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Alexander Wolff
December 22, 2003
What turns a moldering jersey or forgotten shoe into a retro fashion fever? Two case histories
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December 22, 2003

The Old Is Made New Again

What turns a moldering jersey or forgotten shoe into a retro fashion fever? Two case histories

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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 is 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."


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