Eric Emanuel is someone who's done it on his own (and we're not just talking about remade jerseys). Avoiding clichéd Drake references, the man started a customs business from an idea cooked up in his FIT dorm room. With help from friends, business connects, and sheer hustle, Emanuel was able to carve his own niche in the customs game, building a fanbase that includes the likes of A$AP Rocky, Wiz Khalifa, Travis Scott, and Young Thug.
As a lover of sports culture over the sports themselves, it makes sense that Emanuel would set his sights on tweaking jerseys and logos into the luxury space. Sure, the athletes are the heroes of sport, and they deserve their due. But don't sleep, the teams (and their logos) are just as much apart of the nostalgia and emotion of our decades-long, collective sports tradition.
For a better indication of what Emanuel is up to, we walked in on him working python into the lettering of a Michael Jordan jersey from the 1996 NBA All-Star game. He's a humble guy, but even he'll tell you that's one of his more bold jersey choices.
We sat down with Eric at one of his NYC workshops to chat about his design history, his notable clients, and how he welcomes comparisons to Don C.
What's your design background? Did you study fashion design in school?
The only relation I have prior to this is Nike ID and toying around with that [laughs]. I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology and graduated in 2013, but I went for marketing though—not a menswear program. This is something that just sort of fell into my lap. I had the idea after school, and that’s what I sort of ran with.
What was the moment that sparked this project?
A lot of it was very Don C -nspired. Don C was doing the hats and I wanted to sort of capture something in that same market. The culture is something I’ve always loved in terms of sneakers, hats, all of that. Clothing Is something I’ve always loved and this was my little niche and my little way to get into that industry without copying Don C or doing anything in that realm.
This was sort of an idea that came about when I was sitting in my dorm room. I was wearing a jersey—I’m from Syracuse, so I always had a jersey on or a hat on from Syracuse. A lot of people didn’t even know me by name, they were just like “Oh that’s the kid from Syracuse.” I always loved to show where I was from and jerseys are sort of a conversation starter.
So, like a Givenchy piece, someone may come up to you and be like “Oh hey I love that.” A jersey does the same thing. It’s like “oh you love that team.” It’s like an icebreaker, it’s very good in that way. I love jerseys.
With jerseys as your signature, what is your relationship with sports?
As far as sports go the only sport I truly love is college basketball. I’m from Syracuse, and there’s a huge college basketball culture there. We won the championship with Carmelo Anthony, so basketball meant a lot to me while growing up.
Do you have a favorite team?
As far as the NBA goes, I love the Knicks because I’m from New York. I love the Yankees because I’m from New York, and it’s nice to go catch a game. I wouldn’t say I’m a fanatic as far as any other sport really. I love basketball but it all comes down to Syracuse basketball. The NBA doesn’t strike me that much. It’s getting better, the playoffs were amazing, but as far as sports go my relationship is that I love Syracuse basketball. Really that’s the only team I’m a fan of.
I love doing anything Chicago-related just because growing up I was a ‘90s kid, Michael Jordan was a huge part of that culture, and of course I love Michael Jordan sneakers and anything of that nature. So the Bulls are probably on of my favorite teams to work with. After that I love the Lakers. Kobe was a big favorite of mine growing up, but also their colors when they had the throwbacks with the royal blues, the purple—they had so many pop colors to work with. That was amazing.
Do you have to interact with any of those sports licensing agencies to create these custom jerseys, or is it more of a "buy 'em first, then DIY" sort of thing?
Originally I was buying everything off of eBay or similar platforms. I would just find vintage jerseys. I started with a Jordan “45” jersey from Rawlings. It was when Michael Jordan played baseball in 1994 for the Barons, a White Sox minor league affiliate.
So I was buying old vintage jerseys off eBay and I was reconstructing them. And through that I had a pop-up shop through Mitchell & Ness at NBA All-Star Weekend because it was in New York. Since then I’ve just been running with Mitchell & Ness product only, through a small relationship I have through them.
Where do you source your luxury materials: the snakeskins and leathers?
Everything that I customize with comes from the United States whether it’s Oregon or Miami—those are two hotspots for everything I pick up. I do buy things from the city if it’s a last-minute request, but it’s very expensive in that case.
What kind of hides and materials do you commonly use, and what are you looking to expand into?
The only thing I really use is python skin. Python is universal, it works with a lot of things and also the hides are very big. When you venture into the likes of stingray, other hides like that, they’re very small hides to work with. I would need multiple just to cover one product. So python is all I’ve worked with, and probably all I’ll continue to work with.
How long does it normally take you and your team to make a jersey?
After sourcing the product, generally I could take a day on the product and really just sit down, and work with it, and get it done. But generally, it might take about a week.
What’s the key to a good custom jersey? Keeping it simple and authentic?
Yeah. As simple as it can be when you’re doing something like this. If a product is made in an organic, authentic way it’s really going to stand out—as opposed to culture vultures just trying to ride the wave. Authenticity speaks wonders and it shows in your product.
You mentioned earlier that you have a team that helps you in production. What's the team like? What parts do they help with?
In the beginning, I did everything myself. As everything grew larger and larger, I began to assemble a team. It was just people I met in the Garment District through previous projects with a brand. So there are about two people who manufacture the jerseys with me.
Here's my general day-to-day: I stop into the factory to make sure that everything is gone over and has gone smoothly. Then I’m busy running around and taking care of clients, checking in on accounts with stores, and things of that nature.
