From Yacht Clubs To Lil Yachty: The History Of Nautica And Hip-Hop

The story of how Nautica, a clothing company which self-describes as “a leading water-inspired global lifestyle brand,” earned its place in the hip-hop fashion canon is hard to track down. At first glance, there appears to be no explanation at all for how the brand, founded in 1983 by a Taiwanese immigrant named David Chu and marketed exclusively to white people with boats, ended up on the the bodies –- and in the lyrics –- of the likes of Nas, Lil Kim, and Wu Tang Clan by the mid-90s.

Nautica is best known for its use of bold primary and secondary colors, its swooping wordmark, boat prints, and general seafaring vibe. Jordan Page, a Brooklyn-based vintage archivist and stylist commented on the brand’s clean, bold look. “When I think of Nautica I think of that big, bold Nautica font,” he said. “Classic jackets and knit sweaters with big logos. The colors never got too crazy, and everything was always in a good, clean line.” Their brand was and continues to be strongly American, in the most stereotypical sense: “You saw it in the ad campaigns,” Page continued. “Handsome white men with white women, very rich in appearance, smiling.”

Alongside Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica was one third of the holy trinity of luxury-casual Americana brands in the 1990s. “Nautica was the baby brother,” Page recalled. “It didn’t hit as hard as the other two brands, but its presence was felt.”

What set Nautica apart was its specificity. While Polo and Tommy embraced America-as-brand more literally, often incorporating the letters “USA,” or the flag and its palette into their garments, Nautica stuck true to its water-centric mission. In addition to the boat icons adorning every piece, often printed oversize on the backs of their signature windbreakers, many pieces included specific nautical references –- flags from historical yacht races, for example, or the geographical coordinates of their finish lines. The J-Class series of jackets, widely considered Nautica’s most iconic collection, is named after the vessel classification of that peak yacht-racing era, and have “1930 1937” printed on their chests and sleeves –- the only years in which J-Class yachts were manufactured.

The specificity of its mission, marketing, and target demographic is what differentiated Nautica from its competitors. It had the same preppy aesthetic and quality build as its peers, but was distinguished by its origin and iconography. That eccentricity is what allowed it to compete on the level of Polo, a much older, larger, and more established brand, within a decade of its inception. It was also an important part of the appeal outside of its target wealthy white demographic. As Emeka Obi, a Creative Strategist who grew up in Brooklyn’s East New York noted, Nautica signified a level of prestige that was deeply appealing. “If I’m wearing Polo, people will think of me as someone who can afford Polo, that I’m not like any of the other dudes on my block,” Obi said. “It’s socially aspirational -– you want to be seen as somebody who’s been to the Hamptons, even though you’ve never left the Bronx.”

“Nautica was a representation of a specific part of white America that most Black Americans didn’t know about or understand,” Page further explained. Rather than putting people off, the boat-theme was its appeal. “That’s how the fascination started,” Page said, echoing Obi. “It was aspirational –- wearing these clothes made black people feel like they were a part of that community.”