Varsity blues: Is the high school varsity jacket fading away into history? - The Explorer: Import

Varsity blues: Is the high school varsity jacket fading away into history?

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Posted: Thursday, January 12, 2006 12:00 am | Updated: 7:52 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Jan. 4, 2006 - ent closet, in the small unassuming gym at Green Fields Country Day School lies a hidden relic of sports nostalgia.

Half sticking out of a box on the third shelf, packed in among Hula-Hoops, bags of dodge balls, unused lacrosse sticks and a dormant television, is a varsity jacket that once belonged to a long-forgotten Green Fields athlete.

The Griffin-green body, flanked with near-mint leather sleeves, tells the story of a three-sport letter winner at the diminutive Class 1A school, known by the name sewn on the jacket simply as "Mariana."

Further inspection doesn't look into the past; rather, it is a sobering reminder of the present. The jacket's original tag is still intact on the left sleeve, as if the coat never graced Mariana's shoulders.

The letterman's jacket has been a staple in the high school wardrobes of jocks, cheerleaders and anti-Fonzies for decades. These days, factors such as warm weather, cost and fashion are challenging its very existence. To combat the decline in sales, the industry is branching out through intimate customization, finding a new client base and, more importantly, new cliques willing to show off their accolades on a school jacket.

"You have your kids that are very active that really want to represent their activities in school and wear their jacket," said Bill Waldrup, the Southern Arizona regional representative of Herff Jones Inc. "And you have those who think it's just a silly thing to buy." Herff Jones is the leading retailer of varsity jackets in Southern Arizona, outfitting 98 percent of the area's 30-plus high schools with anything from class rings to cap and gowns and varsity jackets. Since he joined Herff Jones in 1992, Waldrup has seen the sales of jackets hold steady at around 350 a year among all Southern Arizona high schools. That number appears low when you consider that each of those schools may have hundreds of students competing in up to 27 Arizona Interscholastic Association sanctioned sports and activities.

Waldrup, who represents all eight of the Northwest and Foothills high schools, said the numbers are on the rise.

"Maybe in the 1980s you had more jackets, possibly," said Waldrup about sales. "The 1990s were pretty flat, but since 1999 we've been up every year.

The biggest factor weighing against jacket sales in Southern Arizona may be the weather. The window to comfortably wear a heavy wool jacket outdoors is limited to a few months at best. It is common for temperatures to hover in the 70s while the rest of the nation is bundling up against inclement weather.

Ironically, for Estevan Nanez, the insulation his jacket provides is one of the reasons he wears his.

"I like it because it's warm," said Nanez, a 140-pound wrestler for Mountain View High School. "It has my team name on it; I like to wear it at tournaments."

Although he wears his colors with pride, Nanez doesn't see many other students adorned with them.

"It depends on the school," said Nanez, a senior who has had his jacket since his freshman year. "Some schools, everybody wears them. Other schools, nobody wears them. At our school, pretty much nobody wears them. There are only a couple of guys."

Showing off school colors at a tournament or game is one thing, but strutting the hallways between classes may be fading into oblivion due to the most fickle of high school culture: fashion.

The faces of Kelly Zimmerman and Christy Goldie - juniors on the Canyon Del Oro High School girl's hoops team - crinkle when asked why they don't wear a varsity jacket.

"You can get them, but you have to buy them," says Zimmerman with a hint of condescension. "Then you can put your letter on it or whatever."

Head coach Kerri Brown - a mere generation separating her from her disapproving forwards - remembers her CDO days when the jacket of a four-sport student athlete like Zimmerman would have been enveloped with honors.

ly fell apart," said Brown after a recent practice.

These days, there are other garments a student can wear to signify that they are on an athletic team, mostly warm-up suits and game jerseys.

Jackets may be a little more prominent at schools with a more affluent student body.

A majority of the players on the Catalina Foothills High School football team own and wear black Falcon varsity jackets, which prompted Amy Perlich's mother to buy her and her brother one.

"It's so warm and comfortable," said Perlich, a junior forward on the Foothills girls basketball team. Her brother F.J. is a forward on the Foothills boys hoops squad. Perlich admitted, however, that because of the mild climate, she has only worn the jacket to school once, opting instead to mostly don it on game days.

Because a jacket can range in price from $200 to $400, buying one is often a one-time purchase and a deterrent to lower-income families or students who have to purchase the jacket on their own. At Herff Jones, a plain jacket costs $189 before all the sew-ons and logos are added.

"Everybody used to have those things," said Ned Thorson, whose daughter is a teammate of Perlich, about his days in high school. "I don't know why they don't wear them anymore."

