Spike Lee and Christopher Koch (CEO at New Era) talk about the history of the red Yankees cap

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Words: Alex Synamatix
Photography: Alex Synamatix

A few weeks ago we headed to New York to celebrate the re-issue of one of the most important products in sporting history, the red Yankees New Era cap. While in town, we had a chat with New Era CEO Christopher Koch and the man responsible for the original hat in 1996, Spike Lee.

Everyone is familiar with the iconic red Yankees cap. Some may even be more familiar with it than the official navy one, it’s made that large a mark on modern culture. Most people don’t know the story of how it came about or the people responsible for its existence, but as soon as you learn that heralded film maker and generally outspoken legend Spike Lee is at the center of the story, you know it’s going to be a good one.

It all began in 1996 when Spike rang up Chris at New Era and requested a Yankees cap in red. It sounds simple and meaningless, a mere request of a very particular man, but it was the ripple effect that this one cap had that would change New Era forever, as well as consumer culture. Think of this – New Era as we know it today is both a sportswear brand and a fashion brand with a seemingly endless amount of designs, colours, and variations, but this whole fashion side of New Era wouldn’t exist had Spike Lee not wanted a red Yankees cap. Quite simply, if that phone call had not taken place, New Era would still be making caps strictly as sportswear and strictly in team colours, and would be half the size that it is today. Fast forward a decade or so to the trends in the UK of matching your New Era with your clothing or sneakers and how large a part of British and global youth culture that was… this too wouldn’t have existed. Maybe we would have found another product to do it with, but I doubt it. In fact, New Era may not have taken off over here at all. Let’s face it, very few people buy New Era caps in the UK because of baseball.

The ripple effects from this one moment in 1996 are almost as endless as the options New Era now offer its consumers and it’s all thanks to a request from Spike Lee and the vision of Christopher Koch. I could ramble on about the possible impacts that this moment has had for ages, but I’ll let you hear the stories from those who wrote them with their actions, Spike Lee and Christopher Koch…

(You can see the New Era Heritage Series Spike Lee 1996 collection here.)

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Why have you decided to bring back the 1996 red Yankees cap now?

Christopher: I think because it seems like the right time. The ‘90s are coming back into fashion now. That was a time that certainly changed everything for us. It was almost 20 years ago and it’s funny, when you talk to young consumers out there they consider the ‘90s as heritage [laughs]. I consider them as a short while ago for me! But for young consumers it’s not about 1934, it’s about 1996.

Chris, what did you think when Spike first made the request?

C: Well when Spike called I actually thought it was a joke, until I got on the phone and I started to talking to him and I realised that he was dead serious about wanting a red Yankees cap. So I figured it was Spike Lee and if he wants a red Yankees cap, we should make him a red Yankees cap [laughs].

Spike, why did you ask for a red Yankees cap?

Spike: Well it was ’96 and I had a red, down, Yankees jacket. I wanted a hat to match it and I called New Era! At that point, the only hat you could get was the one the players had. There was no variation. You had to buy what the players wore, so on a whim I called up.

What steps did New Era have to take to make this happen?

C: The actual steps were quite easy – we basically made a red Yankees cap for him. It was what happened after that, when he wore it, that created the storm out in the marketplace and everybody wanting a red Yankees cap. From there, we had to get into the whole thing with Major League Baseball, getting something like this approved, because it had never happened before and…

S: The way I remember it… [Chris laughs]. Look, this was a long time ago! The way I remember it, and correct me if I’m wrong, you said “OK, but first we have to OK it with the Yankees” and so I called up Mr. Steinbrenner and he liked it and that’s when you guys made the hat. The late great Mr. Steinbrenner, he was a straight up traditionalist – I never asked later why he did it, but that was crazy that he granted my wish for a red Yankees hat, especially if you know the history between the Red Sox, and Boston and New York! So to have a red Yankees cap… that’s almost blasphemous!

Chris, how did the creation of the red Yankees cap effect New Era as a business?

C: It changed our business forever. Before the red Yankees cap came out our business was providing hat-wear to professional teams and college teams and minor league teams and it was what was worn on the field of play. There was no fashion side of the business. I mean, people wore Yankees caps for different reasons, but no one wore a different colour one, and so it truly changed our business model forever and it’s become something where the fashion side of our business is half of what we do now. So it dramatically changed the way we went to market.

How has the market in general changed since then?

S: I have a son who wanted me to buy him a belt for $500… and I said “When you get a job, then you can do what you wanna do, but I’m not spending $500 on a belt. I’ll not do it!”. As a New Yorker, I was happy in my first pair of Cons back in the day. They cost $5 and you had to beg to your parents for $5 sneakers. Converse, you had 4 choices; black or white, high top or low top. When you got your first pair of Cons, you considered yourself entering manhood, and that’s the way it was in Brooklyn. $5… and my son wants a $500 belt? No.

Talking about the simplicity of sneaker culture and consumer culture back in the day and how it’s speed up a lot since, what do you think it is that’s lead to that change over the last couple of decades? And would you say you had much to play in that change?

S: I had a little bit to play, but I just think it’s evolution. I think that the world doesn’t stand still, fashion doesn’t stand still, and people wanna wear new stuff but at the same time they wanna go back and wear stuff that they saw as a kid. Stuff that happened before they were born, but having seen on a DVD or something they’re re-introduced.

Every year there’s a new generation that have never seen Do The Right Thing. They were born many years after it, but it still influences people. The whole internet, the whole digital technology revolution has made everything wide open and so everybody has access to everything and if you’ve got a credit card you can buy it too.

That ties in to bringing the red Yankees hat back 18 years after you originally created it with New Era. You touched on the trend of the ‘90s coming back around again, but is that as far as it goes in terms of the significance of bringing the hat back now?

