Who’s That Cool Cat In the 59Fifty Hat?

The first thing you do after you buy new clothes is to rip off the size tag.

Usually.

But for some people willing to spend $35 for a baseball cap — the same brand, by the way, that all the major league players wear — the tag is what makes the cap worth buying. “It makes the hat look fresh,” said Joe Navedo, 15, who bought one last week in a trendy downtown boutique in New York City. Without it, the hat might be just another accessory.

But with the round, gold, shiny sticker that sits at the center of the visor, the otherwise humble 59Fifty cap that the New Era company has been manufacturing for more than half a century in Buffalo, N.Y., has become an indispensable part of street fashion around the world.

In the grand tradition of fads that sweep through youth culture like wildfire — think Nike’s Air Force 1 sneakers or Converse’s All-Stars — the sticker has changed the way people think about, interact with and wear their clothes.

There are, in fact, thousands of YouTube videos where proud owners showcase the hats and even a blog, called Strictly Fitteds (“All news about Fitted Ball Caps”), on which collectors upload photos of their 59Fiftys to the site’s “Braggin Rights” gallery.“Some of these guys take their hats seriously,” said Michelle Morales, a sales clerk at the New Era flagship store in Greenwich Village. “Like, girls with shoes is nothing.”

And to mark the hat company’s 90th anniversary last year, New Era gave 90 artists in Europe a white 59Fifty cap and a set of markers to create their own designs, a privilege that until then had been given only to celebrities.  Matteo Pelo, a graphic designer based in London, chose to keep the 59Fifty sticker on his.

“In my opinion, it’s as important as the stitching which holds it together,” he said. “There’s no point in buying something which has become so iconic …  and then taking it off.”

As random as the fad may seem, it is an artifact of hip-hop culture, which entered the mainstream in the 1990s. Before then, baseball caps were worn mainly by sports nerds; hip-hop performers who wore caps in music videos changed that.  “Sports and music were not accomplices until dramatization of street life began to dominate youth culture,” according to Van Dyk Lewis, an associate professor of textiles and apparel at Cornell University whose research focuses on street fashion. In an e-mail, Lewis explained that hip-hop artists pioneered the idea of leaving price tags on suits to signify the clothes were “box fresh.”

Street fashion meant something very different in 1920, the year the hat company was founded by a German immigrant named Ehrhardt Koch under the name E. Koch Cap Co. Its first hat looked like a newspaper boy’s cap; it wasn’t until 1932 that the company began manufacturing  its first version of a baseball cap. In 1934, the company started producing both the Home and Away caps for the Cleveland Indians, according the company’s website. “New Era’s motto in those days was ‘quality first, quantity will follow.’”

And it did. In 1993,  New Era became the exclusive provider of caps worn by major league baseball players on the field, including the New York Yankees’ navy blue and whitecaps. Then, in 1996, film director Spike Lee ordered a then-unthinkable, red Yankees cap from New Era. The unprecedented combination opened the floodgates to the infinite possibilities for cap colors, and requests for more designs rolled in. It is now possible to find a hat to match virtually any outfit.

Shaun Lehman, vice president of a 22-store chain called Hat Club, headquartered in Phoenix, said about half of the company’s customers opt to leave the sticker on, even though it could potentially damage the hat. (Some customers find, if they eventually remove faded or peeling stickers, a dark circle where the underlying fabric did not fade to match the rest of the hat.)

“If the employee starts to tear that sticker off, some of these customers will freak out,” Lehman said.

According to Lehman, whose stores carry many brands, at least two other leading cap-makers have tried to compete by adding or redesigning their size labels to mimic New Era’s sticker.

“Different colors and different fonts, but still a shiny circle, still laid out in the same way,” he said. “No one is making them in squares or rectangles or triangles.”

Clothing manufacturers who are not in direct competition with New Era recognize the value in the 59Fifty brand. Street wear companies like Hurley, DC Shoes, Huf and Crookes and Castles buy stock color combinations of the 59Fifty model and decorate the hats with their own designs. Those designs are then sold with the 59Fifty sticker on them.

New Yorker Joe Navedo owns two identical New Era Yankees caps: one with the 59Fifty sticker on the visor and one without. Though he prefers to wear the former (“It looks cool,” says Navedo), he keeps the sticker-less cap around for a rainy day. It’s just that if he wore the stickered cap out in the rain, the shiny gold seal might fade or — even worse — peel off.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Navedo walked into the flagship New Era store with his mother and two shopping bags. As they browsed, he pulled a lilac shirt from one of the bags, placed it against the cap-filled wall, and moved across the store until they found a good match: a sky blue crown with a lilac visor and stitching; a new addition to his New York Yankees collection.

At the counter, the clerk asked Navedo if he wanted her to take the 59Fifty sticker off before she sprayed the cap with a protective sealant — standard procedure for those willing to pay for it. To nobody’s surprise, Navedo quickly replied, “No.”