If you’re after the most accurate re-interpretations of vintage athletic apparel around, there aren’t many brands that offer the same attention to detail and quality as Ebbets Field Flannels. Founded by Jerry Cohen in 1988, the brand operated from behind a curtain of relative obscurity for the next two decades – revered by collectors and connoisseurs of course – but largely unknown by a wider, more global audience. This all changed with the huge resurgence of interest in American heritage products a few years ago – a movement inspired, above all, by quality and craftsmanship – which Jerry’s brand had in spades. Collaborations with countless brands followed, Ebbets hats became the go-to baseball style of choice for anyone with a pinch of style and the brand, simply put, began to boom.
Of course, Jerry’s dedication to quality and absolute obsession with baseball’s heritage and its aesthetic history haven’t waned. He continues to produce immaculate renditions of obscure team regalia – often to minimum orders of one piece per style. The story goes that he founded the brand after a fruitless search for a vintage flannel baseball shirt to wear onstage with his band. It must be satisfying to realise that 26-odd years later, he’s still the only guy making them that good. We caught up with Jerry while he was in London recently and chatted about Ebbets, his passion for authenticity, creative process, production and more. Thanks to a number of names* for the hook-up!
In the early days of Ebbets, what was the vision you had for the brand?
My vision was really limited to making something in the purest way possible without any compromise. Using the purest fabrics, finding out the actual techniques that were used and trying to replicate those. We had to send this stuff to one woman, who we literally worked with until she died, then we had to find somebody else. We took the hard route, when the easier one would’ve been to do something that looked a little like it, but not really.
From the beginning, it sounds like a story of obsession…
Oh yeah. I had a lot of people trying to talk me out of doing it in the pure way that I wanted. You know, like, “just take the old logos and put them on t-shirts”. That wasn’t interesting to me. I mean, we went to all these hat factories and asked them to make this style of hat. They were like, “too hard. Why don’t you make thousands of these cheaper hats?”
Your reasoning behind wanting to make this best quality product – is this all part of your homage to baseball?
It is, but I think that it’s more interesting to be doing something really well and be known for that. I think we’re fortunate in that we got to be known for doing a particular thing well and having a passion for it. It’s insulated us a bit from the vagaries of the market when it goes up and down. People have gone up, people have gone down, we’ve kind of stayed the same until about four years ago when we started to go UP. We don’t believe in taking big risks of inventory. Because we’re craft, we can make you one shirt from one year of a team – nobody else will do that. If someone wants a 1931 Seattle Indians jersey, I’ll go to the research file and see if we have an image file, see if we have a lettering pattern. If we don’t, I have my graphic artist create one. We go to our own machine and cut the felt lettering and we do it for that customer.
You’re literally working to minimums of one piece?
Yes, on that product we do. We tried to do it on hats but we’re not really able to offer that service on a custom basis. But on a baseball shirt or a jacket, we can do it.
It’s incredible that your archives are so good that you can do that.
Yeah but there’s a challenge to that. I mean, we’ve always done that, but as the e-commerce model has matured – the Amazon model of instant gratification – we sometimes have to explain to people that they’re not gonna receive this product in 48 hours. We’re actually cutting fabric and sewing it and designing lettering for your particular product, and that takes six weeks. It’s a bespoke process. We’re not sitting on thousands of hats in a size which we can pull off a shelf and send to you. We do still have to educate people that it’s a process that’s not instant gratification and the wait is kind of part of the fun. There’s always a tension between the modern world and trying to do something that is not quite that.
It almost seems like you’ve gone full circle in the way that you’ve gone from copying what the old sportswear brands do – where they’re making for Mom & Pop shops – and now you’re the guy that can manufacture for other people….
Yeah and it’s great, because the type of people who contact us are really fun people to work with and people who we respect. Like, RRL doesn’t need us to manufacture hats – they can make hats in probably fifty factories – yet they really pursued us to do a co-label collection which is great. Obviously with a brand like that, the association with a craft brand like us gives them some credibility, and that’s great, we’re aware of that, but most of the brands – from Supreme to Our Legacy – have all been really fun to work with and have been really good people. Generally when two groups of creative people get together, good things happen.
So do you own much of the machinery now?
To this day, we’re now getting more and more into manufacturing. We’re now doing knitwear – like formfitting hockey and football sweaters – and that’s something I wanted to do for years, but we had the exact same issues we did with the hats, in that all of the knitters started going under. The ones that were still left didn’t want to buy yarn anymore, they didn’t wanna maintain the machines or deliver. So we decided last year that we’ll just buy the machinery and the yarn and learn how to do it. So that’s a whole new element of what we do.
The point I sometimes forget to make, is when we started it was exactly coinciding with the death of most of the original American sportswear manufacturers. I was fortunate enough to meet a few who were on their last dying breath, but still existing. But they were still clinging to their old business models which were strictly in the athletic world. And here I was, a young guy at the time, fascinated with what they used to do thirty, forty, fifty years ago, and they couldn’t understand why I was so interested in that. I’d wander around their factories looking at old garments going “what’s this? How did you do that?!”, and that’s how I learned a lot. But they were all gone within about five years of me starting Ebbets Field. One by one, they were done.
When did you start getting interested in the hats?
