “When you’re dealing with an NFL or an NHL, they give you the opportunity to use their team names and marks, but you do all the research for them, and they turn around and give the contract to competitors two years later. They also tend to edit and sanitize the history, and I never responded well to being hemmed in and edited in that way.”
Although it would be anathema to larger manufacturers, Stall and Dean’s abandonment of major league licensing agreements may have been for the best. Not only are the teams it features—an assortment of defunct professional league teams as well as international leagues and college teams—more unique in identity and look, but they collectively also represent a more untarnished spirit of competition.
“We want that purity from the days when it was about sport,” Mr. Cuff says, “not corporate sponsorships and ticket sales. Negro League jerseys like the 1940 New York Cubans and 1942 Newark Eagles continue to be top sellers, as do the 1968 Portland Buckaroos minor league hockey team, and even a line of roller rink teams such as the lightning bolt-festooned Latin Liberators.
Stall & Dean also has a licensing agreement with Harlem’s recently reborn Rucker amateur basketball league, whose circa-1950s and 60s vintage jerseys have become some of the company’s most popular items while also tying into its urban youth demographic, one of vintage apparel’s most enthusiastic. “Everything comes from the streets, and everything comes from the community,” says Chris Rucker, who operates the Rucker league and is the grandson of its founder, Holcombe Rucker. The Rucker Shamrocks jersey is easily the most popular, worn by a host of celebrity rappers and professional basketball players.
Next, Stall & Dean will release this fall a line of early- to mid-20th Century Ivy League sweaters, akin to what one might imagine a character from a J.D. Salinger novel wearing. After that, Mr. Cohen would like to expand various lines of international league jerseys, complementing teams already represented like the Tokyo Giants and Mexico City Diablos Rojos. And special orders continue, such as the new Slim Shady line for rapper Eminem.
“The interest in retro is cyclical, and now it happens to be in a really high cycle.” Mr. Cohen says, “but when it’s not a trend anymore, we’ll still be here, and still be making stuff that I consider timeless.”