Speaking of your clients, your Instagram, and a lot of the press around your work is very celebrity-driven. How did you build that client base?
The first jersey that I ever made, the Jordan “45” Barons jersey, I gave to Ian Connor. He’s a friend of mine. I was still living in the dorms at FIT and he was with me. I had the idea for that jersey and he was like “yeah make this one.” So he liked it and wore it.
I would say a week later after making the jersey and giving it to [Ian], I was watching TMZ and A$AP Rocky had walked across the screen wearing the jersey. I had no knowledge that he had it or anything. I was jumping up and down and sending pictures to everyone, I was so excited. And after Rocky wore it, it really transcended down to all of hip-hop wearing the product. I mean, Fabolous was big with jerseys, so Fabolous wore them immediately.
A photo posted by @ericemanuel on Jul 27, 2014 at 8:09pm PDT
The whole A$AP Mob was pivotal in my first steps. A$AP Nast has been seen in numerous videos wearing my jerseys—he probably put me on the map the strongest.
A photo posted by @ericemanuel on Feb 20, 2015 at 3:10pm PST
In hip-hop, a lot of the artists want to remain different from the rest, but once someone starts something, the ball gets rolling and everyone starts to wear it. In an ideal culture, once people see their favorite rapper in your product, then a lot of people tend to enjoy that and they see it in a different light.
I was very picky about who I let wear my product at the start. I had a lot of people reach out for product, but it was important to me to really keep it more fashionable than just: “Hey you want to wear this? Cool you got it.”
There was a thought process behind everyone who wore it.
Are there any other celebrities that you’re really excited to branch out and work with?
When Travis Scott wore the jersey I was extremely excited. We were in Chicago for the Rodeo Tour and Travis’ best friend from childhood was my college roommate so it really just fell together.
I remember him passing through our dorm from time to time and it’s amazing to see what he’s been able to do since I was first introduced to him. Travis wore a Jordan “45” jersey with the python detailing at the Chicago stop of the Rodeo Tour, alongside Young Thug in a Grizzlies jersey.
So naturally I was really excited when [Travis Scott] wore it. Obviously, he’s blowing up right now. He’s dropping big projects, so it was great to work with him.
A photo posted by @ericemanuel on Mar 9, 2015 at 5:29pm PDT
Earlier you spoke about Don C as an inspiration. Don C is probably the most recognizable name in the custom sportswear scene, especially when it comes to celebrity co-signs. What would you say to Don C comparisons?
It’s crucial to me that people view us in the same light, because this market of luxury sportswear that he pretty much created—is the one I originally wanted a piece of. Don is a genius in the essence that he took an old idea and revamped it to make it what it is today. We’ve spoke numerous times in regard to the jerseys and everything he has said sticks with me. When I was starting out, Bari from A$AP Mob put us in touch and it was extremely cool to talk to him about everything. Whenever I see [Don] he still talks about it.
But as far as the Don C comparisons go, I did something totally different. I mean, obviously a lot of people bootleg the hats. I took it upon myself to find something different to still get into that market, but create a completely different product. Don’s doing the shorts right now. The shorts are really cool, and I thought about doing NBA shorts, but now I won’t. I’ll leave that to him and at the end of the day he does what he does best. I wouldn’t want anyone else making jerseys.
You’ve obviously established a major league client base, you have great visibility too. So with all of those accomplishments, what are you planning for the future?
As far as the python jerseys go, I’d love to keep them boutique and small just because I don’t think it’s something that needs to be everywhere. I think its something very niche and something that, if it gets blown out of proportion, it won’t be as cool.
But down the road I would like to venture out and have a line of jerseys, you know, blank jerseys—constructed of different materials. I’ve done a flame retardant jersey, waterproof jerseys. No python, nothing—just a blank baseball silhouette or a blank basketball silhouette.
What stores are you currently in and where are you planning on going into?
I’m currently in Revive in Detroit and then Gentry as far as New York goes. But, at Gentry we’re not on the shelf yet. As far as where I plan on going, I sort of like high-end street stores.
But you don’t want to be in a store with a “streetwear” connotation?
Yeah, exactly. A little bit elevated. I am a huge fan of both Union and Fruition. Alchemist in Miami is another store that I genuinely love, after visiting this past Art Basel.
A photo posted by @ericemanuel on Feb 12, 2015 at 7:43am PST
Are there any brands outside of sportswear that you’re inspired by?
Have you seen Midnight Studios? Shane Gonzales is someone I met through Ian, and I really love Shane because Shane does what he does the best out of anyone young. Of any kid doing anything, Shane does it perfectly. I have not one bad thing to say about him. But so many people have tried to emulate Shane’s business model, and it doesn’t work for them because it’s not organic. Shane’s staying true to what he knows.
Of all the sports jerseys—baseball, basketball and football—is there any on you prefer specifically?
I started with baseball, but I realized that NBA jerseys are very nostalgic. A lot of people have attachments to each jersey, so when they see it revamped and brought forward to 2015, they tend to flock towards it. So a majority of what I make is basketball as of right now. Mitchell & Ness also has some of the best basketball jerseys and the best license for that. As far as baseball goes, I love baseball jerseys, they fit everyone properly, basketball can be a hard fit. And baseball jerseys can be styled in any way, which I love.
What advice would you give anyone is looking to start a brand?
The only advice I have is: Don’t move too quick. Things happen in due time. They happen the way they’re supposed to, and they happen organically. Just don’t try to force anything.