How Hov, Jonah Hill, and Kobe Bryant all play a part in Chicago’s own leading the throwback company into the future.
It was all good just a week ago.
Flourishing in the fruits of his labor, Don Crawley, the Midwest multi-hyphenate better known as Don C, was enjoying his reign as Creative Strategy and Design Advisor for his hometown Chicago Bulls.
Since moving his family from the palm tree tropes of Los Angeles back to his blue-collar birthplace, Don’s become a franchise favorite in the Windy City, getting his own YouTube series and even outfitting Benny the Bull with luxury high tops.
If all that wasn’t enough, the big announcement came last Tuesday: Don had been named the Creative Director of Premium Products at Mitchell & Ness.
“Blessing on blessings,” Don smiled while relaying the news to Boardroom.
FaceTiming from his new Windy City studio space, Don’s dream job — one 25 years in the making — has been realized.
Rocking a ’98 Dennis Rodman jersey, one made by his new employer, Don dove into his famed past with the Philly throwback purveyor and how he’s looking to take the company to new heights in its Fanatics era.
IAN STONEBROOK: When we last spoke in February, we dove deep into the days of you selling throwbacks out of your car in the late ’90s. Take me back to the Watch the Throne Tour where you wore a different jersey at every stop.
DON C: That’s the best tour of my life. The Watch the Throne era was rap on the highest level. I was inspired by Jay-Z years prior on the Hard Knock Life Tour. He’d rock the jersey of every city, so I tried to flex and have a local jersey — and it was always Mitchell & Ness.
For the Toronto date, I wore the Raptors warmup. It was my birthday, and I had just got the Air Yeezy 2s — the black ones — so I flexed them that night with a Raptors Just Don hat. Just Don was still just me customizing hats at this time and they weren’t out to the public.
On the Philly date for Watch the Throne, we pulled up at the Mitchell & Ness flagship store. I took a picture of my receipt and it was maybe, like, 15 feet long. [laughs] It’s so crazy.
IS: Did you attend the Hard Knock Life Tour when you were coming up in Chicago?
DC: I went to the Hard Knock Life Tour, but I went to the Milwaukee show because I couldn’t get a ticket to the Chicago one.
Jay had on the Ray Allen joint that had the deer on it and I thought that was crazy. Then he even flexed with the white one that didn’t have the deer!
Later in the show, he went into the audience with a Green Bay Packers jersey. He gave us like three in one night!
I’m a big retro guy, so you know how far I go back with Mitchell & Ness. That was definitely an era and it feels good to be still rocking with Mitchell & Ness.
To go from a fan to somebody who had the privilege to collaborate with them and now to be in the house directing premium products? I’m overwhelmed with joy.
IS: For those unfamiliar with your whole jersey journey, walk us through your history with the brand.
DC: When I was a young entrepreneur in Chicago in the late ’90s, I called Mitchell & Ness in Philadelphia and said, “I wanna open a wholesale account and sell the jerseys.” Immediately, they asked me if I had a retail store. At that point, I purchased the URL for vintagejerseys.com. I started my own e-commerce business off of my love for jerseys.
They gave me a wholesale account and they were selling me the jerseys for half of what the retail was. Back then, the jerseys were like $300 and I was getting ’em for $150. I didn’t even have a storefront. That started my hustle.
I was doing nightclub promotions, so I would sell ’em at the nightclub to my friends. Before someone would go to the club, they’d pull up and get a throwback to wear to the club. No other retailers in the city of Chicago had ’em. So people knew me for having the throwbacks.
IS: That was in the late ’90s and then throwbacks absolutely boomed in the early ’00s.
DC: Now what’s weird about that is the moment they start getting popular, a couple stores started to want a Mitchell & Ness account. Mitchell & Ness wouldn’t open accounts because they were real limited on it. So these stores start saying, ‘How Don get ’em? He don’t even got a store.’ The owner at that time became suspicious.
He called me like, ‘Yo, you don’t have a store. We’re gonna have to take your account away from you.’ Me getting my account taken away was one of the lowest parts of my career because I really wanted throwback jerseys to be my thing.
