New Era 59FIFTY Fitted Cap. USA, 1954
Every once and a while, a product comes along that turns a market upside down, transforming the terms that products are offered and accepted on. They are the game-changers: the renegade products, brands and campaigns that have the powers of persuasion that shape – and own – consumer expectations.
If you were looking for the king-hitter of all persuasive products, then the New Era 59FIFTY fitted cap would surely be a contender.
The 59FIFTY has been prolific, boasting a track record of commercial success that casts a long shadow over its competitors – not to mention over sport, fashion and pop culture.
The evidence for this bold claim? Well besides changing the English language (yep, ‘fitted’ is now a noun), how many products can put this on their CV:
- established a fashion classic not once, but twice?
- helped to launch a multi-billion dollar industry?
- so cool, that even its packaging becomes fashionable?
The 59FIFTY is an over-achiever. It epitomises the idea of a baseball cap.
By extension, it also epitomises the USA. Recognised and coveted all over the world, New Era’s obsessive dedication to a single product has turned its brand into a touchstone for American style.
Originators of the True Fitted
Products don’t come any more authentic than the 59Fifty. For 60 years it has been a constant in the narrative of ‘America’s pastime’: baseball.
By the time New Era first supplied its 59FIFTY to major league teams in 1954, they had already devoted significant energy to engineering a cap worthy of pro-baseball’s tradition and performance demands.
Using player feedback and new technology, New Era gradually refined and improved their product. But it wasn’t until 1978 that New Era would make their signature cap available to fans – even then, strictly by way of private mail-order.
Finally in 1986 – after 32 years spent incubating their legend – the 59FIFTY finally became available in stores. “Wear the cap the pros wear” was the slogan that accompanied the market launch of New Era’s first MLB Authentic Diamond Collection. Sports merchandising would never be the same again.
For more than two decades, New Era has been the exclusive on-field cap supplier to every single Major League Baseball team. Whichever team wins the next World Series, be sure that any cap they toss in the air will be a 59FIFTY.
A Whole New Ball Game
But beyond the MLB and its millions of fans – including more than 80 markets where baseball barely registers interest – the 59FIFTY stands tall as an urban icon. Revered and worn across sub-cultural boundary lines, millions of consumers worldwide – and their idols – consider the 59FIFTY the gold standard of caps.
Just how much New Era’s flagship dominates mindshare truly hit home to me last year. Out shopping, I noticed a detail on a product from a ‘rival’ brand that stopped me in my tracks. I’m talking about DC Shoes and their accessories range. Here’s a brand with an almost religious following, but even DC’s headwear range is anchored by New Era styles. Not New Era look-alikes or products made by New Era, but actual, original New Era-branded 59FIFTY fitted caps.
Many cult brands besides DC Shoes single out the 59Fifty for its unrivaled authenticity. From Stüssy to Kenzo, New Era’s distinctive temple branding and revolutionary foil label (removable or not, depending on the wearer) are details as essential as the visor. Ingredient branding may be a common way of adding value these days, but it’s hard to think of many other examples where the ingredient is a whole, finished product.
New Era were smart – or maybe just behaving as any single-minded manufacturer would – when they designed the branding hierarchy for their products. By relying on subtle details of form and function to provide a distinct identity, New Era created space for the 59FIFTY to become one of the great nomadic products – an accessory that can meet the tastes of diverse groups without changing its essential recipe.
On a much more fundamental level, New Era correctly recognised the baseball cap for what it is – a product that stands at a point where performance, fashion and American coolness intersect with personal expression.
New Era’s leadership surely had a good understanding of the function of T-shirts as both a personal badge and a barometer of street fashion. By applying a similar template to headwear, they laid down new terms of trade for their category. Skilled manufacturing, authentic values and expert marketing created a platform that enabled the 59FIFTY to become a perfect conduit for self-expression.
Fly Your Own Flag
Things could have turned out differently. Before New Era’s global rise, few consumers placed much value on headwear in general, or on caps in particular. Caps had become an item to be given away and thrown away: a promotional item made in the interests of the maker rather than the wearer.
