SBc Interviews: Joe Swide from Ebbet Field Flannels
I recently attended the Menswear Trade Show Jacket Required, It was my second time at the event and I was amazed at all the wonderful brands on display. Amongst them all one particular one grabbed my attention like a kitten to a ball of string. That brand was Ebbet Field Flannels. Based in Seattle in the North-West of the United States they specialise in re-creating historic baseball jerseys and sporting gear. And this is not just any standard re-creation. They go down to every minute detail. If you have seen some of their work you will now what I mean. I was lucky to grab a few minutes with Joe Swide who works for them who gave me a brief idea about the company and what it does. Thought it would be the perfect opportunity to share this with you guys in the form of an interview. So grab yourself a cup of hot cocoa and settle down for a lesson in the icon that is the American Baseball Jersey.
SBc -Tell us a bit about yourself?
JS - I've loved sports since I was birth. And while I'm a devout fan of my Portland Trailblazers, San Francisco 49ers, and San Francisco Giants, I've always enjoyed and been drawn to the history and culture that surround sports in general. Growing up in the home of Nike, Portland, OR, helped to develop my interest in the aesthetics of sports uniforms and general athletic apparel. As a kid, I collected Nikes and mainly followed the Air Jordan, Air Max, and ACG lines. If my dream of playing baseball wasn't going to work, I wanted to be a designer at Nike and when I was about 9, I actually sent them a detailed sketch for a basketball shoe. They were nice enough to send me a letter saying that they didn't accept outside designs but I remember being mad that they were too conceited to take a great a design, regardless of the source. As I got older, collecting sneakers exposed me to the streetwear scene with brands and shops like Stussy, UNDFTD, Supreme, A Bathing Ape, etc., which led to a further interest in menswear.
SBc - How long have you worked for the company and what inspired you to do so?
JS - I started at Ebbets in August of 2010, but I had been customer since I was very young. I remember driving up from Portland for Mariners games as a kid and before or after watching Ken Griffey Jr. do his thing at the Kingdome, my dad would take me over to the old Ebbets shop across the street and we would look at all the great product while he would tell me the histories of the San Francisco Seals, Kansas City Monarchs, Portland Beavers, and all of the other old teams and leagues. When the catalogs would arrive in the mail, I would look through each page, admiring the different jerseys, caps, jackets, even though I couldn't buy them. When I moved up to Seattle for school, I would stop by the shop from time to time to look around or pick up a cap or jacket on sale. After graduation, I spent a couple months looking for a job with no success until it came to a point where if I didn't have a job by the end of that week, I would have to move back home. And so I figured I would just go to the one place I would rather work over anywhere else and see what happened. I didn't have a position to apply for but I sent an email to Jerry basically just presenting my passion for baseball, history, athletic uniforms, and desire to work there in any capacity. He brought me in to meet and then hired me to do customer service. Honestly, I would have been totally happy to just work the small store, help out on production, and save money to go snowboarding. But the first day of work, I saw some sample caps for Supreme and a big shipment going to Japan and thought that something might be happening here.
SBc - What's the founder Jerry Cohen like to work with?
JS - You trying to get me in trouble, Jefferson? Haha no, like any boss, Jerry is demanding. What we do is a daily struggle and Jerry's been doing that struggle for 25 years, so he has very little patience for certain things. However, at the same time, he's put his life into the company and so as a young employee, I can see the level of investment needed not just to gain his respect but more importantly to get the brand to the level and maintain the level where we want be. I've learned a tremendous amount in my time working here, especially in regards to vintage manufacturing, in large part due to Jerry. And so even though there may have been a few Gordon Ramsay type of moments, I've been extremely lucky to be around that level of knowledge on a daily basis as well as be given opportunities like coming to London for Jacket Required, working with people like Craig Ford and Mark Batista, and meeting people like yourself.
SBc - Is it true that you have no inventory?
JS - Yes and no. We're definitely not like Amazon.com with a giant Raiders of the Lost Ark-style warehouse where we keep all 400-some jerseys and jackets in all sizes, although some of our customers seem to think we do. We ship everything from our location in Seattle, which doubles as our offices as well as our shop. We try to keep inventory of current caps and t-shirts in stock for our direct sales, although that's been increasingly difficult as we've grown so much and outpaced our estimates. With other items such as our flannel baseball jerseys, they are truly made or lettered one at a time, to order. We do keep some inventory of blanks in each pattern and size so that we can expedite the process a bit but many orders still start as a piece of flannel, sheet of felt, and roll of trim. So while we don't have much inventory of finished product, we have a fairly substantial inventory of wool, felt, trim, patches, etc. And while keeping track of and maintaining our timeframes for single baseball flannel orders is probably the most difficult part of our business but it's also our signature and what enables us to offer any team, any year, any number.
SBc - Can anyone come and place an order and if yes what is the process that ensues?
JS - Yes, anyone can come in and place any kind of order. For custom orders, as long as it's a design that we can create with our vintage manufacturing techniques, we can do it in any quantity and for any person. For example, recently we did a couple custom jerseys for two Japanese exchange students as well as a couple for Hodgy Beats and Left Brain of Odd Future. It was great to see the same reaction in the two totally different groups when they saw the finished products. In the case of the exchange students, it started as a hand drawing that they brought in to the store. And with Hodgy Beats and Left Brain, they just gave us the general idea and colors, letting us do what we thought would be cool with the details. Those are a couple examples of the method for custom orders. Many of the larger brands send us detailed artwork, calling out each color and material, and we simply make it. Other times, people reference something we already do but have us change the lettering or the colors. And then some people just send us a photograph of an original garment that they want us to replicate. The last way is often how we add new authentic product to the line. But once we work with you to finalize the design, all of the specs, quantities, etc., we start the production and about 6-8 weeks later, you receive a truly custom made garment.
