It’s a bitter cold February night in New York City and Jadakiss is finding some warmth in the Paramount Hotel in Times Square. He’s there for a party being hosted by Starter to help celebrate Super Bowl XLVIII, which will take place a few days later across the Hudson River in MetLife Stadium.
Most of the festivities are taking place in a back room, with girls and alcohol and all the other fancy things you’d expect to find at one of these events. But the Yonkers-born rapper has no interest in any of that at the moment. Instead all he can focus on are the myriad satin colors lining the racks in front of him, the ones that used to be seen frequently on MTV but over the last decade or so could only be found in vintage stores and auction sites online.
Jadakiss is asked what his favorite team is. He responds that he doesn’t have one. Instead he wanders rack-to-rack, like a detective inspecting a crime scene, deciding which coat he wants to take home. Eventually he settles on one of the more iconic versions of the Starter jacket, the simultaneously ugly and beautiful Charlotte Hornets one. It’s dark purple with the word CHARLOTTE written across the front in white letters. A few months later that jacket will appear on the shoulder of Jadakiss in The Lox’s video for “Faded.”
“He was more interested in the coats than partying in the back and hanging out with everyone,” says Alexander Cole, the Sports Marketing Manager of Iconix Brand Management, the licensing company which now owns Starter. “He ended up wearing that jacket on The Lox’s next video.”
This is exactly what Iconix and Cole envisioned when they decided, in 2013, to create the Starter Black Label and bring back the beloved jackets and snapback hats—a fusion of sports and hip-hop, with Starter’s signature products acting as the conduit. After all, this was how it was back in late 80s and early 90s, when you couldn’t go more than a couple of hours without seeing the Starter jacket make its way across your TV screen.
Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew had the green Miami Hurricanes coats. Chuck D had a black Oakland Raiders one. Eddie Murphy wore a shiny blue Mets jacket to fit into Queens in Coming to America. Joe Montana donned a gold version on a 1987 episode of Saturday Night Live. Even the surly Mike Ditka, outspoken critic of hip-hop and backwards hats and seemingly everything fun, roamed the Bears sidelines in 80s sporting a dark blue Bears Starter jacket with red stripes on the sleeves.
“We used to have a hotline for fans to call and the question we’d get the most was, Where can I get those jackets?” Campbell says. “We’d go to the local sporting good store and the jackets would be everywhere.
“Even today not a day goes by that I don’t get asked about them or if I can hook someone up with one.”
In the early 90s Starter was bringing in more than $400 million in yearly revenue. But the good times didn’t last. Financial hardships—mainly caused by the various professional sports league lockouts, which hurt sales—and changes in fashion forced the brand’s original founder, David Beckerman, to sell the company in 1999. After that the coats could no longer be found on store racks. If you wanted a Starter jacket, eBay or some random vintage store down in the Village was where you had to go.
“We haven’t seen many over the past few years,” says Callan Clendenin of Beacon’s Closet, a buy-sell-trade store located in New York. “You’ve been able to find them online, but it’s been hard to get them.”
Starter changed hands a couple of times—it was purchased by Official Starter Properties in 1999 and then by Nike in 2004—before ending up in the portfolio of Iconix in 2009. The original plan was to license the brand to Walmart, who would make clothes like socks and t-shirts, sell them, and then send Starter a check every month. But in 2012 Cole and the rest of Iconix decided they could do more with the Starter name.
“We love the whole nostalgia of Starter,” says Cole, who points outs that the average brand in Iconix portfolio is about 50 years old. “We realized that you couldn’t really talk about Starter without bringing up the jackets or snapback hats. That’s the stuff that Starter was always known for.”
And so, in 2012, Starter Black Label was created. Walmart could keep selling its products, but Starter would also be producing the clothes that it thought its fans most wanted to see.
With the help of former New York Giants linebacker Carl Banks, licenses for nearly every professional sports team and 150 NCAA schools were secured. A plan was put into place. The Korean factory that made the jackets 30 years ago was given a call.
The rest took care of itself. Jadakiss, it turns out, wasn’t the only one dying to get his hands on a new Starter jacket. On the winter morning in 2013 that he was scheduled to shoot his Nachos Grandes commercial for Taco Bell, Kevin Love went into his closet and pulled out a blue Minnesota Timberwolves coat the company had sent him. It had white stripes on the sleeves. No request had been made for him to do so and no money had changed hands. This was a decision made by Love—one that, according to Cole, is nothing new for the brand. Only after filming the commercial did Love reach out to Starter and ask them about working out some kind of endorsement deal.
“It’s great to see the satin jackets making a comeback,” Love says. And it turns out he wasn’t the only athlete interested in representing something that reminded him of his childhood.
“The jackets were a big part of my life when I was growing up,” says New York Jets wide receiver Eric Decker. “I had a Hornets one that I wore all the time. It’s exciting to work with the brand and contribute to its comeback.”
That comeback has taken form in Starter’s Jackets Required ad campaign, which features the jacket in various unconventional settings.
“The point is to emphasize the unwavering passion and dedication of sports fans,” says Cole, who owned a New York Giants and Florida Gators Starter jacket when he was a kid.
“I don’t think it could’ve come out much better,” adds Love.
Starter is also tipping its hat to the past by bringing back some Seattle Supersonics, Vancouver Grizzlies and St. Louis Rams gear.
— Isaiah Thomas (@Isaiah_Thomas) May 25, 2015
“We’re always trying to update our retro looks,” says Cole. “We want our cloths to have that 90s throwback feel.”
Now Starter gear can be seen in every locker room and backstage at every show. Drake has his purple Raptors coat and Snoop’s got a Lakers one and LeBron’s got his black snapback hat. Soon, everyone will be trying to get their hands on one of those satin coats. And, for the first time decades, they’ll be easy to find.
Yaron Weitzman is an Editorial Assistant at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
Images by Tom Medvedich
A version of this story is published in SLAM 190.