MASS APPEAL, November 19, 2014, Words by Yo! Adrian, Photography by Durty Harry.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that Coogi is back. The once prestigious brand boasts an extensive history that played a large part in shaping the culture of streetwear that the fashion community is currently infatuated with. Its iconic knitwear and luxurious “ugly sweater” is synonymous with names like the Notorious B.I.G. (“However living better now, Coogi sweater now”) and others for its symbolic representation of wealth. However, over the last decade, the Australian label licensed out the company and saw a significant dip in status amongst the masses. 2014 has seen the company re-launch to high acclaim courtesy of a collaboration with Rag & Bone, an exclusive relaunch through NYC’s premier boutique KITH, and a whole new direction under its OG Creative DirectorWillie Esco. Mass Appeal had the chance to chat with Esco about all things Coogi, including its history, resurgence, and his plans to bring the company back to its paramount status.Mass Appeal: When were your brought on as Creative Director of Coogi? Willie Esco: Coogi came about organically. I had re-launched Coogi before, and I always kept in contact with my former business partners. We talked about Coogi in about 2011, and one of the things I suggested to them was repositioning the brand. When you’re an apparel company in the young men’s market, you often find yourself in a position where the brand loses its luster after a certain amount of years. But Coogi is unique; it has a long legacy. It originally launched in 1969. Its iconic sweater is world-renowned; it’s been featured in the Smithsonian. I suggested a reboot and they sort of laughed because they were about to license it out, sort of allow it to run its course and die. However, my angle was the sweater component, allow me to revive that. How do you deviate from the Coogi that’s still available and isn’t as illustrious as the collection that is releasing currently? The game plan is to elevate the brand and bring it back to its luxury status. There is some older stuff on the marketplace but we’ve created some distance between that specific product and ourselves. We gave them about a year to dilute the lesser quality product. That apparel is no longer in production. What we’re doing is allowing the sweaters to clear the palette. I allowed the sweater to be introduced via a women’s collaboration. Women’s activity on social media was very interesting. They love to look at pictures as much as men love to look at pictures. Men look at pictures for women or sneakers. Women look for clothes, and they were showing off old vintage Coogi. Rag & Bonerecognized that. They approached us as I was beginning to revive Coogi. It’s sort of juxtaposed to your last point, with the collab debuting on the runway, so it worked to our advantage. It helped legitimize the brand. What made you select KITH as the exclusive retailer on the re-launch? The interesting thing is women’s was initially released at a high-end level. So it was released in Barneys, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom, Intermix—high, high-end. We could’ve easily gone after that in men’s, but we can’t escape our history. We’re this company that made an ugly sweater luxurious and fashionable. It’s instantly recognizable. Streetwear has come a long way, and we wanted to set the table properly in that regard. We could’ve gone to the same guys at department store-level, but we decided to pay homage to our street heritage by launching at KITH for a limited time. A lot of nostalgic brands re-launch and they have a very short flicker of attention before consumers lose interest. How do you plan to maintain relevance? The consumers are the deciding factor; I can’t control what they ultimately do. But what we can do is curate the story in a way where we allow them to see what we’d like to do in the future, and remind them that our archives are tremendous. It just has to be re-introduced—you can’t oversaturate. That’s why we didn’t really want to go out there this fall and flood the market. But again, I’ve been in the game long enough to know that Coogi has been through a lot of ringers and it cannot be forgotten. The trend may go away, but it’s your duty as Creative Director to keep it relevant. A lot of it will have to do with social media. Outside of the knitwear, what kind of collection can we expect to release? Well, right now knitwear is trending. I’m experimenting with some French Terry and some sort of traditional knits. We’re going to go into that and gradually explore collaborations in each category. My goal is to establish the brand via the collaborative process item by item. The accessory business is something that I’m avid about. So your bags, your wallets, and all that stuff which hadn’t really been formally established in former Coogi collections will be established this time around. Biggie is one of the figures immediately associated with Coogi. Who are some of the present tastemakers you would like to see wearing the brand? Our publicist just gave a sweater to Beyoncé. I just posted Hillary Duff wearing it, so you have those tastemakers there already accepting the Rag & Bone collaboration. We had A$AP Yams up here the other day. Of course we would love to get some on Kanye. Aside from the Rag & Bone collab, are there any other upcoming collaborations that you can speak on? We’re doing a collaboration with Etonic; that’s an in-house collaboration. I’m Creative Director with Etonic as well, so it’s just a normal thing for us to explore. We got a tremendous global response. The other collaborations that are in work, I can’t really speak on them, but they’re going to be interesting. What’s the ultimate goal moving forward? We would love to position the brand so that it sits where it’s supposed to. If you’re going into Saks and you see Missoni, on the other side of the floor you see Coogi. Brand positioning is very important. We’d also like to grow the brand in a way where there’s still an appetite every year in the growth process. Once we have established ourselves and hit all of our touch points of what we want to do, hopefully I can talk my business partners into opening a brick and mortar location. I think Coogi stores are well overdue. I think it demands that. To do that today you have to be very strategic and know that we’re launching in young men’s but we ultimately want to be a lifestyle company. You can shop Coogi’s Fall/Winter 2014 collection here.