AN INTERVIEW WITH JERRY COHEN OF EBBETS FIELD FLANNELS - REVISITED 2021
Originally posted in 2014
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Jerry Cohen, owner and founder of Ebbets Field Flannels, on his latest trip to London. We discussed a great deal of things including Jackie Robinson and the integration of Major League Baseball, wool as a performance fabric, meeting Odd Future and the renaissance of the business into the fashion market. When asked how his relationship with Craig Ford's 'a number of names*' came about, his answer was "It wasn't a difficult choice to make". After meeting the team and being impressed with the headquarters, he chose 'a number of names*' from several suitors to represent them. The hats were a trend at the time but they shared a long term vision and Ebbets Field Flannels went from a small company to a global brand in about a year. Since then Ebbets Field Flannels have become known in the UK for more than just their hats. Offering unique items within epochal collections, historically accurate in both design and materials, alongside a growing number of collaborations with the likes of Maiden Noir, J Crew, Bape, Brooklyn Circus and Juxtapoz.
Is there a typical Ebbets Field Flannels customer?
There’s two now and that’s an interesting challenge. There’s the customer like yourself or a typically younger person who’s educated not necessarily about the details of baseball history but the appeal of the quality and heritage of the brand; that’s the new customer. Then, there’s the old customer which is the traditional middle aged baseball aficionado. Fortunately, we've been able to go to the new customer without alienating the old customer. There’s one little exception, we made a conscious decision to go to a higher quality fashion t-shirt and not do the bulky beefy tee and we got a lot of feedback from the traditional customer. Its funny; I probably didn't do the proper job of educating them but they associated weight and thickness of the t-shirt with quality, which isn't really relevant. So the new t-shirts to them were thin. I had people stretch them in front of a light to prove you could see through them. In fact the t-shirts we are doing now are way more expensive for us, rather than cutting corners we are spending more. There’s an example of a little bit of a disconnect between a sports customer and a fashion customer.
What makes for a good collaboration?
First I’d like to give credit to my partner, Lisa Cooper, she doesn't like to travel, she doesn't like to do press, but she’s the one who really opened the door (in regards to collabs). I brought in J Crew. We had a customer relationship with one of the buyers who presented it to J Crew so that brought them in. From there, Inventory Magazine and that opened the door. Once the door was opened Lisa really took the calls on the collaborations, Maiden Noir, Nin (Truong) he’s up the street from us and just came in one day and we talked to him, he’s great.
We like to work with great people, its relationship based. I know that sounds really quaint but it actually is true. We are lucky in that 90% of the people who approach us for collaborations are people we get excited about. I mean Macklemore, we’re doing a collection for him and an in-store event in June. He’s the nicest guy in the world. I didn't know who he was because I'm an old white guy and I don’t know anything but we’re just lucky maybe. And the same with Brookyln Circus; I ran into Ouigi (Theodore). The first trade show in this industry I did was Project, we were invited to do it as a new brand about four years ago and I turned the corner when I was setting up and thought 'who are these guys they’re as good as me in curating vintage' and it made me a little angry and feel competitive. And then I met Ouigi who is an amazing person and we are kind of soul mates and so it was natural to do a collaboration with them. I think for most of them that’s how it happens.
"I'm like a curator, I have to come up with enough things in combination that work. I have to offer a story."
What has been the biggest product seller for Ebbets and why?
There’s not one in particular, the one team that’s always the biggest is the San Francisco Seals. There’s a combination of reasons for that the story of the old pacific coast league was just an almost independent third league in geographical isolation up until the dodgers and giants moved to California. They had their own culture, back then there wasn't jet travel or television broadcast of major league games. So the DiMaggio brothers all came through the San Francisco Seals. San Francisco has always been a great base of customers for us for those reasons and also their logos, they were always very imaginative and creative with their uniform designs. Lots of variety, lots of colour and lots of historical relevance. With that team we cannot make enough, we joke that we wish we could just make San Francisco Seals because we know they are gonna sell. But everything else is like a mix.