C: Well we had the Heritage Series, the 1934 series that launched, and we just felt like it was the right time, since we were talking about heritage, to work back in a relationship that changed everything for us and continues to make us the company we are today. It just felt like the right time.

It was ’93 we did the first exclusive deal with Major League Baseball, and then ’95 is when we did the whole re-branding of the company, and then ’96 was when Spike called, so it’s kind of like 20 years really when you think about it. I guess it just felt like the right time.

And was that the start of the relationship in 1996?

S: No, I had a store called Spike’s Joint and we would sell hats that were customised. Every time we had a move we would make hats too, so we had a business relationship before that.

Both of you have spoken about the huge impact on New Era and it’s business model that this cap in ’96 had. Were either of you aware of the possible impact when you did this at the time?

C: No, no.

S: I’m not gonna lie, I had no idea. I just wanted a red hat. I did not see that one coming.

Did you ever think it might have gone the other way and received back lash from New Yorkers, especially considering their history with the Boston Red Sox and the colour red?

S: They won the World Series! Maybe if they had lost, they would blame it on me? [laughs] “That red hat that Spike wore! That’s why we lost!”… but they won! So there was no back lash.

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Spike, what are your thoughts on the vast amount of options in fashion available to kids today? All the sneakers, all the colours of caps etc.

S: What did I create?! I’m frankenstein. If I’m honest, it’s not just New Era but the whole matching thing, I did it on a whim and of course I’m not the same demographic, but I think the matching’s gone too far. I’m a big sports fan, so I don’t understand people running around here in New York with Celtics hats. “What are you wearing a Celtics hat for?!”“Well, I like the colour”“Well the New York Jets are green too! The same green!” They don’t care what team they’re wearing, they just wear anything. You can’t do that! You don’t walk around here wearing some fucking Boston shit in New York. No! No. You can find the colour you want in Yankees, Knicks, I’m not talking about that other team, I ain’t gonna say the borough, but there’s many colours today so don’t give me this “Well, I like green, that’s why I’m Celtics”. Jets, Michigan State, it’s all the same colour.

Was the colour choice really just to match your jacket or were there other influences at play?

S: That was it! That was it.

C: I remember when Spike asked. I made some other colours and I remember him calling and thanking me and saying “I really appreciate that, but I only wanted a red one and I’m not wearing the others” [both laugh].

What about this time around Spike? Will you be wearing the blue or white, or just red?

S: Well, I’ll tell you this… yesterday, United States fought gallantly in the World Cup, and I watched that at a bar that’s next to my office. The day before, I went to the New Era store and bought the 4th of July Yankees hat to wear yesterday.

C: We appreciate you paying full retail for that [laughs].

S: And I put it on Instagram too, and people said “Where can I get that hat?”

C: It absolutely is all about people that influence style and Spike is one of those people and has been for a long time. If he puts it on, people want it. That’s an awesome thing for New Era.

S: Thank you.

Spike, why New Era, why nobody else? Is it simply because New Era had the licensing deal?

S: Who else was I going to go to? As I said before, you want the official official. You want authentic. I wanted to have the hat that Jeter was wearing. Jeter! Tino Martinez! You know, all the guys. Not just some brand… couldn’t do it.

C: We talk about it all the time in our organisation…

S: Bernie Williams!

C: Our heritage is all real. It’s 94 years of real. We’re the real deal. There’s a lot of companies around that make up heritage…

S: Bogus!

C: …We were on the field of play before there was licensing. Before there was any of that stuff. People have been wearing out product since the ‘30s, so it’s all authentic and it’s all part of our heritage, so it’s nice when people like Spike recognise that. It’s not something we made up, it’s all there. Go to Cooper’s town, go to the hall of fame and you can see it all.

S: Another thing is, we know that the world looks to, maybe not as much now as it did in the past, but the world looks to America for culture. A large part of that being TV, films, music, and so I’ve always known that wherever you are in the world you want something that’s American, and you can’t get something that’s more American than a baseball hat. And then, when you put the NY on it, I mean people that have never even heard of baseball, never heard of the Yankees, but when they see this interlocking NY like [clicks fingers] it hits, just like that. It’s Americana.

Talking about authenticity, how true to the originals are these new versions?

C: Well the 59Fifty was invented in 1954, so that’s still the same cap. Obviously, technology and performance fabrics and all that kind of stuff is built in, just like it is in jerseys and uniforms and everything else, but it’s still pretty much the same exact cap as in 1954 when we came up with it. This one we’re doing for the collection, the highest end one is the leather one with the lining…

S: What was the other one we did? What was that material? It came out before…

C: Cashmere?

S: Cashmere! We had a cashmere one! Only 250.

C: Yeah, we did a cashmere collection.

S: Get it on eBay! [laughs] ‘Cos it came in a nice box too.

C: In 2006 right? That was pretty cool.

Spike, you mentioned earlier your feelings towards people wearing team merchandise for teams they don’t actually support. What are you thoughts when you come to the UK where New Era is a popular product, but a lot of the people who wear it are doing so purely for fashion?

S: I don’t like it. They don’t know what’s happening… I’m still talking about Americans here [slams fist on table and laughs]. American culture influenced the world, so it’s not new for a kid in Brixton to wear a Yankees hat and be influenced by American culture. American culture inspired The Beatles! It was Bo Diddley, it was Little Richard, it was Chuck Berry! I mean, this is not new.

Talking about cultural references, is there any plans in the pipeline for a Malcolm X New Era collaboration?

S: We’re talking about that for the 25th anniversary of the film.

C: 2017 right?

S: Yeah, 2017. Right that down! [laughs]