I’m talking about ’99 and 2000. I was hurt. This company is now blowing up and they don’t wanna mess with me? I’ve always tried to be the purveyor of them.
IS: When did things get back to good?
DC: It was full circle in 2011 when I customized a Bulls hat with snakeskin on the visor and gave it to Kanye to wear to the CFDA Awards. Mitchell & Ness reached out to me and was like, “This hat is getting a lot of press and notoriety. Would you be interested in working with us?” And I’m like, “Absolutely.” It had been my dream for the past 10 years.
Now for it to come even more full circle? To be able to be in the company working with the amazing staff? Every time I go to Mitchell & Ness in Irvine, every time I go to offices in Philly, I’m overwhelmed. I can’t believe that this has been one of my favorite brands for my entire life and that I have a privilege of working directly with them.
IS: In the days of your website and Chicago hustle, which throwback items were the hottest?
DC: Mitchell & Ness being a Philadelphia company, they focused on the Sixers a lot. I remember the Dr. J Sixers was a real popular one. They ended up making a warmup that had the Liberty Bell on it that was like $400 — 20 years ago! It was a quality item, so that was big. Once they started getting more popular, it was the throwbacks that people saw the artists in.
That vintage Redskins that Jay-Z has on in the “Girls, Girls, Girls” video? That was in high demand. When they did the Dikembe Mutombo Denver Nuggets with the rainbow design? That one went hard. People just hadn’t seen that jersey in so many years.
One of my goals back then was I tried to wear a throwback every day. I was like, “Who can compete with me? If wear a different throwback, that’s 365 throwbacks a year!” [laughs] I was on it.
IS: From a business standpoint, how does one climb the ladder from wholesaler to collaborator to creative director?
DC: It’s levels man. [laughs] I’m appreciative of Kevin Wulff. He did such amazing job at ASICS and he came over with his investment group at Mitchell & Ness.
When it went from the Adidas Group to then Kevin’s group to now the Fanatics group, I kept saying, ‘I gotta be a better business person.’ Like, how can I like be more in the company? I want to add more value because I know I add value.
I see my picture on y’all’s pitch deck, but I want to add more value. Kevin’s always like, ‘Let’s figure it out.’ When he first came in, we had some issues from the jump that he inherited. So we worked through the kinks of production issues, quality control. Once we worked through that? I felt more comfortable to do more and more projects.
Now I feel like I’m in the house. It’s all family. Giving me this position to be able to direct premium product and special projects is really something I wanted to do. I’m happy that the people that spearheaded me is Kevin Wulff and Jay-Z. I appreciate both of them.
IS: I’m glad you bring up quality control. Mitchell & Ness is killing in regard to the masses but may have slipped on some of the details and fabrication that made them a really premium brand. How do you bridge that gap?
DC: That’s big. That attention to detail is something that I want to bring to the table. I’m always trying to purvey an awesome legacy that Mitchell & Ness is as a heritage brand, but I want to innovate. I want to do things better.
The brand was such a boutique brand and then it blew up. I did notice that the quality — and this is years ago, they figured it out now — but the quality went down. Not during this regime, but that was an issue.
IS: Name a detail that speaks to amplifying that quality and boutique sentiment.
DC: I’ll give you for an example: this is one that the league hasn’t approved yet. One Mitchell & Ness jersey that I love so much is the Eric Dickerson authentic jersey. Eric Dickerson used to cut his jersey, so the authentic LA Rams Dickerson jersey should have that cut on it.
You know, maybe this is a moment that the NBA doesn’t like to shine light on, but the Malice in the Palace. I want to do a Ron Artest jersey stretched outta shape and that’s the authentic.
Those are the type of things, those are the type of details we’re paying attention to. We’re paying attention to every single detail of the jerseys and doing everything that the league approves.
IS: On the flip side of league red tape, what’s it like having the backing of Fanatics and their laundry list of investors that now includes current players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant?
