It began, as everything in the culture seems to, with Oprah. Reuben (Big Rube) Harley had had just about enough of getting up at 3 a.m. to slave in his grandmother's kitchen. Besides, the comments he collected as he made the rounds for his small catering business, delivering chicken and baked goods to barbershops around Philadelphia, weren't compliments to the chef. Instead customers mooned over whichever vintage sports jersey Big Rube had chosen to drape over his 300-plus pounds that day. He'd tell the curious exactly whose uni he was rocking and, if they asked, how much it had set him back. He would not, however, divulge his source: the shotgun retail space of Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co., tucked into a block of Walnut Street in center-city Philly. A clue to why he so carefully kept his counsel is right in the name: Ness, as in Eliot, as in what every anonymous inner-city kid wants to be, if only for a moment: untouchable. "Whatever everyone else was doing, I was always [doing something else]," Harley says. "I had to stand out in a crowd."
Since 1985, when Mitchell & Ness owner Peter Capolino discovered 12,000 yards of wool flannel in a warehouse, M&N had carved out a niche as haberdasher to the balding hedge-fund manager who wanted to look like the Brooklyn Dodgers of his youth. But Harley was a clotheshorse of a different color, not to mention generation—one of the few young black customers M&N's retail store had from the moment he bought his first throwback, a 1983 Andre Thornton Cleveland Indians jersey, as a 17-year-old in 1991.
It took a decade of steady patronage for Big Rube to realize that his destiny lay on the other side of the counter. In April 2001, when he caught an OutKast music video in which the performers wore vintage baseball jerseys, it occurred to him that every one of the jerseys hung in his closet. Around the same time, Ms. Winfrey devoted a show to "women who followed their dreams." The episode inspired Harley to march into Capolino's office, assert that he could take the company places it hadn't been and accept an offer from Capolino of $500 a month plus expenses (and one of every jersey in the M&N line).
Capolino, 58, has tastes that run toward Barry Manilow and what Harley calls "that Leave It to Beaver look." Big Rube rolls his eyes at Capolino's hip-hop malapropisms, according to which Run DMC is a new pickup truck and R&B music is a record store. But before Harley made his pitch, M&N was bumbling along with less than $3 million in annual sales, mostly from its retro baseball line, and Capolino didn't need a doctorate in urban studies to realize he had little to lose by bringing aboard this entrepreneur who had been buying from him on layaway for years.
Partly at Harley's urging, M&N turned from gray flannels to double knits and mesh. It issued jerseys in hot colors (the powder blue of Bob McAdoo's Buffalo Braves and Lance Alworth's San Diego Chargers, the electric greens of Adrian Dantley's Utah Jazz and Pete Maravich's Atlanta Hawks) and striking patterns (the horizontal swaths of Wes Unseld's Washington Bullets and Alex English's Denver Nuggets). It sized to the capacious dimensions favored by hip-hop artists and pro athletes, not the body-hugging specifications of buyers for chains such as Modell's and the Sports Authority.
That summer of 2001 Harley finagled his way into a late-night party in Manhattan to mark the release of Faith Evans's disk Faithfully by P. Diddy's Bad Boy Records label. By the time Big Rube headed back to Philly several days later, he had instructions from Diddy to assemble a wardrobe. "I'm gonna spoon-feed you," Harley promised. Staying true to the M&N creed of forswearing seasonal "collections," he dribbled out product to his new patron one throwback at a time.
Retro sports fashion became a full-blown social phenomenon the following January, when P. Diddy cohosted the American Music Awards on ABC. From his spot in the wings at L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium, Big Rube supervised costume changes at every commercial break, sending his emcee mannequin out in a succession of jerseys that evoked Cooperstown, Canton and Springfield: a 1969 Tom Seaver Mets; a '94 Drew Bledsoe Patriots; a '73 George McGinnis Pacers; a '74 Hank Aaron Braves. Eleven jerseys in all. " Shaq called the next day," Harley says. "He wanted every piece that Puff wore."
Soon customers began filing into retail temples such as the NBA Store in New York City, Distant Replays in Atlanta and the Total Sport chain in the mid-Atlantic states, eager for product from M&N, which has exclusive licenses from the NBA, the NFL, the NHL and Major League Baseball to reproduce authentic uniforms that have been out of circulation for at least five years. A year ago the company logged $25 million in sales; projections for 2003 are about $40 million. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), licensed team and league clothing is the only sports apparel category to buck a recent trend of declining sales, and retro jerseys are leading the way.
Meanwhile, sneaker companies are cashing in on a parallel vogue. Led by the Nike Air Force 1—the Uptowns that have become to Generations X and Y what Converse Chuck Taylors were to baby boomers—throwbacks were the lone athletic footwear category to avoid a net decline in sales in 2002, according to the SGMA. Old school shoes go naturally with retro jerseys and fitted caps, according to Andy Hyman, the former bartender who began Distant Replays as a kiosk in a shopping mall in 1998. "Everybody," he says, "tries to match 'em up."
The NBA's Hardwood Classics line has spread from a back corner of the league's Manhattan store across much of the main floor. Old school leather and satin jackets, velour and fleece warmups, fitted and knit caps, headbands and wristbands—even throwback-influenced nba4her dresses—have joined the singlets of Bird and Magic and Oscar. The league credits much of its merchandising revenue growth (to $3 billion this year from less than $2 billion only three years ago) to the retro craze.