There’s a scene in Season 4 of The Wire when the character Bodie (played by J.D. Williams) is reminiscing about the old days on the block. Slim Charles (played by Anwar Glover), part of the new regime now running the streets, interrupts: “The thing about the old days—they the old days.” The exchange perfectly illustrates the passage of time, and how things never stay the same forever. But that idea’s being contradicted today by the comeback of throwback sports apparel in fashion—once a fad popularized by Jay Z, Fabolous, and Cam’ron in the 2000s—particularly in New York. Even rappers like 21 Savage, who wore a vintage Houston Rockets jersey onstage at the HI-HORSE'D NYC show with Young Thug, are on the wave.
At Flight Club in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood, Joshua Matthews, the shop’s 32-year-old director of merchandising, has just finished putting together a wall display of Champion sweatshirts in every single colorway, inspired by a color wheel of sweaters that Alex Goulet, a vintage seller who runs the Instagram feed Tags and Threads, had posted on his Instagram.
“People forget how rooted in sports culture we, as a society, are,” Matthews says. “When you look at high-end fashion, they’re all trying to pull from sports. You have to think about how personal sporting is. People crying. People dying. Everything happens around sports. If you play team sports, it’s the first time you understand what everything is, what it’s like to really work hard. There’s all these nostalgic things that get brought up.”
The sweaters sell for more than $150, but Matthews says stock is moving well. He wants to preserve and introduce the vintage culture to the younger generation, who he calls the “pump and dump” crowd, folks who just go after the newest release and never value anything. “You need to have an appreciation for things,” he says. “You go through the line of collecting them. There’s something more than just saying I got these. There’s a feel. There’s a touch.”
For Matthews and Goulet, who consider themselves embedded in the throwback sports apparel culture, the garments are more than just about evoking nostalgia. They are pieces of clothing that become silent head nods, an entry into a society of collaboration and appreciation and a sense of higher taste. Goulet regularly travels at least once a week to ensure he’s adding to his collection to compete with other vintage merchants. “We’re helping push a lot of brands back into relevancy,” Goulet says. “Brands that had a lull in their popularity and are now starting to be picked up and rediscovered by the next generation. We’re helping them recreate and redefine themselves with this generation. I’m not going to be remembered, but I can see the impact that I’ve made.”
Before opening his current shop Procell on the Lower East Side, Brian Procell was a painter at galleries around the city trying to get his feet wet in the art world. “The idea of curation and applied aesthetics comes from that,” he says. “When I studied to be a painter, I really paid attention to the ideas of composition and design.” Procell has applied these skills to his vintage trade. Ten years ago, Procell opened his first vintage store Coat of Arms. Today, the curated collection at his Procell shop draws private appointment requests from Drake, Eddie Huang, ASAP Ferg, and more. While Procell’s vintage collection expands beyond just sporting goods, the pull of sportswear for the younger generation is apparent to him.
“A lot of these kids, they’ll start picking up whatever is sports related,” he says. “They look at it as sportswear because that’s probably the easiest thing to understand. That’s what America has produced a lot of. But it goes deeper. It represents something. It represents the culture. It made an impact on its own in the fashion world.” Procell points to Tupac immortalizing the red Detroit Red Wings jersey and N.W.A. bringing the Los Angeles Kings logo to the mainstream as examples.
At Extra Butter on Lower East Side, Michael Spitz a.ka. Mr. Throwback has turned the shop’s backroom into his own Air Jordan 11 Space Jam pop-up, with throwback jerseys, action figures, movie posters and other collectibles from the movie. Spitz opened his store in 2012 and at first sold everything from army clothing to women’s apparel but eventually transitioned his focus towards jerseys, where he got the most personal thrill from visiting thrift stores and flea markets in the first place. “The jersey business is my specialty,” Spitz says. “I eat, sleep and breath jerseys.”
Still, while dealers like Goulet, Matthews, Procell, and Spitz all work towards establishing their own aesthetic and cultivating their respective brands within the vintage sports apparel community, they’re also competing with mainstream sporting apparel giants like Ebbets Field Flannels and Mitchell & Ness. Ebbets is a company started by Jerry Cohen, who grew up listening to his father share stories about baseball history, which jolted his fascination with sports emblem and uniforms. In 1987, when Cohen was trying to find a vintage flannel baseball jersey to wear on stage with his rock & roll band, he was unsatisfied with the polyester era look, and decided to track down old wool baseball flannels, which turned into Ebbets. Since then Ebbets has sold apparel like the U.S. Tour of Japan 1934 jersey, based on a barnstorming team led by Connie Mack and included players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx.
Mitchell & Ness is leading the movement, with licensing agreements with all four major sports leagues in North America which allows them to produce apparel that others cannot, giving them a significant marketing advantage. “We paved the way,” says Adam Herstig, the marketing director of the company, who has noticed the recent throwback craze. “Today I walk around trade shows and there are a lot of brands that are trying to do the nostalgic brand thing that we do. I’m flattered. They’re trying to replicate the formula.”
Herstig says jersey sales, specifically of NBA and NFL teams and players, have gone up in recent years, after a slight drop in the mid-2000s, thanks to, funny enough, Jay Z rapping on “What More Can I Say”: “I don’t wear jerseys I’m 30-plus/Give me a crisp pair of jeans and some button ups.” According to him, business has more than doubled for Mitchell & Ness since 2012, with most of that growth coming in the last two years.
Meanwhile, for folks like Procell, the goal is still to reach an audience with a higher appreciation for the throwback look. “It’s less about costume and more about the fashion and contemporary trend, which is harder to grasp if you don’t have as many years in the game,” he says. “We’re at a PhD level. We’ve passed the bar.”