The Old Is Made New Again What turns a moldering jersey or forgotten shoe into a retro fashion fever? Two case histories

December 22, 2003

HOW THE WES WAS WORN

1978: NBA Finals MVP Wes Unseld amply fills out his number 41
jersey as the Washington Bullets win the league title.

1981: The Bullets retire Unseld's number, hoisting the jersey to
the rafters of the Capital Centre.

1996-97: During the NBA's 50th anniversary season, Mike DiGenova,
Mitchell & Ness's senior developer for basketball, is inspired by
a throwback night to begin producing a Bullets replica.

1997: After owner Abe Pollin decides that Bullets is an
inauspicious nickname in a city with one of the nation's highest
homicide rates, the team begins using the name Wizards,
consigning all Bullets regalia to instant retrodom.

1999-2001: M&N lands the license to reproduce all NBA jerseys
used between 1946 and '97, and DiGenova, working from old photos
and other sources, begins R and D to match the '78 Unseld Bullets
jersey's fabric, stitching, colors and lettering. Few
manufacturers still have the equipment needed to produce
"engineered striping"--several colors on a single swatch of
athletic fabric--which delays production for three years. M&N
finally outsources the job to a factory in Iowa.

January 2002: M&N vice president of marketing Reuben Harley
flashes an Unseld prototype at the American Music Awards, and
rapper Fabolous begins badgering him for one by two-way pager.
But the detail in the replication--custom-dyed stripes knit into
the fabric; tackle twill nummerals; little blue hands at the end
of the two l's in Bullets--means the Unseld is virtually
handmade. Customers have to wait a few more weeks. Later in the
month Harley dresses Sean (P. Diddy) Combs in the prototype
Unseld for a 2:30 a.m. EST appearance on NBC's Last Call with
Carson Daly. Within hours clips of Puffy in the Unseld begin to
appear on other TV shows and buzz starts to build.

February 2002: The shirt finally debuts at retail, in time for
NBA All-Star weekend in Philadelphia, M&N's hometown. Its
craftsmanship pushes the price to $430, the steepest ever for a
throwback jersey.

2003: Ohio authorities declare LeBron James ineligible to play
for his Akron high school because he accepted two M&N jerseys,
one of them an Unseld, as gifts from a retailer. (He is later
reinstated.) This helps turn Old 41 into the top-selling hoops
jersey in the company's line. DiGenova isn't surprised at demand
for the Unseld: "Red, white and blue are the biggest colors in
sports and fashion."

THE FORCE IS BACK WITH US

1982: NBA players begin wearing Nike's first basketball shoe with
an air-tech insole. It has nylon mesh on a leather upper and a
Velcro ankle strap. The company calls it Air Force 1 and retails
it for $90 in '83.

1984-87: Air Force 1s are difficult to find in New York City.
Michael (MC Serch) Berrin, a Queens deejay, reports that one day
on the subway a derelict bent down and kissed his Nikes. "He told
me they were the first pair of sneakers he played in at Lincoln
High," Berrin will recall, "and that it was the greatest year of
his life."

1987: Jay-Z rhymes about and performs in Air Force 1s. Rakim
appears on the cover of his album Don't Sweat the Technique in a
pair of the sneakers. ("Heads would ask me where I got them,"
he'll say, "and I would give them all kinds of wrong
directions.") And deejay EZ Rock touches off the customization
craze by getting his Air Force 1s tarted up at Dapper Dan's on
125th Street in Harlem. The shoes get the nickname Uptowns for
their popularity in Harlem and the Bronx.

1988: Air Force 1 is "the staple shoe of the hip-hop community in
New York," says sneaker historian and hip-hop polymath Bobbito
Garcia.

1990-96: A one-two punch of demand hits the domestic supply of
Uptowns: First, Japan's vintage sneaker craze takes much of the
stock off the U.S. market. Then, during hip-hop's old school
revival, statesiders pick the indie stores clean. The Air Force 1
has earned its cult appeal with no advertising campaign while
most of the culture's attention is on Air Jordans.

2000: Rasheed Wallace of the Portland Trail Blazers breaks out
Air Force 1s for games. Other NBA players--Stacey Augmon, Derek
Fisher, Andre Miller--follow.

2002: Nike, cashing in on the customization craze, launches the
20th Anniversary Limited Edition Air Force 1 with embroidered
designs on the heel.

2002: On his hit song Air Force Ones rapper Nelly barks out, "I
like the all-white high-top strap," referring to the feature that
has become as iconographic on Uptowns as the star on a pair of
Chuck Taylors.

2003: Twenty years after its introduction the Air Force 1 is
still "a hip-hop staple," declares Vibe--"a canvas for sneaker
designers, who [cover] them in everything from Burberry swatches
to Louis Vuitton logos." Meanwhile, Slam features the Imelda
Marcos of hip-hop, rapper Fat Joe, and his more than 500 pairs of
Uptowns. --A.W.

Sources: Where'd You Get Those? New York City's Sneaker Culture:
1960-1987, by Bobbito Garcia; Sole Provider: 30 Years of Nike
Basketball, by Robert (Scoop) Jackson.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF NIKE

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