But the Casiano brothers were more drawn to the brand’s colorful leather varsity jackets that were distributed in streetwear boutiques like Jimmy Jazz or Dr. Jays in Uptown Manhattan. “That’s when Avirex took it to another level, by making up their own teams within football, hockey, and baseball,” remembers John Casiano, who runs the @professor.avirex Instagram page with his brother Vic—they resell vintage Avirex jackets from the ‘80s or ‘90s for as much as $1,500. “I think Avirex caught wind of the rappers wearing it because they were the first ones promoting the varsitys.”

“Back then an Avirex, if you had one, was a real fly look.”—Havoc of Mobb Deep

According to Clyman, Avirex began producing these varsity jackets to expand the label’s commercial offerings while also staying true to their holistic vision of re-creating iconic American military apparel. So Avirex began replicating stadium jackets worn by youth in the late 1930s who were a part of President Roosevelt’s Civilian Pilot Training program. Then someone in Avirex’s sales team saw an opportunity. 

“One of our sales reps asked if we could give a varsity jacket to Fat Joe to wear in 1993. We said yes and the rest is history,” said Clyman. “The hip-hop community intuitively understood the value and craftsmanship of the jackets we made and they were works of art never duplicated since then.” 

Along with their iconic bombers, Avirex’s varsity jackets became emblematic of ‘90s hip-hop culture. Fat Joe wore his Avirex varsity in the 1995 Hype Williams-directed music video for LL Cool J’s famous remix of “I Shot Ya.” Biggie Smalls posed for Ernie Paniccioli’s camera lens while wearing a red Avirex. And for Junior M.A.F.I.A’s “Get Money” video, he wore the label’s varsity jacket while caressing Charli Baltimore. Aside from Nas, it could be argued that no rappers wore Avirex better than Mobb Deep, who perfectly captured the brand’s military aesthetic in their music video for “Hell on Earth,” which fittingly ends with Prodigy and Havoc’s crew walking through razed city streets in Avirex leathers. 

“I actually got my first Avirex after high school, when I was able to afford one. I remember we had a photo shoot and I bought a red one just for the shoot, I couldn’t wait to wear it. Back then an Avirex, if you had one, was a real fly look,” remembers Havoc of Mobb Deep. “They were so popular in QB (Queensbridge) because before that we were just wearing army jackets that didn’t cost much. So having one meant you had some bread.”

“The East Coast itself was a $10 million territory in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.”—Joseph D’Anna, Avirex’s VP of Sales and Marketing in the ‘90s. 

Because New York was Avirex’s hometown runway, the brand soared within the five boroughs. The New York-based brand’s flagship store was just blocks away from Hot 97’s radio station in SoHo and there was even a factory store in Long Island City—a short walk from the Queensbridge Houses. But generally, the ‘90s was a golden era for clothing brands that embraced hip-hop culture. Alongside companies like Karl Kani, Fubu, and Tommy Hilfiger, leather jacket labels also foresaw the influence of hip-hop culture long before it became a common marketing ploy. Both Avirex and Pelle Pelle seeded their garments to rappers, designed custom pieces for them free of charge, and featured them in ad campaigns that filled the pages of Vibe, XXL and The Source. Avirex highlighted rising hip-hop groups like Brand Nubian in print ads while Pelle Pelle spotlighted a young Cam’ron

“While it took a long time for the luxury brands to respect us, those brands were specifically making shit for the culture, so they got it. We were their market and they embraced it,” remembers Morrow, who’s worked directly with leather jacket brands to make custom pieces for her previous clients that included Ghostface Killah and The Diplomats. “You had folks at Pelle Pelle like John Green who understood the culture. It wasn’t like going to Fendi and begging them to give you something while security follows you around the store. These guys were like: ‘This is your shit.’ It was love.”