DC: It’s overwhelming. It shows the culture is avidly a part of what’s happening. When I was coming up, it was old businessmen that would make decisions of what we were able to partake in and what we were able to cop at the stores.
Now for people to be authentically of the culture, people in the league, people that are really consuming the product, being able to add value to what comes out?
That’s overwhelming with the joy of the game now. The barriers have been lifted and everyone has a voice. At the end of the day, I have the privilege of the opportunity to get ideas out and use this as a medium.
I want the community to critique those ideas. Give me feedback — what you like, what you don’t like — because that adds value to the community. That’s what it’s all about: making sure we listen to every single voice because everybody got something special to add to the game.
IS: A lot of Mitchell & Ness’ most exciting work has come from collaborators in music and high fashion. Can we expect more of that?
DC: There’s designers that have worked with me that didn’t have any knowledge of sports. I’m an avid sports fan and it’s always information about sports, but I love to see the creative point of view of someone who the team doesn’t mean as much to them.
Like if you say, ‘Let’s work on a Bulls project,’ and somebody said, ‘I wanna do this blue item.’ They’d be like, ‘Blue with the Bulls?’ But now there are no limits to creativity. The fact that we get different people’s perspectives on product adds to the game now.
It adds value to everything. We’re getting more lifestyle ideas, more creative ideas that are not so run of the mill. It keeps the game so much more fun.
IS: It’s reminiscent of when Spike Lee went to New Era and asked for a red Yankees cap.
DC: Exactly. Everybody comes from somewhere, so everybody’s lens is a little different when looking at the same references and the same items. That’s what’s so awesome, to be able to be open and collaborate with each other and listen to other people’s points of view.
IS: What’s Don C, the Creative Director of Premium Products, look like on a day-to-day basis at Mitchell & Ness?
DC: Always upholding the aesthetic of the brand. My goal is to always make sure the brand is better today than it was yesterday. Staying authentic, staying premium. Staying open-minded is gonna help us innovate for the future.
Another goal of mine is always trying to deliver something that’s never been done. I’m not trying to copy what other brands are doing. I want to bring new ideas to the table and I appreciate this brand giving me the opportunity to use them as a medium.
I wanna pay homage to some of our lost stars. In New York, people love Anthony Mason. So maybe on his birthday, we bring a throwback back.
IS: How have your relationships inside the brand empowered your ideas?
DC: My friend Lynn Bloom, she is the person that is the lead when it comes to Mitchell & Ness. Every time we see each other we kick it on what are the different throwbacks that have never been retroed? What’s a good item to come on an anniversary?
I even noticed lately that her Instagram page is now dedicated to giving you a fact of the day for every day of the year. She tells an important moment on every single day. Infusing some of those stories will be good.
IS: When you started collaborating with the brand in the early ’10s on the Just Don hats and shorts, I know a lot of arm twisting had to be done to alter the authentic items. How were you able to have them see the vision?
DC: It’s important for creatives to see voids in the market. When I came with the snakeskin hats? It was something I hadn’t seen in the market, but it was something that was dear to my neighborhood locally here in Chicago.
Years before when it came to the shorts? I always wanted to wear authentic shorts. I would go up to the Philly office saying, ‘When y’all gonna retro shorts more?’
The 76ers shorts, of course, were the first ones they did. But I was like, ‘Yo, they don’t have pockets.’ Using that problem and then trying to come to a solution where I’m proud to say Just Don is the first brand to deliver authentic basketball shorts with pockets.
That’s something we take for granted today, but we were able to bring that to the market. That’s so prevalent in fashion today, but that’s something that we innovated and brought to the marketplace.
IS: The Just Don shorts played a big part in making hoop gear not just a luxury status symbol, but accepted by fashion. How did the validation of those shorts in the market allow you to continue to color outside the lines?
DC: Today, I’m wearing my Rodman ’98 jersey. I love basketball jerseys, but when I do small focus groups with my friends and I ask them about basketball jerseys? For some reason, people don’t like the silhouette. People say, “It’s just a little too graphic. It’s cool going to a game or something, but I don’t feel comfortable in them every day.”
