There’s no easy answer for what’s fueling our growing fetishization of the ’90s, but it’s a trend that’s both very real and not at all unique to those who actually lived through it. As it turns out, you didn’t have to be alive or even fully sentient at the time to long for a return to those pre-9/11 halcyon days of Clintonian economic surplus.
Sure, there were plenty of events during those years that we’d rather not celebrate, but thankfully we get to cherry-pick the parts we want to idealize. It’s significantly more comforting to romanticize things like music, fashion, and sports — the holy triumvirate of ’90s cultural touchstones.
To be certain, there was a lot to like in those days. It was the golden age of hip-hop, the clothes were garish, the hairstyles were teased, Michael Jordan and the Bulls ruled the NBA and the sports world in general, and the sudden convergence of those previously disparate universes became the cultural equivalent of a neutron star.
Rappers watched sports and wore athletic apparel. The MTV generation consumed massive doses of MTV and wanted to dress like their favorite rappers. Brands like Nike, adidas, Reebok, Champion, and Russell began to find enormous commercial success, and somehow, from the bottom of the fray, a relatively lesser-known sports apparel company rose to prominence.
Almost out of nowhere, Run DMC, 2 Live Crew, Public Enemy, and just about every other rap group at the time was suddenly sporting the now-iconic Starter jackets on their album covers and in their videos, and soon the Starter jacket was a must-have clothing item for every tween, teen and young adult across America.
Like the Nike swoosh and like the Jumpman, Starter had an unforgettable logo, which is a deceptively simple design featuring a capital “S” in block lettering with a five-point star attached to it, which appeared prominently on the jackets’ sleeves and on the back of the baseball caps.
Like everything else in early to mid ’90s, Starter jackets came in bold, loud, gaudy colors. Part of that was simply a byproduct of the teams they represented. The original satin button-up was the company’s flagship item, arguably the most memorable, the image that likely comes to mind when you hear the phrase “Starter Jacket.” It most closely resembles the types of windbreaker-style jackets you see baseball players wearing over their uniforms. It’s the one your favorite rappers wore on the aforementioned album covers and music videos. It’s the type of jacket Eddie Murphy made famous in Beverly Hills Cop and Coming to America (more on that later). They later expanded to breakaway style jackets and pullovers.
Because of their price tag (upwards of $150 on average), a Starter Jacket was much more of a status symbol than it was a fashion accessory because you didn’t need any particular sense of style to wear one and wear it well. Starter jackets looked great on everyone, even if you were otherwise the most unfortunately dressed person in your class and a target of sartorial ridicule. It transformed you into someone more confident, capable, attractive, and athletic, and thus more accepted by your peers.
Starter jackets quickly took up residence in virtually every sector of pop culture, some of the most entertaining instances being a series of commercials featuring a grab-bag of ’90s celebrity endorsers. There were the 30-second, music-video-esque spots with Brooke Shields, Emmitt Smith, Reggie Jackson, Vlade Divac, and Jerry Van Dyke, and another one featuring Corbin Bernsen of L.A. Law and Major League fame, along with Cecil Fielder, and Malcolm-Jamal Warner.
But the best, by far, were the ones starring a professorial DJ Jazzy Jeff, in which he teaches America how to properly wear a Starter hat, one of which co-stars comic legend Rodney Dangerfield.
As a young scion of the hip-hop community, Jazzy Jeff and his commercials were instrumental in the brand’s meteoric rise, and the fortuitous nature of just how those commercials came to fruition is a story in and of itself.
Jeff already had a previous relationship with Starter. He had approached them about doing a small run of baseball hats for his production company, A Touch of Jazz, and through that process developed a kinship with owner David Beckerman’s son Brad, who would visit Jeff in his studio in Philadelphia when he was in town on business.
“We were in the studio one day, and I started joking with him about how he was wearing his baseball hat,” Jeff told UPROXX. “And I was just like ‘why do you have your hat sitting on top of your head like a train conductor?’ And I grabbed his hat and I said ‘you don’t understand. You gotta grab your hat. You gotta flip the hat. You gotta bend it and break it in, and put it on.’ And he was like, oh my god. That was so cool. I want you to show that to my dad.”
When the elder Beckerman came to town two weeks later, he immediately wanted to make a commercial out of Jeff’s performance. So that’s what they did, with essentially no budget and no crew, just Jeff, a camera guy, and a plain white backdrop, complete with music Jeff produced for it himself in less than a half hour.
Two years into its historic run, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was one of the most popular shows on television at the time, so recognizing a rare opportunity for cross-promotion, Starter purchased ad space for the commercial to air during one of the sitcom’s episodes.
“I remember being in L.A. at Will [Smith]’s house,” Jeff said. “Us watching the airing of the show, and I didn’t tell anybody that they were going to show the Starter commercial, and it came on, and everybody looked like oh my god.”
By the early ’90s, Starter’s sales had reached more than $350 million and its products were being sold in 25 countries around the globe. So in 1993, Beckerman took the company public, which may or may not have been the beginning of the end.
Though Starter didn’t dominate the cultural conversation until the late ’80s/early ’90s, the brand has been around since 1971. The name itself has simple origins. Anyone who ever played organized sports at any level wanted to be a starter on their team. Nobody wanted to be a bench player. The implicit association with wearing their brand was an ingenuous ploy for any young athlete who ever harbored dreams of sports stardom.
But Starter jackets didn’t fully enter the cultural milieu until the early ’90s. The athletes themselves were wearing them, but the real breakthrough happened when it spilled over into pop culture, particularly through the sudden hybridization of sports and hip hop described above.
