On a Wednesday in December, a young black man sat glum and quiet in a courtroom in Jersey City. He had gathered, on this cool day, with a host of hustlers and murderers. They all shuffled before a judge, offering their pleas and explanations.
The young man—on charges for either peddling drugs or assault, or possibly both—was wearing a black jacket. It read, simply, “Crimson” across the back. When the man turned around, he revealed a single red letter on the front left breast pocket: “H.”
On a day later that month, another young was bobbing his cornrowed, iPod-plugged head on the No. 6 train in Manhattan. He wore a black baseball cap so big it fell over his ears, the orange brim flattened out, the single, fat orange “P” prominent. His jacket was also black, with plainly visible sewn-on appliqués: “Princeton.”
There is possibly no entity less cool, less hip, and less urban than the Ivy League. And yet young Black and Hispanic men in the city regularly wear apparel from those elite-eight schools. Are they fans of the school? Maybe they’re recent converts to the surprising Ivy League co-champion Princeton Tigers football team? Perhaps there’s a sudden inner-city interest in Harvard hockey?
When asked about the provenance of his Harvard jacket, Shakeil Brown, a St. Anthony High School student in Jersey City, responded: “I don’t know,” He helpfully pointed to the back: “It says ‘Crimson.’”
A worker at a hip-hop clothing store named Morlee’s in Jersey City showed me a fitted Cornell hat ($25, plus tax) and chuckled that the kids thought it was for the Cincinnati Reds (which it does resemble). I asked him what the hat did represent. “Some college team,” he said. “Clemson, I think.”
Many men who wear the clothes seem blissfully unaware that they are displaying the colors of any school at all. It is just a well-made coat, or a hat with some cool colors and a look that matches their shoes.
The maker of the clothing is a 109-year-old company based in New York called Stall & Dean, an official outfitter for the schools. On many of their jackets found in stores in Harlem, Brooklyn and Jersey City, and hundreds of others around the country, tags inform the purchaser: “The sporting culture of the United States was incubated across all walks of life, but its formative years, it could be said, were spent on the storied Ivy League campuses of the Northeast.”
The chief operating officer and a partner at Stall & Dean, Joe Cuff, said his company has been surprised at the response. “When you get into the urban market, the hip-hop market, people are looking for something different that not everyone has.” Stall & Dean also marketed clothing pegged to Negro League teams, and the popularity of these throwback jerseys led them to believe they could replicate the success with their Ivy League line. The company began aggressively marketing their Ivy League clothing to urban centers in 2005. He would not release sales figures for the company, but said that they’ve been up significantly this year, even with the warmer weather.
About the customers’ lack of knowledge regarding their purchases, Mr. Cuff said: “In the focus groups we talk to these guys, and we’re hearing that people are wearing it because maybe in the past these doors weren’t available, and that in these days these doors are getting kicked down.”
It’s not difficult to trace when the institutions that gave us eating clubs became popular with fans of 50 Cent and Sean (Diddy) Combs. This past New Year’s Eve, the rapper Chamillionaire performed his hit “Ridin’” on MTV in a Harvard varsity jacket. A few years ago, the hip-hop impresarios Jay-Z and Kanye West could be seen in the same red letterman jacket—it has the “H” proudly emblazoned across the breast and “Harvard” on the back. And Mr. Combs has been seen sporting a blue Yale windbreaker.
In fact, Harvard, Yale and Princeton are not the top sellers, Mr. Cuff said. While buyers in suburban markets like those clothes more, the urban market’s most popular school is, surprisingly, the one in New Hampshire.
“The No. 1 seller of 2006 would have been Dartmouth,” he said. “And Cornell was very, very popular.” In the 2007 video for rapper Mims’ recent song “This Is Why I’m Hot,” a young man is completely accessorized in Cornell University gear.
On a recent bright and cold day in Journal Square, a grim center of Jersey City featuring a plethora of 99-cent stores and bodegas, Ali Williams, a worker at Blast Sport, was showing off the black jacket with the red “H” on the breast and “Crimson” across the back. “They don’t know what it is,” he said, when I asked him if customers knew they were buying Ivy League gear. “They just like the colors.”
A few minutes later, a 22-year-old named Maurice Mincey walked into the store. He sported dreadlocks, a do-rag and a crimson hat loosely planted on the top of his head. The tags were still attached.
What does the “H” stand for?
“Hot,” he said. “Hustler. Hood.”
When informed that he was wearing a cap for Harvard University, he looked more than a little disappointed, leaned on the coat rack and then shrugged. “That’s something new to me.” But he reasoned, “It’s just fashion.”
He was not wearing the matching Harvard jacket. “I’m not too much with the red jacket,” said Mr. Mincey, who is a security guard at a local warehouse. “That’s the Bloods—I’m not down with that.” In his girlfriend’s neighborhood, he explained, he often sees reputed Bloods members wandering around in the Harvard jackets.
“Well, I’m definitely concerned about that,” said Mr. Cuff, the Stall & Dean partner. “That’s not something I heard before or that it’s come up with us. That’s not the target market we’re after. Our jackets and our price points are not structured to reach that image.”
Across the street, at a place called Lord’s, the display window was crammed with red jackets of all kinds—Negro League throwbacks, Atlanta Braves windbreakers and other items. But in a corner was one red jacket that read “Harvard Track,” accompanied by the seal and motto for the school: VERITAS. It was the last one in stock, the owner told me; all the rest had sold out. Inside were green windbreaker jackets that read “Dartmouth” across the front.
Harold Soto, 18, who works the register there and owns a Dartmouth track jacket and matching hat, said that the combo nicely matches his green-and-white Air Jordan shoes. When asked about the school name, he said, “It’s like a university, right?
But if you want to find, say, a Stall & Dean Columbia University jacket at the campus bookstore in Morningside Heights, you’re out of luck. Just nine blocks north, at Metro on 125th Street in Harlem, where matching cap-and-coat combos for Brown, Yale and Harvard prominently line the walls, Columbia jackets are selling for $165.
“We don’t sell our product to the bookstores,” Mr. Cuff said. “Our price points are much higher than what you’d find at bookstores.”