How Starter Jackets Reinvented Selling Sports Apparel

Revisiting the classic jackets of past decades

NY Rangers Starter jacket
The jacket of a New York Rangers fan is seen outside prior to the 2018 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres.
Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

There was a point in sports history not that long ago where sports fandom and style converged in a single brand. Starter jackets, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, were must-have items, serving as a statement of one’s athletic allegiances as well as making a sartorial statement. But that wasn’t all they did; it wasn’t hard to find someone wearing a Starter jacket who might not have cared one iota for the team featured on it — they just liked the colors, the design and the way it felt. And eventually, things went terribly wrong.

In a must-read article at Defector, Keith Paradise chronicled the way that Starter paved the way for the modern era of licensed apparel, limited edition clothing and sartorial fandom. It’s a meticulously-researched look at Starter, and it both makes the case for why the company made so much of a difference and how, eventually, it was overtaken by larger players in the space it helped create — making this a cautionary tale among cautionary tales.

What’s most revealing is getting to see the way Starter’s heyday created a blueprint for selling sports apparel in the decades that followed. “If the San Jose Sharks logo was cool and teal and black was hot it didn’t matter if hockey was playing or not,” the company’s head of marketing and sales for eight years, Stu Crystal, told Defector. Emphasizing scarcity, too, feels like a forerunner of many aspects of selling clothing in the present day, including limited edition drops.

New Era's Brand Historian Walks Us Through the 100-Year Evolution of the Baseball Cap
Not so long ago, players were still wearing wool and leather in the middle July

It speaks volumes that there’s still a solid secondary market for 90s Starter jackets. A quick survey of jackets available on Etsy reveals several satin Starter jackets selling for around $300. (Am I depressed that the green New Jersey Devils Starter jacket I had in high school is long gone? Oh yes.) It’s yet another way that this company’s legacy continues to loom large in the space it helped create.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.