That brought the no name collection to the table where we did blank versions of NBA silhouettes. I want to do that for other leagues like the MLB and NFL, I just haven’t got the approval yet.
That’s one limitation: sometimes the leagues take a while to catch on. I understand that because they want to protect their marks.
It takes a while for us to do the storytelling behind the ideas so they know that we’re always trying to shine a light on things in a real positive manner. It’s never anything mocking or to bring any type of negative light.
IS: My best friend Brett Pickert, who writes for Boardroom actually, wore the no-name Suns jersey when he dressed up as Jonah Hill for Halloween.
DC: Yeah! That made them famous. It was so funny because a lot of fashion designers told me, “Man, this concept is genius.” But I think it went over a lot of people’s heads.
Sometimes avid jersey wearers are not sure about that, but it was something that I was doing to try to attract a whole different community. People that don’t like sports but could participate with NBA product.
IS: In regard to collaborations and storytelling, what do you have in the pipeline for 2023?
DC: 2023 is the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, so we’ve got a lot of special projects coming with a lot of hip-hop entities, record labels, and such. I can’t say exactly what yet, but you could just imagine the dynasties we’re about to hit ’em with. So be on the look for that.
We’re trying to tell worldwide stories because sport is not just a North American thing. The NFL, MLB, and NBA? A lot of the licensed product is international storytelling with so many more international players in our American leagues. We’re telling a lot of stories where we’re gonna highlight athletes from other parts of the world.
We’re starting with Europe and then we’re doing Africa. We’re doing a World Pack that’s gonna be real dope. We’re celebrating sustainability with an Earth Pack. It’s always about celebrating diversity, celebrating our differences, and using sports as a medium to bring us all together.
IS: Not long ago at Super Bowl in Arizona, I saw you taking your son around and he was decked out in throwbacks. How is having a teenager who’s into sports and fashion giving you fresh eyes on the product you grew up on?
DC: One of my key principles is educating and storytelling through product. For the next generation to learn these stories? Things that happen currently are gonna be historical moments in the next couple of years. I’m proud to say my son’s favorite player is Michael Jordan — and he hasn’t even lived when Michael Jordan played basketball. [laughs]
It just shows that we love to celebrate the icons that are competing with history, not competing with their peers. Like LeBron, he’s competing with history, he’s competing with historical moments.
It’s our duty to to bring attention and celebrate those moments through the product that we bring out in the marketplace. That’s what I do. I don’t want anything to just be hot because it’s hot. Of course, it’s gotta be visually appealing to the eye, but it’s all about substance.
The eye value just reels you in, but once you get the product? You see the quality, you see the hard work, and you see the thought that went behind it. That’s something that I’m very proud to bring to the table.
IS: Looking forward and looking back, will we ever see M&N bring back odder styles like the sand knit fabric or the short-sleeved NBA jerseys?
DC: Definitely the short sleeves gotta come back because that’s gonna be retro, you know? With the sand knit, that quality was bar none the best. At Mitchell & Ness, we’ve sourced from the ’70s and ’80s for authentics from that era.
When I did the navy Nuggets shorts, that was a retro from ’82. That year the Nuggets didn’t wear mesh, they wore that sand knit. So I did the shorts and we sourced what we found to be the closest fabric to that. A lot of my MLB shorts use the sand knit fabric, too.
IS: Last year, we wrote about the gap between supply and demand for Kobe Bryant jerseys. How do you see that shifting and what Kobe stories do you hope to tell in your new appointment?
DC: Kobe was from Philadelphia. If you notice, all the jerseys in the marketplace that are Kobe are only Mitchell & Ness right now.
That’s a testament to Kevin Wulff. He’s an amazing business person that was able to strike that deal with his family. I think the family appreciated us because they knew that the quality of the product.
That’s one thing I’m really proud of: nobody ever complains about the quality of these authentic items.
I like to say that Mitchell & Ness authentic jerseys are actually better than the authentic of the day. It’s all about the exact details, but then using innovations that are even better.
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