Sit back for a minute and consider what your favorite sneakers would’ve been without Michael Jordan or LeBron James. What would the Stan Smith be without Stan? Stripped of the legends that tied these products to the glory of professional sports, it’s fair to assume that our favorite kicks might lose the appeal that enabled them to become cultural icons. 

Thankfully, that didn’t happen as today’s sneaker culture proves that we’re in an advanced state of athlete sponsorships. But, a visit to New Era’s NYC creative space earlier this month raised the question of why this trend hasn’t developed as fast in other markets, specifically headwear. You might not think about it when you reach for your fitted before heading out the door, but what you put on your dome serves as the ultimate canvas for self expression. It could even be argued that your hat is repping you harder than your sneaker collection, if you’re calling shots from an eye line perspective. From the way you style your brim—backwards, slanted, or with a tilt—to the team you rep, what you’re all about can be assumed with a single, topical glance. That’s why we tapped New Era to learn more about their NFL athlete-designed collection.

Photo by Liz Barclay
Photo by Liz Barclay

Longtime New Era Lead Designer Billy Loncar took us through the process. As with any new product, the process kicks off with a design session. Unlike many design sessions, this one-on-one includes athlete personalities that vary from Marshawn Lynch’s #BeastMode mentality to Blake Bortles’ sport-inspired tendencies. “We come [to the design session] with research for a feel on what their overall fashion sense is and try to pull materials that would interest them from the start," Billy says. "From there, they’ll pull different leathers or fabric details, along with past samples they like to get an idea on what applications and executions they’d like to showcase.” Billy points out that, “It’s kind of like a Frankenstein, where they mix and match different things to see what works for them.”

Photo by Liz Barclay

The process varies from player to player. “You look at guys like Marshawn and his personality is totally flashy and reflects the whole ‘beast mode’ mentality, so we took different animal textures, leathers, and metallics, things that really speak to his personality. You end up with a pretty wide hat, but his stuff has gotten a great response partly because he’s so successful on the field and has a really cool sense of style. He’s his own guy.” Adversely, players like Dalton or Bortles opt for more sport-inspired looks, pulling from classic logos and fabrications for a spin on the traditional sidelines cap. 

That said, many of the materials used on the NFL custom designs are a trickle down on what is trending in sneaker culture: Performance mesh, sport-inspired reflective paneling, pebbled leather, and woven leather looks can be spotted throughout the collection, serving as a great complement to the kick of the day. 

Photo by Liz Barclay

According to Billy, many athletes use this collection as a way to share their personal brand, as well as getting firsthand experience behind-the-scenes of hat design. Since New Era’s NFL collection is not intended for the sidelines, they encourage their athletes to reference the tagline “Not Just For Game Day” when designing their custom pieces. For example, seeing what players would wear to leave the game or later, when hanging out with friends. The roster of athlete-designed goods currently extends to around seven individuals, including Marshawn Lynch, Blake Bortles, Khalil Mack, Andy Dalton, Blake Bortles, Colin Kaepernick, Kenny Stills, and Sammy Watkins, for a mix on a regional and national level, while making sure to align with players who have a strong interest in style and can be considered a “cap enthusiast” by New Era standards. 

Photo by Liz Barclay

For most of us, headwear has nothing to do with fighting off glare, wicking sweat, or keeping scalps at a hospitable temperature, which is predictable since the historical purpose of hats have always blurred the line of function and fashion. But, if you’re concerned with style and comfort, check out the New Era NFL Sidelines or Gold Collections for everything a good hat has to offer, beyond the field and in your daily life. Who knows—one of these athletes’ influence on hats could be the ticket to take this custom headwear sponsorship to the next level. 

Photo by Liz Barclay