Jerry Cohen Of Ebbets Field Flannels Talks Heritage, Obsession And Collaboration
Since 1988, Jerry Cohen and Ebbets Field Flannels have been making some of the highest-grade reproductions of vintage baseball apparel you can find anywhere on the market. Although the brand’s become a go-to for anyone interested in authentic quality throwbacks, it’s only been in recent years that Ebbets has found global popularity outside of the apparel-geek demographic, something which is due in part to the brand’s eye for collaborative ventures.
It’s gotten to the point where any brand worth its salt has at least attempted to work with Ebbets, and the best examples have brought about some of the nicest vintage-inspired athletic product we’ve seen in recent memory. Of course, Ebbets isn’t first and foremost a collaborative project; Jerry’s eye for detail – manifested in his painstaking research into obscure teams, leagues and manufacturers – is best seen in Ebbets’ own collections. Speaking of which, we recently had the chance to sit down with Jerry and hear firsthand about how he’s guided his company from its humble beginnings as a personal project (he just wanted a quality baseball shirt to wear), to where it stands today as an internationally recognized brand. During our conversation we talked heritage, aesthetic obsession, brand development, and of course, the clothing itself. Check it all out below.
SlamXHype: Let’s start at the beginning – how did you come to found Ebbets?
Jerry Cohen: In the beginning when I was a kid in New York, growing up, I really liked sports graphics. I played, like every kid, but for some reason I was really drawn to the graphics and the history. My father was a fan of Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers (who actually left the year I was born). Fast forward to the late ‘80s and I was playing in bands. I thought it would be really cool to wear one of these old wool baseball shirts that I remembered. At that time they had switched over to the polyester pullover, which was very offensive to me, aesthetically. I got on an obsessive streak about this and started to do research – made a massive amount of phone calls – obviously there was no internet back then so you had to do it the old way.
Over a period of about a year it went from a personal obsession – which was about having one of these old shirts done the right way – to the point where I’d made my first few shirts, and people saw them and wanted to buy them – which hadn’t really occurred to me. And that’s sort of where the business started. And I didn’t really know anything about business. So I got a book out the library and typed out my business plan. I attracted an investor initially and that was just enough money to keep buying the old baseball fabric from this guy who had warehoused a bunch of it (of course it wasn’t being made any more). And that was the first challenge: me, going to old woollen mills, and saying, ‘can you please start making this fabric again that you used to make thirty years ago.’
SXH: Were you in Seattle at this stage?
Jerry: Yeah, I was in Seattle. I think I did a lot of things through sheer will at the time, just being very persistent.
So at this early stage, you were handling research, production and the business side by yourself?
Yeah, and my wife at the time eventually started to help me. She’s still my partner.
At the time there wasn’t the same emphasis on craft and the whole Made in America thing…
No. That is a recent thing, like five years ago. So it was a lonely struggle. At the time, it wasn’t what this market was interested in. And then we didn’t fit into the sports market either because we were doing things that cost a lot more and were relatively obscure. Fortunately we had a business model which was person to person, so we were able to build from word of mouth. We skipped over the whole sports retail thing entirely and went kind of above them, or around them – which in a sense, is what we still do.
Four or five years ago this big interest in heritage came about again. Ebbets became very well known internationally and you started worked with a lot of exterior brands. What’s the collaborative process like for you guys? How do you choose who to work with?
Well that starts with my partner. She saw an opportunity after we opened up with J.Crew about four years ago and we started to get a lot of enquiries. What happened was we did a few collaborations and people loved working with her. And people realized that they could make a very small commitment – made in America, to a very high-quality and level of detail -and nobody was offering that. Those two factors are very important. People like to work with us, but really they like to work with her and her team. I try to stay out of the collaborations because really I just mess them up!
What I find really interesting about any Ebbets collaboration is that usually when two brands collaborate, it’s just them coming into a room together and throwing around ideas and often there’s no real benefit to either brand. But with Ebbets, you guys are facilitators. People are coming to you for a service, because they know you’re one of the only brands who can actually produce a certain product.