Two-time Super Bowl champ Carl Banks, now the president of G-III apparel, helped relaunch the Starter brand in 2013. He was also an original endorser during his playing days with the New York Giants in the ’80s and ’90s. Being at the epicenter of hip-hop at the time, Banks offered a firsthand account of how the worlds of sports and music crystallized.
“This was like I think ’84 or ’85,” Banks told UPROXX. “Run DMC – we were huge, huge fans of Run DMC. Pepper Johnson, one of my best friends and teammates, was just like, he was head-over- heels for Run DMC, so we’re off at [NYC nightclub] the Red Parrot one night, and ran into Run DMC. They were just as crazy about sports as we were about their music. They were huge Giants fans, and so Jam Master Jay and Pepper Johnson were really good friends, and they were all big Giants fans, and then you find out like all of these artists grew up with us loving our teams.
“So nobody had really kind of captured that emotion through apparel and sports before David Beckerman did it. So the Starter jacket was the must-have, whether you’re a sports fan or an entertainer. If you go back and look at any footage from any arena or stadium during the ’80s and ’90s, you’ll see a Starter jacket on a fan as much as you would see it on a celebrity. I saw an old picture of John Gotti wearing a Raiders jacket. It was crazy.”
At some point, the Starter craze plateaued, and there are a couple of lines of thinking on why the brand eventually lost traction. Conventional wisdom says that the baseball strike of 1994 was catastrophic to their bottom line. There’s also a common belief that the bad press associated with the robberies and murders was the coup de grace of the company’s public image.
An appalling trend began to develop in the early ’90s where young people were being assaulted and sometimes killed for their Air Jordans and/or their Starter jackets.
In 1990, 17-year-old Uland Tiggs was shot and killed after he gave up his New Orleans Saints Starter jacket to a pair of robbers. In 1993, 17-year-old Karla M. Benner was gunned down in Youngstown, Ohio for her Starter jacket. In 1992, 14-year-old Dewayne Williams Jr. was killed for his Raiders Starter jacket. In Chicago, four separate teens were murdered for their Starter jackets in 1990 alone.
In her 2007 memoir Raising Kanye, Kanye West’s mother Donda wrote about why she refused to allow her son to ride the L train in Chicago. Via Complex:
“People were getting killed over Starter jackets and gym shoes. The murder rate and gang activity in Chicago was no joke. We’re not talking an insolate [sic] incident here. Not by a long shot. And I wasn’t going to risk anyone taking Kanye’s Air Jordans or his Starter jacket or worse yet, his life. Life itself was not sacred on the L. I preferred to drop him off and pick him up if need be.”
There were numerous other incidents reported all around the country. But the potential danger that accompanied owning a Starter jacket certainly didn’t stop very many people from buying one. And the answer for the product’s decline is probably a lot more nuanced than just blaming robberies or a baseball strike.
Banks believes the brand’s soaring popularity was ultimately a double-edged sword, that when Beckerman inevitably took the company public, he surrendered a certain amount of control over the product and was unable to maintain its integrity as it saturated the market.
Jazzy Jeff thinks Starter eventually grew a little too self-aware.
“I think what happens a lot of times is like a lot of people are rockin’ the sports gear for fashion,” Jeff said. “I think Starter tried to enter into the fashion business, and that’s where you go wrong. It was like people liked what you did for what you did, and there’s people who are like hey, let’s make fashionable clothes, let’s try to turn this into a fashion thing, and it didn’t work.”
Starter eventually filed for bankruptcy protection in 1999. Nike CEO Phil Knight, who had tried for years to purchase the company, finally acquired it in 2004.
Nike later sold the Starter name to Iconix Brand Group, which announced a partnership with Banks and G-III Apparel in 2013 to re-launch the beloved satin jackets. Banks recognized America’s nostalgia of all things ’80s and ’90s and decided to capitalize on it.
One of the main challenges Banks faced was rehabilitating the brand’s image. Starter’s cultural stock plummeted once it began appearing Walmart stores because it’d lost its exclusivity. Banks decided to pivot away from that, focusing instead on limited edition releases and “quick-strikes.” His own love for the movie Coming to America gave him an idea to get started.
When the two main characters arrive in the Big Apple, Akeem (Eddie Murphy) and Semmi (Arsenio Hall) shed their African garb and try to integrate themselves by self-consciously dressing in what they believe to be traditional New York City outfits, the centerpiece of which are their varsity-style Jets and Mets jackets. Those two jackets ended up being the inspiration behind the whole re-launch.
For those of us who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and owned Starter jackets and vividly remember what it was like, there remains a strong sentimental connection to the product. But there was still the lingering question of whether Banks would be able to reach a younger demographic. In a rather odd moment of serendipity, his own 17-year-old son offered up a resounding answer to that question.
“That was kind of proof of concept,” Banks said, “because we had started having these conversations, and I hadn’t talked to anybody about it, and I’m riding in the car, and my son pulls up this – I believe it was a Hornets jacket – and he says you guys should start remaking these. I’m like, what are you talking about? Who told you we were doing this? He’s like, you guys are doing it? I’m like, yeah we are. I was happy because at that age, 17-20, they’re on it. They know every vintage store, everybody that sells it.”
Today, the Starter jacket has made a modest comeback, and that’s just how Banks prefers it. The limited edition releases have kept it exclusive. Now, when you see someone like Big Sean or Lil Wayne wearing a Starter jacket onstage, it’s a wink to those of us who remember and a reminder that everything goes in cycles.