When Spike Lee dialed New Era CEO Chris Koch‘s number in 1996 and asked for a red Yankees cap, neither had any idea of the significance of the request. Spike wanted a red version of the iconic baseball hat to match a red jacket that he was giving a lot of wear at the time. Luckily, Chris made it happen and the rest, as they say, is history. Up until that point, baseball merch was only made in official team colors. Spike wore his red joint to the 1996 World Series and it was an instant hit (luckily the Yankees won), and New Era was inundated with requests for more red headwear. This move into color variation basically changed the whole game. New Era began to produce caps in every colorway imaginable, other companies followed suit, and the spark for a revolution in cap culture was ignited.
A couple of weeks back, Spike and Chris joined Stepehn Malbon of Frank151, professor and published author Elena Romero, and creative honcho Marcus Troy for a discussion on the way culture and style has evolved since Spike and New Era‘s initial partnership. In addition, this week marks the release of the New Era Heritage Series 1996 collection, a re-up of the original red cap Spike wore to the 1996 World Series. Produced in four cotton and leather versions, the collection will be available soon from New Era stores worldwide. Ahead of launch we formed our own panel (with Alex at The Daily Street and Jan at LoDown Magazine) pinning down Spike and Chris for a quick chat about the original hat, the updated versions and everything in between. Check it out below — the collection is available now at Size? and New Era Europe stores.
SlamXHype // Spike, you mentioned sneaker culture and consumer culture back in the day, and how it has sped up in terms of how quick stuff is coming out and how much people are willing to spend. What do you think it is that’s led to that change over the last couple of decades? And would you say you’ve had much of a play in that?
Spike Lee // I’ve had a little bit of play, but I just think it’s evolution – the world doesn’t stand still, fashion doesn’t stand still, and people wanna wear new stuff. But at the same time, they wanna go back and wear stuff that they saw as a kid – stuff that happened before they were born, but that they’ve seen in film or something. Like every year, there’s a new generation that have never seen Do The Right Thing. They were born many years afterwards but it still influences people. The internet and digital technology has made everything wide open, so everybody has access to everything. And if you have a credit card you can buy it, too!
SXH // That sort of ties into bringing the hat back 18 years after you originally released it. You touched on it, saying that the trend is the ‘90s coming back around again. Is that as far as it goes in terms of bringing the hat back?
Chris Koch // Well, we have the Heritage Series – the 1934 Series that we launched – and we just thought that it was the right time, since we were talking about heritage, to work back into the relationship that changed everything for us – and continues to change and make us the company we are today. So it just felt like the right time. It was ’93 that we did the first deal with Major League Baseball, and ’95 when we did the whole re-branding of the company, and ’96 when Spike called; so it’s been more than 20 years when you think about it.
And was that sort of the start of your relationship? ’96? Before you [Spike] directed the commercial in ’97?
Spike // No, I had a store called Spike’s Joint and we would sell hats that they would customize. And every time we made a movie they’d make hats too, so we had a business relationship before that.
Let’s go back to the color choice of red. Besides the jacket, are there any other reasons why you wanted the red hat?
Spike // That was it.
Chris // I remember when Spike asked, I made some other colors. Spike called me and said, ‘thank you, I appreciate that, but I only wanted a red one and I’m not wearing the other ones!’
What about this time around – would you rock a blue or a white, Spike?
Spike // Well, I’ll tell you this. The United States fought gallantly in the World Cup, and I watched it in a bar next-door to my office. So the the day before, I went to the New Era store and bought the ‘Fourth of July’ Yankees cap – and I put it on Instagram too – and people said, ‘where can I get that hat?’.
Chris // It’s absolutely all about people that influence style, and Spike is one of those people, and has been for a long time. If he puts it on, people want it. And that’s an awesome thing for New Era.
Both of you have spoken about the huge impact on New Era’s business model that this cap had in 1996. Were either of you aware of its possible impact when you did it?
Chris // Nope.
Spike // I’m not gonna lie, I had no idea. I just wanted a red hat. I didn’t see that one coming.
Did you ever think it might’ve gone the other way? You might have had backlash from New Yorkers?
Spike // They won the world series! Maybe if they’d lost they would’ve blamed it on me! “That hat that Spike wore – that’s why they lost!” But they won, so there was no backlash.
Chris // Not at all.
Spike, why New Era?
Spike // I mean, who else was I gonna go to? We want the ‘official official’; we want the authentic. We want the hat that Jeter was wearing. Jeter … Tino Martinez … all the guys. No other brand could do it.
Chris // We talk about it all the time. Our heritage is all real — 94 years of being the real deal. A lot of guys make up heritage. We were on the field of play before there was even licensing, before there was any of that stuff. People have been wearing our product since the ‘30s; it’s all authentic and it’s all part of our heritage. So it’s nice when people like Spike recognize that, because it’s not something we made up. It’s all there. Go to Cooperstown; go to the Hall of Fame and you can see it all.
Spike // And another thing: we know that, maybe not so much now as it did in the past, but the world looks to America for culture – a large part of that being TV, films and music. So I’ve always known that wherever you are in the world, you want something that’s American. And you can’t get more American than a baseball hat. And then when you put the ‘NY’ on it – people who have never even heard of baseball, or heard of the Yankees – when they see that interlocking ’N’ and ‘Y’, they just go like that [snaps fingers].
Chris // It’s Americana.
Spike // Just like Levi’s. I mean, you can name a lot of brands — but jeans, that’s American. Baseball hats, that’s American.
You mentioned earlier your feelings towards people wearing team merchandise for teams they don’t support…
Spike // … I’m not a fan …
What are your thoughts then, coming over to the UK, where New Era’s a big product, but people are wearing it strictly for fashion?
Spike // Yeah, but they don’t know what’s happening – I’m talking about Americans here!
Is it odd for you, seeing that? The UK buying into American culture, but for different reasons …
Spike // I mean, where did rock ’n’ roll come from? It’s not like it’s new, what they’re doing. American culture influenced the world, so it’s not new for a kid in Brixton to wear a Yankees hat and be influenced by American culture. American culture inspired The Beatles. It was Bo Diddley; it was Little Richard; it was Chuck Berry.
Speaking of cultural references, are there any plans to do a Malcolm X collaboration?
Spike // We’re talking about that for the 25th anniversary of the film.
Chris // 2017, right?
Spike // Yeah, 2017. Write that down, please!
Going back to the authenticity of the caps, how true to the originals are the updated versions?
Chris // Well the 59Fifty was invented in 1954, so that’s still the same cap. Obviously technology and performance fabrics, and all that kind of stuff is built in, like it is in jerseys and uniforms and everything else, but it’s still pretty much that exact same cap as it was in 1954 when we came up with it.
How about Spike’s cap?
Chris // This one we’re doing for the collection, the ‘highest-end’ one, is the leather one with lining …
Spike // What was the other one we did? What was the material?
Assistant // Cashmere …
Spike // Cashmere! We had a cashmere one.
Chris // Yeah, we had a cashmere collection.
Spike // Only 250. It came in this box, too.
When was that?
Spike // That was first. I think the cashmere was first.
Chris // When was that? 2006? A long time ago.
The Spike Lee Joint 2.0, right?
Spike // That was the cashmere.
Chris // That was pretty cool.