MIAMI BEACH – Jerry Lorenzo is about to talk baseball caps. Really expensive, simple, retro-beautiful baseball caps. The type of caps he saw players wearing when he was a kid. The type of caps that, in less pricey form, he would like to see kids wearing today.
He’s about to get into all this, but then a muscular arm drapes across his shoulders. He turns. It’s Darryl Strawberry. He wore those New Era-made caps back when Lorenzo was a kid who loved fashion and sports and swagger. Then, Strawberry was a 6-foot-6 slugger-with-swag for the New York Mets.
Now, he’s a friend.
Strawberry was here in Alchemist, a glass-walled clothing shop, with five other former big leaguers to commemorate a special project between Lorenzo’s Los Angeles-based fashion brand, Fear of God, and the Buffalo-based New Era Cap. Lorenzo and New Era collaborated to create a $200, limited-edition cap that honors African-American baseball all-stars from the 1980s and '90s. That included former players Dave Winfield, Andre Dawson, Rickey Henderson, Gary Sheffield and Strawberry, plus former manager — and Lorenzo’s father — Jerry Manuel.
To unveil the caps, each of those men was here with Strawberry, who is saying goodbye now.
“Text me your address, man,” Lorenzo, who worked for the Mets before starting his fashion company, said to him.
Strawberry promised to do that.
“Love you,” Lorenzo said.
“Love you,” Strawberry answered.
Lorenzo’s attention is back, and he’s about to explain the muse behind the caps he helped design, and a broader scale, behind the most recent collection of clothing released by Fear of God. But you can look at him and get it before he even starts to talk. Lorenzo is 39 and muscular, with a thick beard that covers an angular face. He’s wearing a gold necklace with his company’s name over an inside-out vintage tee (not a Fear of God item), coupled with black-and-red athletic pants and a pair of black-checked white sneakers that his brand produced with the footwear company Vans.
“The muse was this high school athlete of the '90s who dictated what was cool in school,” said Lorenzo, who’s talking, in part, about himself. His dad, who was then a minor-league and a big-league coach, used to tease Jerry that he looked like the best basketball player on the court. (Key word: Looked, not played.)
Lorenzo continued: “This high school athlete, his wardrobe was made up of what was in his closet. So he’s throwing on a basketball jersey under a T-shirt. He’s wearing his football jersey over a hoodie on a day he may have a game.
“One of the cornerstones of his closet is a fitted hat.”
Billy Loncar has just joined the conversation, and his timing is good. Fitted hats are Loncar’s canvas. The 34-year-old is a senior design manager in New Era’s New York City offices. Loncar, who grew up in East Amherst and Williamsville North, became interested in fashion as kid, when he tagged along with his mom and sisters on shopping trips. Ten years ago, after graduating from Canisius College, he found New Era at a job fair and was hired.
About a year ago, Lorenzo, who knew Loncar through a mutual colleague in the fashion industry, got in touch. Following that high school athlete muse, and wanting to pay tribute to the players who influenced him, he had an idea.
“I’m trying to propose that a New Era fitted, made in the United States, from the '80s and '90s, is the most luxurious hat of all time,” Lorenzo said, recalling his conversation with Loncar. “I have this idea for a fitted hat, but I have a lot of stipulations that are not consistent with what you guys are doing now. Is this going to be possible?”
It was. Loncar worked with New Era’s archives team in Buffalo – and with Major League Baseball, for permissions – to create a near exact replica of a New Era fitted cap (called a 59FIFTY) from that era. Today’s New Era caps are made with a performance polyester that has moisture-wicking properties; the Fear of God retro hats are made with wool, just like in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The crown of the cap is lower, the undervisor is kelly green (as opposed to today’s black). The sweat strip inside the cap is white; that was done away with years ago in favor of black, which hides the sweat-soaked dirt.
Each cap is personalized to the player it honors. It is made in the color of his team (Mets blue for Strawberry; Oakland A’s green and yellow for Henderson, and so on) and has a side patch highlighting his years as a Major League Baseball all-star.
“There is a reason for every detail,” Loncar said. Case in point: The logo on every cap is the same: A Detroit Tigers “D” that has been transformed into an “F” for Fear of God. The reason for the Tigers-inspired script? Detroit is the franchise that drafted Lorenzo’s dad in the first round in 1972. Plus, said Lorenzo, the Tigers hat “is the most beautiful hat of all time.”
The design collaboration was New Era’s first-ever with another brand domestically. Company officials declined to say how many retro caps were made or sold, but the number is presumably small by design. The caps were only available in Miami during Major League Baseball’s All-Star Weekend, July 8-10. They were sold for $200 apiece, and also put into the hands of celebrities, including singer Justin Bieber (a known Fear of God fan), model Hailey Baldwin, and baseball players Bryce Harper and Mookie Betts.
The former baseball players whom the hats honored each declined to take royalty payments; instead, New Era donated $200,000 to the Jackie Robinson Foundation. New Era CEO Chris Koch sits on the board of the New York City-based nonprofit, which has received just under $1 million from New Era since 2009 for scholarships and educational programming.
The inclusion of Robinson, who was the first African-American player in the big leagues, is significant to Lorenzo. Since his teen years, the number of African-Americans in baseball has plummeted. Back then, nearly 20 percent of big league players were black.
Today, the number is under 10 percent, and by all accounts, the same trend is apparent at the youth level of the game.
The reasons are many, and have been explored in several stories and studies. Della Britton Baeza, the executive director of the Robinson Foundation, who was in Miami, offered this take: “It’s a lot of things. It’s the expense of baseball compared to other sports. It’s the perceived sexiness, for lack of a better word, of other sports over baseball, which is a slower game.”
Lorenzo has a word for it: swagger.
His friend Strawberry, who used to wear choker chains, had it. So did Ozzie Smith, who would backflip on the field. So did Deion Sanders, who cut his sleeves shorter, starting a trend on the Cincinnati Reds. Barry Bonds wore a single earring.
“There was a swagger and a flair,” Lorenzo said. “These are all intangibles that, as a kid, I’m identifying with and wanting to be one of them.”
He can’t bring that to the field. But he can bring it to fashion.