The hats went with the shirts pretty quickly – the shirts were the first fascination. But then I started noticing in all the old baseball photographs that the hat looked different. The ‘80s was the worst in my view, when the crown was super high. I mean, I couldn’t even go to baseball games because I couldn’t stand looking at the uniforms. The first company we started working with was a little company in Chinatown, in Boston, and their hat was a work of art – they used to make the hats for the Red Sox. In the old days before licensing was dominant, local manufacturers would make the uniforms, so I went into this guy’s factory and he was telling me stories about hand-delivering the hats to the Red Sox out in the dugout in Fenway park. To a guy like me, that’s as good as it gets. And he had the perfect hat shape so we started to work with him. But he was one of these old manufacturers – he didn’t want to do anything different, he didn’t want to deliver on time, he would send a whole box of hats where on every one of them the visor was sewn on crooked and I’d send them back, and he’d call me up and yell at me. So this is what I mean by the old ways.
Where does the goat hair come from?
Well they used to use real horse hair. I have some examples of it but you can’t get that anymore because there are all kinds of regulations about horses – probably for a good reason. In less environmentally-correct times people were less concerned. But goat is similar to horse hair so we use that now.
I’m glad you picked up on that though. The old hats didn’t have that stiff, helmet-like construction. So much of what we do is really driven by my personal taste. But anyway, that got me into learning about hats and how each manufacturer had their own methods in terms of shape, construction and decoration. I’m always trying to pick up original pieces.
Talking about details, can you discuss some of the signatures of Ebbets clothing?
One thing that has kind of become our trademark is the satin under-visor. A collector I knew lent me a group of original, professional hats in about 1998 and one of them was a Seattle Rainiers one (which we still make). Only one of the hats had this and I said “this is great, this is going to be our trademark design”. No one else did it. So now I notice when everyone tries to knock us off, bragging about the satin under-visor, I’m like, “Oh you must’ve discovered that all on your own!”
There’s a fine line between crafting a product and also having a business where you can sell things. When we say ‘reproduction’ we still have to have a standard. Some people think that means you’re able to reproduce every detail from every manufacturer, and that’s of course not possible, because you’d have to physically have all of those [originals]. So some standardisation is necessary. So what I did was I got all the hats I could find and picked out what I liked and then we created ‘our’ version, which is, to me, the best.
There’s no such thing as a pure reproduction. It’s an interpretation. If you’re gonna have a business that sells hats, you’re gonna have to have some things that are repeatable.
Can you talk us through some of the pieces in the collection?
I love the old satin pieces. The reputation for satin was kind of ruined during the ‘80s when all those Starter jackets came out because that was kind of associated with a polyester disco sort of look. But the old satin was rayon with a cotton backing – a very nice fabric that they stopped making – but again, we’ve started making it. Actually the only company that was making this satin was in the north of England, in Bradford. It was incredibly expensive. It made me cry it was so expensive. But I did find, eventually, a company in the States that had one military customer, and they only made it in black, but it was the exact thing they used to use on all the old basketball jackets in the ‘50s.
Again, I had to push against people in my company who thought satin was really ‘80s – I had to push back – we just have to educate people.
How do you think that education comes about?
I have to hit people over the head with it over and over again! I mean, in the beginning people were so against working with wool – they were going, “no, it’s too hot!”, but that’s the thing, you just have to try it and not make assumptions. For years we struggled with resistance to just the idea of wool. But people played baseball in it! There was no such thing as performance fabric – wool was the performance fabric. It’s breathable and resilient and absorbs moisture.They did very fine knitting with wool, they did super strong, lightweight fabrics – which we will be doing with our machine. So it’s always a case of educating when you’re trying to get people to step out of what’s ordinary to them.
On the retail front, are you looking to expand your store presence?
Yeah, we’d love to do that. We’re looking at Portland right now because it’s close to us and the brand is well known there. London would be great, New York would be great. But retail is a different animal – there are commitments – and since we’ve never really been in that world, it can be intimidating. You can get in pretty deep, pretty quickly. I think the thing that’s fun and that people are doing is pop-ups, because you can get in and get out.
Have you got plans for that sort of thing?
Yeah, I think so.
I’d love to do it in London. I need to learn more though. But this area [Shoreditch] seems like it’s really gone crazy.
In terms of the product here though, I don’t think people are buying Ebbets so much for the baseball reasons, it’s more about the quality of the product.
Yeah, that’s the irony though. We always struggled in the States with the fact that the teams that we do are obscure. Whereas in Europe or Japan, it doesn’t matter. They don’t have to be experts. In the States, at least for the first couple of seasons, we were on the defensive, because people would be like, “I want a Yankees”, and we’d be like, “well, we don’t do that”. So they’d be like, “well then I want a Cubs”, and we’d be like, “well, we don’t do that either!”. They’d be like, “well, what do you do?!”. We were like, “we do all this weird stuff you never heard of!”. It’s a bit of a hard sell.
It’s like if you wanted a Man United shirt and all you could find was this weird club team…
… Salford, or something…
Hah, exactly! So we did have to swim against the tide in the sports world because this market had not matured to the extent where they could appreciate it from a craft or fashion or apparel point of view. That was a long, lonely time, but we slowly managed to build a solid following. And people who knew the story loved the fact that instead of talking about another Red Sox or Yankees thing, we were talking about Cuba and an obscure team that played in Havana – it appealed to people who didn’t want to be associated with the equivalent of say, Man United.
Well, I think people do still find an element of identity through it – not a massive collective identity – but in little details, like maybe they like the name. It comes back to aesthetics.
Yeah, it comes back to aesthetics. It’s like, you belong to a little elite. You see somebody else in it and you’re like, “oh yeah, you got that Ebbets!”.
We love when people tell us that.