How Biggie Smalls, a 1990s rap star from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, crossed paths with the Melbourne-based knitwear brand Coogi is still something of a mystery. Some credit it to an interaction with one Walt G, a fellow kid on the New York club scene, who was a fan of its colourful sweaters some time before Biggie. Others to a (disgraced) TV sitcom star whose character was known as much for his goofy dad jokes as his goofy dad sweaters. Whichever way the story goes, it wasn’t until The Notorious B.I.G. adopted the label that Coogi truly earned its place in the annals of pop culture.
It’s no secret that rappers love a designer name-drop, be it a single iconic line (most courtesy of Mr Kanye West), a song title (Jay-Z’s “Tom Ford”) or an alias (Mr Radric “‘Gucci Mane” Davis). By today’s ultra-flamboyant standards, the big-name rappers of the 1990s favoured a wardrobe that was pretty low-key: a mix of classic American sportswear labels with the odd sprinkling of Versace. It was a time when the East Coast-West Coast rivalry was at its peak. A nose ring and bandana became the signatures of California’s reigning king, Mr Tupac Shakur. Brooklynite Biggie’s uniform consisted of black sunglasses, a beret and one of his trusty Coogi sweaters. In an interview alongside Puff Daddy (as he was known then), he paired the sweater with a red leather jacket. For a performance on MTV’s Spring Break, he wore a short-sleeved, more muted version of the same patterned knit. On “Big Poppa”, his Coogi sweater was a sign of “livin’ better” and exemplified the rags-to-riches tale that weaves its way through his discography. On “One More Chance”, he boasts of being “Coogi down to the socks”, a commitment to the brand so strong we might start to suspect a #paidpartnership.
What made the Coogi sweater so covetable? Comfort and ease might have played a part, but, beyond the kaleidoscopic colour palette, there is a level of detailed craftsmanship, too. Even now, 24 years on from Biggie’s death in 1997, it’s still a mainstay of the hip-hop set and has been adopted by the next generation, among them A$AP Ferg, who samples one of Biggie’s Coogi lines on his “Work Remix” while sporting a Coogi sweater in the video. To the untrained eye, Ferg’s jumper is little more than a garish grandma knit. To a 1990s rap connoisseur, however, it is a badge of East Coast pride, a tribute to an icon and a sign he knows his hip-hop history.
Biggie Smalls’ endorsement of the Coogi sweater speaks to a superstar rapper’s soft power, that ability to transform niche Swiss watchmakers and French champagne brands into household names. The ultimate soft-power flex, though? To be able to take something so quirky – so uncool, even – and elevate it to the heights of street style. As everything from Biggie’s granny knitwear to A$AP Rocky’s granny headscarves have shown, when you’re one of the hottest rappers on the planet, others soon follow your lead.
Photographs by Mr Eddie Otchere, London 1995