What makes it hard for me is I'm like a curator, I have to come up with enough things in combination that work. I have to offer a story and I know that if I offer ten hats, five will be mediocre sellers, two will be great sellers and two will be crappy sellers but I have to offer all ten because it tells a story. It gives it depth and a context. I don’t have a Yankee logo or Red Sox logo where I know I'm just gonna do thousands of those. I have to tell a story. The US tour (products) are a great find, because I was aware of that tour for a long time but Id only seen black & white photographs and obviously I'd assumed they were red white and blue. But not until somebody put up for auction one of the original jackets I didn't know the exact colours. That has sold for every variation, the jersey, the cap and the jacket. That’s a good example of a good story married with a good product. That’s where you hit the home run. Sometimes you have a great story and you have a boring uniform you know, that’s really frustrating. You can change it up on a t-shirt, but not on a jersey.
Its been said to me more than once that perhaps there’s too much information (on the site) and it should be honed down but what I like about the jersey section is that we never have to take one off to make room. I can make one and that one person that wants that Hot Springs Bathers jersey from 1953 can be happy. Nike can’t do that, Mitchell and Ness can’t do that, they tell people to call us. I love that someone can send me a picture of their grandfather in an old flannel jersey and say "Oh you probably can’t do this" and we say "Sure we can, you just have to allow some time". The fact that we can offer that is still amazing to me and I love the variety of jerseys. I love typing in the story for every team. Every time we do a new group of jerseys, generally ten at a time, I have to write something compelling. Its not always easy and sometimes you have the opposite problem sometimes you find a fantastic looking jersey and there’s nothing you know about it, these guys appeared and disappeared.
"Baseball seems to have the type of person who plays- even as a hobby- who is a little more eclectic, interested in history and has a certain vibe about them."
Does Rock and Roll complement baseball more so than other musical genres?
Yeah and that’s the way I got into this, and the customers I initially sold to were other musicians. To me there’s an aesthetic about baseball; whereas other American sports are may be more jock-ish, for lack of a better word. But baseball seems to have the type of person who plays- even as a hobby- who is a little more eclectic, interested in history and has a certain vibe about them. And that was true with me, I sort of straddled both worlds and eventually had to go with one because I realised at a certain point I wasn’t going to change the musical world. We had a lot of musicians that were customers, privately. Johnny Rotten of all people, which is insane, he’s not American. There’s a documentary about Ginger Baker the Cream drummer called Beware of Mr Baker and Johnny Rotten; John Lydon is interviewed in that and he’s wearing my Detroit Stars flannel negro league jersey. I got the DVD just because I wanted to watch the thing about Ginger Baker and all of a sudden he’s on. So we’ve always had a connection to musicians.
I came across a clip of John Lennon playing Imagine on the Mike Douglas show and he’s wearing a flannel baseball jersey. That was a hard one, that was tough to research because I had no angles showing me all the details but, he must have got it at a thrift store or something. Whenever there is a rock and roll connection I try and make that association possible. I always threaten that I’m going to write my book. I have so many great stories, I’m just not sure of how to get it into a form that I can handle, and make the time. I should do it. Incredible stories like the Johnny Rotten one before. The first time I encountered him was way at the beginning and he called us up. I didn't know where he was and was going crazy; he was in Seattle that night with Public Image Limited, and wore a Seattle Rainiers jersey on stage. So I’ve got Johnny Rotten on the phone and I thought it was a joke because the manager called and said Mr Lydon would like to speak with you. And I’m like 'right.' Then this voice goes 'Yeah your stuff is fucking great!' So I’ve got lots of those and it would make a pretty funny book, even if I picked just a few of the most interesting stories.
Finally, what are your plans for when you get home to the States?
We are gonna finally do a video next week. That’s the first thing we’re going to do when I get back. We’ve dragged our feet in this video thing for a long time because everybody’s doing a video, and everybody looks like they are doing the same things in the videos so we’ve really talked a lot about what we want to do. I wanna make a video, but just focus on what our values are and our aesthetic, and try and be honest about that. Not try and do a fancy hipster-ish one, with a bunch of handlebar moustaches. A Williamsburg Brooklyn one, ya know, because that’s almost become a cliché. There’s a lot of guys with beards in Williamsburg doing something artisanal. We first went to Project about four years ago that was the beginning of this renaissance of craft brands and there weren't that many. Two years later I go to the same show and there’s fifteen companies with American flags behind their booth. I’d never heard of them before! So this will all shake out, a few of them will go on to become legitimate brands and a few will have to get a job somewhere else, when people won’t be buying things just because you have an old American flag hanging behind your booth. We've paid our dues, we've been through the recession and had our ups and downs and are still here.