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New York Times / Rob Walker - New Era

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New York Times / Rob Walker   New Era

Our friend Rob Walker published an insightful article about New Era and the collaboration game between it and jeweler Grabriel Urist in today's New York Times Magazine section. In the article, another friend of ours, Jeff Staple (aka Jeff Ng), explained his involvement in the project.

> CONSUMED by Rob Walker [NYTimes]

> Freshness Feature: New Era Flagship Store - Grand Opening

Full article after the jump

CONSUMED - Crown Jewelry
Published: June 4, 2006

Gabriel Urist New Era Necklace

While it may not seem obvious at first, there's something almost inevitable about the creation of a $525 platinum baseball-cap pendant necklace. Although, to sell at that price, it can't be just any necklace, and it can't be based on just any baseball cap: it requires collaboration — something that both brands and artists have become increasingly interested in. Thus the Gabriel Urist New Era pendant necklace offers not so much a strange aberration as a small case study of how such projects can come about.

New Era is a company that makes baseball caps. Founded in 1920, in Buffalo, it originally made "fashion caps," according to an official history. But when Depression-era shoppers weren't in a fashion-cap mood, the company shifted focus to baseball caps and ended up winning the business of the New York Yankees and, eventually, Major League Baseball, making the players' on-field hats and official versions for fans. The company was a manufacturer: people didn't buy New Era hats; they bought team hats that happened to be made by New Era. But that has changed, through an evolution driven less by the company than by certain consumers.

Matthew Pantoja, strategic business unit manager for the company, isolates one turning point. Spike Lee contacted New Era in the 90's and requested a Yankees cap — in red. The company was confused, Pantoja says: why would somebody want a team hat that wasn't in official team colors? But when Lee was seen courtside at Knicks games wearing his red New Era Yankees cap, "the calls started coming in," Pantoja says. A more gradual change was the adoption of the baseball cap as part of the uniform of hip-hop stars — stretching back at least to Public Enemy — for reasons having to do more with aesthetics than with sports fandom, and the influence of that look on what is now called the "urban market" (meaning anyone influenced by hip-hop style, which obviously extends well into the suburbs).

Fast-forward to today and New Era is making a dizzying array of color and design variations of major-league-team caps. Like Timberland boots and North Face jackets, New Era's fitted model, the 59FIFTY, has become an iconic hip-hop fashion product; it's now routine to see the hats worn with the special 59FIFTY size label still stuck on the brim. In other words, New Era has made the transformation from commodity-maker to recognizable brand. Lately the company has been working with Staple Design, a "visual communications agency." Jeff Ng, Staple Design's founder, started out designing T-shirts when he was in college in the late 90's, and his proximity to, and participation in, the sneakers-and-hip-hop urban-consumption scene have helped him build a business with 10 employees, a Lower East Side store and gallery (the Reed Space) and branding and design clients like Nike and Burton Snowboards.

Brand team-ups, while trendy, can miss the mark, Ng says. A recent Reebok Jean-Michel Basquiat shoe, for instance, was a dud with some of the graffiti-art fans it was supposed to impress. In imagining a New Era partner, Ng thought of his friend Gabriel Urist. Urist, who is 27, started working with metals 10 years ago, in high school, and knew right away what he wanted to do: make jewelry for rappers. After a variety of jewelry jobs, Urist says, he got a "crazy response" to pendant necklaces he made that featured tiny representations of sneakers, and since then rappers like Ghostface, the RZA and Mos Def have bought his pieces.

Ng suggested to New Era that the company commission Urist to do with the baseball cap what he had done with the sneaker: convert an item of casualwear into an object of bling. Priced from $395 to $525, depending on the materials, some of these items are now on sale at a new flagship New Era store in Manhattan, and they will also be sold at boutiques around the world, Pantoja says. Flashy jewelry doesn't seem to have very much to do with Major League Baseball. But many New Era baseball caps don't have much to do with baseball, either: the company makes them for apparel brands like DC Shoes and Stussy and even made a special hat with Rocawear, the clothing line associated with the rap star Jay-Z. This is why Pantoja calls the Urist chain a no-brainer for the brand. It may not be quite what its founders had in mind, but New Era has ended up in the fashion-cap business after all.