Smaller sale numbers allow Herff Jones in Tucson to work closely with its clientele and do things differently than regions such as Phoenix, where jackets are mass-produced.

If you see a student walking around a Southern Arizona high school campus wearing a varsity jacket, odds are, Janet Jackson has handled it with care. Jackson, who goes by Jan so as to not be confused with the diva pop-singer, does all the custom embroidery for Herff Jones in Southern Arizona.

From September through March, Jackson is up to her elbows in leather sleeves, working out of her Marana house in a tiny back room crammed wall-to-wall with sewing machines, spools of thread and half-finished jackets.

Jackson is so accommodating that many local athletes will stop by her home to personally customize a jacket to their tastes. Visits are especially common among students from Ironwood Ridge, Marana and CDO high schools.

"The kids get really excited and it's really neat when they come here to pick them up and I get a hug from these big old huge football players," she said. Jackson added that ecstatic kids who pick up jackets from her often wear them home, even if it means blaring the air condi tioning in the car.

Jackson doesn't need a thimble to protect her fingers. Her operation is high-tech and relies on computer software to design and plan out more than 100,000 stitches on a jacket before it automatically lays the thread. A single jacket can be finished in four or five hours.

It's the personal detail that allows Herff Jones to flourish in the Southern Arizona market - whether it's designing a quadruple large jacket for a Casa Grande High School student or personalizing polo shirts for parents of Marana High School football players.

December is the busiest time of year for the former doctor's office manager, who began sewing for Herff Jones 10 years ago. According to Waldrup and Jackson, a varsity jacket can make an ideal Christmas present - as long as a jacket is ordered several months before the holiday, due to the amount of customization involved.

"Last year I even had a mom come down on Christmas day and pick one up," said Jackson. "If it was my Christmas present for my kid I would want to make sure I got it, too."

While the numbers of jocks wearing letter jackets have declined, the industry has been forced to adapt with the times. Jackets are available to students of all sports, clubs and interests.

"Whoever is really into what they are doing is eligible," said Waldrup. "As long as it's in good taste, we'll do it." Outside of sports, jackets have been customized for band, drama, chess and even car enthusiasts.

"I had a kid that was a real computer nerd," said Jackson about one of the more unique jacket requests. "I actually did a computer on the back of a jacket. He loved it."

Letterman jackets have come a long way since they first came of age about 100 years ago. Before customizing its jackets, Herff Jones gets its supply from the Grinnell, Iowa-based DeLong Sportswear, a manufacturer that may have perpetuated the varsity jacket movement of year's past.

DeLong was founded in 1856 when J.B. Grinnell brought fellow abolitionists to the Hawkeye state from New England to start businesses. Roughly half a century later - coinciding with the advent of intercollegiate sports in the early 1900s - the company began supplying varsity jackets. Today, DeLong is the leading supplier of wool varsity jackets in the nation, annually doling out more than 200,000 jackets across the country.

A nation at war has been both beneficial and damaging to the letterman jacket industry. The jackets rose to the height of its popularity in the years after World War II. It enjoyed a booming market until the days of non-conformity in the late 1960s put an end to a multiple-decade run.

Jackets survived a period where letter sweaters became the rage in certain areas of the country. On those, stripes on the sleeve denoted varsity experience. After two "flat decades" in the 1970s and 1980s, the industry rebounded in the 1990s and has held steady ever since, said Waldrup.

Gary Crane, head girls basketball coach at Ironwood Ridge High School, opted for the sweater during his playing days, but today he said it's rare to find a kid wearing a jacket at the Oro Valley school.

"I don't think I've ever seen a kid wear one in all the years I've been here," said Crane, who is also a teacher at Pueblo High School.

Poring over yearbooks of epochs past - dating back as far as the mid-1970s - in the back room of the athletic offices of Canyon Del Oro High School, David Thatcher's quest to find a decent picture of a former student wearing a CDO jacket proves futile. All the athletic director finds are dark and unfocused photos that tell of the jacket's scattered history at the nearly 40-year-old Oro Valley school, when the garment seemingly teetered on extinction.

Arizona doesn't buy as many jackets as Midwest states such as Oklahoma, said Bill Lannom, vice-president of sales for DeLong Sportswear.

"I would say the Midwest is pretty strong," said Lannom about sales demographics. "Maybe in some of the more preppy areas they might not be quite as popular, but overall throughout the country they are pretty popular."

Lannom added that jacket sales in Arizona are more prevalent at schools located in high elevations.

Although jacket sales may be flagging in some areas, Lannom believes the future of the garment will be a strong one.

"I think they are going to continue," he said. "As long as we have athletics and fans and participants, I think it will continue for a long, long time."

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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