Right. And we have had to challenge ourselves on that role and ask ourselves, ‘do we want to be that?’. And the answer is ‘yes’. But we want to do the fun ones, and high-profile ones. We don’t want to do the ones where people come to us and go, ‘can you make a hat like this New Era hat?’. We’re not a hat company that manufactures any hat you want. We’re a vintage apparel company. We have an aesthetic and a style. If that is of benefit to someone and we can see that, then we like to work with them – we’re not trying to copy trends or other manufacturers’ products. We don’t want to be a generic manufacturer. We want to have an identity, where we’re always presenting our personality.
So how do you respond to trends?
There are entire companies – and I admire them – whose whole thing is based around figuring out trends and being about that, but we don’t do that. I mean, we make hats and we’re like ‘this is the hat’.
So in terms of updating the brand, how are you going to develop it going forward?
There are always aspects we’re looking at that will take us out of the baseball world. Knitwear is going to take us into some other areas sports-wise: more American football and hockey, particularly. We also have a new license with the New York Metropolitan Transport Authority, based around the history of the subways. So that’s not sport but it’s still apparel. It’ll be a relatively small collection initially…
The uniform aspect (outside of sports) is quite interesting – is that something you’re exploring deeply?
In my office I have a whole rack of original samples for inspiration, and we consider anything that’s apparel and history-inspired as fair game. It doesn’t have to be baseball. It doesn’t necessarily have to be athletic although that’s probably where we’ll stay (with some variations). I think smart companies are ones who do what they’re good at and allow others to do what they’re not good at. My wisdom is: if I follow a passion then I’m usually okay. But if I start veering off into areas where maybe I don’t have a personal interest, then they don’t tend to do well, generally speaking.
It comes back to the whole obsession thing, right?
It does. And I don’t think that’s bad, because it gives us a center. And there are companies that are all things to all people, but I don’t think we’d do that well. Once you’re in the game of following fashion, you’re chasing your tail. Because then you’re like: ‘what’s hot’, or ‘what’s going to be hot?’. I don’t know how to play that game. There are brilliant people who know how to do that – but I know it’s a limitation of mine, so I can’t do that.
Can you talk us through some of the pieces in the collection?
Sure … [pulls out baseball jacket] … So the tension between the US and Japan really started in the early ‘30s as the two countries’ ambitions were colliding. It was decided – since the one thing the cultures had in common was baseball – to send a ‘good will tour’ over. Obviously it didn’t have lasting effects, because Pearl Harbor and the World War came seven years later, but Babe Ruth led a team of American players to Japan and they played this amazingly successful good will tour, and this was the jacket they were issued.
Of course, all the images were black and white, but then one of them came up for auction – I think it was the one that belonged to Lou Gehrig – and suddenly, this thing I’d seen was in living color. It ties together the story, and in this case I just love the suede sleeves and the buttons. Jacket makers in the US stopped doing buttons because the machinery often breaks down, so they went to snaps, but I love the button-fronts of the time. So this is basically the Babe Ruth All-American jacket.
We never really had a good sweatshirt line, but there’s a designer called Jon Contino who I worked with. Old baseball sweatshirts were not made for the public, they were very crude – issued to the players – and they were really rough; usually they’d just take a stencil and spray the team name on it. So we came up with a collection in that style and those have been doing really well also, so we’ll be doing more of those. Contino will do things like take boxing gloves and hand paint them. He’s doing some baseball gloves for us now which will go into our store.
That’s another really good thing about coming into this market – that suddenly we’re able to work with people like that, and get really creative, like “Hey, what if we sent you a pile of bats, and you can do what you want with them?”. It’s like, not everything we do has to make money. Some things are just fun to do and they’re worth doing, creatively.
Photography: DK Woon / SLAMXHYPE