With the 59FIFTY, New Era helped revive the notion that headwear needs to be made right in order to be right. They re-calibrated expectations by re-educating the market about what makes great headwear and its importance. After all, a cap is among the first things its wearer expects to be noticed. For many, it’s a permanent part of their attire and personal image.
By tapping the consumer thirst for self-identification, New Era introduced a new value proposition to the category.
Baseball caps and team replicas have always been at the core of New Era’s success. Major league, minor league, grass roots. As a sport played avidly throughout the US, baseball gave New Era a perfect niche to reach deep into the American population. By treating baseball with reverence and installing the cap as staple item of the sport’s folklore, New Era was a brand that was always likely to be embraced warmly by baseball fans.
But as team replica caps become more widely seen, so too did their usage. Sports merchandise became huge business when sports products crossed over into mainstream use. In the late 1980’s, the market was ripe. Personal expression had become all about identifying with origins, independent of sporting loyalties. College and hip hop were driving fashion towards heavily colour-blocked items with bold graphics. Thanks to Nike, performance was becoming something people shopped for. The 59Fifty was perfectly positioned to ride all of these trends at once.
The Double Play
While the 59Fifty is a perfect example of iconic apparel, New Era’s New York Yankees 59FIFTY is in a class of its own. The story of the Yankees cap and its explosive entry into popular culture is not only a watershed moment in New Era’s history, but in the histories of celebrity endorsement and sports business.
Film director Spike Lee requested New Era build him a special-order version of his beloved Yankees cap for the 1996 World Series. But this was neither an ordinary celebrity nor an ordinary order. Lee specified that the cap needed to be red. Rather than question it, New Era decided to ‘do the right thing’ (sorry) and comply. Seen by millions, Lee’s prominent attendance throughout the Yankees’ victorious series changed the rules of authentic sportswear.
Breaking from the team colours of navy and white was a move that helped to propel sports merchandise well beyond the game-day/fan shop environment. Now the rules had been broken, a door to a whole new level of self-expression was opened.
Today, New Era’s Yankees Authentic Collection is available in hundreds of colours and styles – a phenomenon in its own right. When patriotic American symbolism became distinctly unfashionable, the Yankees 59FIFTY provided a safety zone. For millions of consumers, hats like the iconic Yankees cap have become a post-modern way of expressing solidarity with the USA – via New York, via the Yankees and via an unmistakable cap. Completely apolitical, yet utterly American.
New Era offers a dazzling array of headwear products. All their major collections run as deep as the Yankees line does. Enthusiasts, fashionistas and collectors wait to see what new twist New Era will introduce next – what new way to keep their brand and their product offering vital and original. More often than not, New Era’s weapon of choice for pushing the boundaries is the 59FIFTY.
In the spirit of having a cap to suit everybody, New Era currently manages more than 450 licensed programmes that extend well beyond baseball. Since 2012, New Era have been attempting to repeat their baseball success via American Football.
New Era integrates a huge amount of content into its products and the innovation of its brand – drawing from sport, fashion, pop culture and its own rich heritage. For a company that could easily afford to rest on its laurels, they bring an astounding level of energy and finesse to creating and selling new products.
Fit for the Future?
The 59FIFTY shares a lot of common ground with another classic American garment – Levi’s 501 jeans.
Like Levi Strauss & Co., the New Era Cap Co. is a private company managed by descendants of German immigrant founders. Both companies have strong social agendas to match their products’ blue collar roots. For years, Levi’s were proudly made in the US. N 59FIFTY still is.
For decades, the Levi’s brand was an ambassador of American culture without peer. After carefully re-crafting the legend of the 501, Levi’s lost its mojo in the early nineties.
Pushed by the rise of low-cost manufacturing and the pressure of staying fashionable, and pulled by over-confidence in their brand’s potency, Levi’s went looking for more opportunities to sell and they broadened their narrative. Levi’s branched out before ever exploring the full potential of the 501, or the attributes that made them unequivocally unique.
New Era’s 59FIFTY fitted cap is to heads what 501’s were to legs.
No doubt some catwalk somewhere is telling us that hat fashions change radically from season to season, but the folks who love the 59FIFTY couldn’t give a damn.