SBc - I have seen your work first hand and the attention to detail is second to none. You must pride yourselves on that?
JS - Yes, we take a lot of pride in our attention to detail. With any product that we do, we try to make it 100% authentic, from the material to the construction to the design. I think this is what separates us from the "throwback" or "retro" sports world. Rather than just taking old designs and putting them on t-shirts or polyester jerseys, we develop patterns, source materials, and use manufacturing techniques that truly match what was originally worn. Therefore, when a customer buys a 1957 Portland Beavers road jersey, they know that the gray flannel matches a post-WWII blend, that the wool felt number on the back and rayon braid down the front are sewn by hand, and that the beavers on the bat logo is manual chain stitch embroidery. With all of our products, we try to tell the story of the team but also the story of vintage athletic manufacturing. Luckily, we've developed a customer base that appreciates that kind of detail and understands that it may be a little more expensive or take a little more time. And although our products are almost all replications from the past, we're always finding new research that changes the details. For example, the other day, we found a photo of Willie Mays in the 1951 Minneapolis Millers home jersey and noticed the lettering on his jersey looked slightly different than how we had been doing it. Therefore, our designer took a few hours to painstakingly adjust each letter to match the strange hand cut lines of the original. So while replicating every detail is an ongoing process and certainly isn't easy, it's why people come to us and we've dedicated ourselves to doing it because we love it.
SBc - Ebbets Field's seems to be a close knit establishment. Have you ever thought of expanding the business globally?
JS - I'm not the one to make those kinds of decisions, but there would definitely be some challenges if we decided to try to do that. As you said, we're a really close knit establishment. There's about 10 of us that work full time and when I started, there was 7. We're sort of a guerilla operation and so the challenge if we were to expand would be to still maintain our own culture and identity. Right now, I kind of like the position that we're in. We're well known to certain people globally, and we've been doing more and more business in Europe and Asia, but we still feel like a small place that each person gets to discover on their own, like a great hole in the wall restaurant. However, if we were in the position to open a small store in New York and/or Tokyo, I think that would do really well for us.
SBc - You recently showcased on the Menswear Trade Show Jacket Required in London, Did you get a good response from the buyers and press? We're there any other brands that caught your attention?
JS - The Jacket Required show was great for us. Mark and Craig put on a fantastic show and we were honored and humbled to be a part of it and included among such other great brands. What we do is so much different than anyone else so I wasn't quite sure how we would do there but the response was excellent. One guy that I spoke to for a while even told us that he thought we might be the best brand at the whole show, which was beyond great to hear, with all of the other excellent brands that were showing. Our products are so traditionally American, so it was very cool to see the interest in Europe for the stories behind the teams and leagues. As far as the other brands go, there was a few that caught my eye. Nearby our booth, I really dug the products and story behind Denim Demon, Maharishi had really great materials and designs, and Fracap had a great story and amazing quality. It was good to see the other brands from the Northwest like Filson, Danner, Pendleton, and our friend Nin with Maiden Noir. Also, Human Made and Dickies had some great products.
SBc - What are your thoughts on Menswear these days?
JS - Menswear seems to be in a good place. The traditional powers like J.Crew and A Bathing Ape are doing great things, but the reach of the internet also allows smaller independent brands that do really unique products to grow and be discovered. Personally, I've discovered some smaller brands doing great work that I never would have found without the internet, and I'm sure many of our customers would say the same thing about us. Also, I really love the current emphasis on quality and story. While some of the heritage/americana aesthetic may be a trend, I would like to think that the appreciation for quality construction is here to stay and I hope to see brands continuing to apply the same focus on materials and construction to future designs.
SBc - If you could only choose three Items from the Ebbets line, what would they be?
JS - Only 3? This is tough.. Well I have to have a cap, and right now, my everyday cap has been the Cordoba Cafeteros 1957, so that's one. We're Ebbets Field Flannels so I have to pick a flannel. The first one I wanted when I started working here was the Santurce Cangrejeros 1954 road. I love Roberto Clemente, the history of Santurce being the neighborhood in San Juan where the natives and later the African slaves settled, and I love the look of the jersey with the chain stitched crabs on the bat; so that's two. And then for three, I'll pick one that I don't have yet, the 1943 Kansas City Monarchs jacket. I love the style and color of that jacket, the "World Champions" chenille patch, Satchel Paige wore it, and my grandfather grew up just outside Kansas City and actually saw the Monarchs play. And honorable mention goes to my old Washington Huskies wool jacket that's not in the current line but from when we used to do collegiate products.
SBc - What does the future hold?
JS - As a brand so focused on the past, thinking about the future is strange for us but hopefully we'll continue on the path that we're on. I believe the key for us is to keep doing what we're doing but just do it even better; better quality, better presentation. And you might also see a few special new products. There's a few things that we've wanted to do for a while that may materialize soon. Generally, I think the trend that we're on may plateau but I think that if we continue to do what we do well and maintain our identity, we will always have a place in the market.
To find out more about this iconic brand and what they do visit their website at Ebbets.com