Eric Emanuel lives and works in New York's Garment District, not too far from the factory where he makes his eponymous label.
“I set my whole life up here,” he says. “I live here, my office is here, the factories are here, and I get to see the madness all day.”
The madness occurs every Friday, where Emanuel releases a small drop of products on his website, where they usually last about a few seconds before selling out, much to the chagrin of his hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. His line consists of many sportswear staples that characterize other independent streetwear labels: hoodies, T-shirts, sweatpants, and even some thermals in the cooler months. But the one thing he's absolutely nailed? It's gotta be the shorts.
Indeed, whether it's solid colors or out-there prints that range from florals, paisleys, or an insane print of the New York City skyline, Emanuel has become synonymous with some of the best above-the-knee knickers on the market. And unlike the other New York Knickerbockers, Emanuel's shorts have been big winners for his brand. In the past couple of years, he's gone from hometown hero to global collab king, working with beverage companies like Mountain Dew, sneaker companies like adidas and Reebok, and now the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team on an array of covetable gear.
Emanuel's personal uniform usually consists of a pair of his popular mesh shorts, a vintage tee, and a Yankees fitted. As a flex he'll finish off the fit with a pair of his collaborative Reebok Club C sneakers, one of many models he's done with the Boston-based sportswear label. But he's also open to stepping up his game by switching it up with a pair of Gucci loafers, a clear co-sign of a trend that's been spotted on Instagram. Then again, as Emanuel points out, part of the fun about his flagship product is it really isn't that serious.
“I think that's why the shorts have been such a success, because it's not binary in the sense that you have to wear them in a certain way,” he says. “Wear it however you want, it's a pair of mesh shorts.”
The king of shorts took a break from running his kingdom to talk about his rise to success, how he found his lane, and other project he has in the works. Ironically, it's kind of a long story.
Where are you from Eric?
I’m from Syracuse originally, and then I moved here eight or nine years ago to go to FIT for marketing. Towards the end of my senior year I started making jerseys, and ended up running with that.
When did you start your label?
When I was getting out of school I didn’t want to go work somewhere, so I sort of just maneuvered — I was paying to make product off my credit card, I’d then move that balance to another card just waiting for that moment when a product would sell and I could pay the bill. Betting on myself, knowing some day it would work.
When does your shorts story begin?
The shorts would have been three years ago I think. I started with a heavier short — like a very traditional basketball short from Mitchell & Ness. But theirs wasn’t really what I wanted to wear. I didn’t like the big waistband; I didn’t like the weight. So I switched to something that’s practically my lacrosse short from high school — a very basic single layer short. That’s where I found success, but even so I would say it took until the end of last summer for it to really catch fire.
It seems when you do a drop every Friday it sells out instantly. Is that exhilarating or frustrating?
It’s frustrating. You would think that you’d be so excited to sell your product out in a day, that it should be this harmonious moment. Unfortunately, you have to deal with everyone who’s upset they didn’t get it. So I’m trying to find a balance of fulfilling the demand and going a little beyond it.
I had no idea this sort of “cozy revolution” would’ve taken over. Everything I’ve released over the past two months was made in the winter. The quantities were super low and it sold out way too fast. Then we had to stop making shorts for about two months and wait for New York to become a bit safer. It’s been a whirlwind.
How else has Covid-19 affected your business?
I pulled everything forward because I didn’t know where the economy was going. I didn’t know what was going to happen. And it sort of backfired in the sense that I ran out of product, and it wasn’t safe to continue making more until a month ago. That’s when we really hit the ground running. Everyone’s hungry to work, but it was very difficult to figure out how to do it in a safe manner. Now, whatever is made this week is being sold next week. And I’m very lucky that since I make the product in New York so I can sort of schedule it that way. In an ideal world, we would be six weeks ahead.
It's pretty ballsy to call your product “The Best Shorts in the World,” but there it is printed on the packaging. What separates your shorts from others on the market?
I focused on a product that not necessarily everyone cared about. People would run shorts here and there, but it was never their core item. Instead of starting with a T-Shirt, I went into a market where there was less competition figured out how to own that. Why is it the best short? I think it’s because it’s essentially your favorite short, but a bit elevated. It falls little bit above the knee, you can size up if you want it to be baggier, and it just wears well.
There’s something for everyone. I personally like solid colors, but a lot of people love the patterns. The patterns tend to be motifs that I relate to at the time — sort of where my head's at. I have an infatuation with rugs, so we ran with it. Luckily others seem to love rugs as well, because they’re probably the top pattern this season.
Speaking of balls, is there a recommended shorts-and-undies combo for maximum breathability?
Uniqlo Airism boxer briefs! I have such an appreciation Uniqlo basics. I'm there like once or twice a week.
At $98 a pop, that's a good chunk of change, but it's also not egregious. How do you justify that price?
I think $98 is a price most people are comfortable with given that they’re made in New York. If I had to wholesale these shorts, the retail should be at least $150 or $160. The fact that I do direct-to-consumer allows me to keep it at $98. At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily a “luxury product,” it’s a made-in-the-USA basketball short. It’s important to note that it’s made in New York and all the components are sourced from the United States. I get comments all the time of people saying: “Oh, he’s selling a pair of $10 shorts with a logo on it.” That’s not even close.
It’s expensive to make things here, but the craftsmanship speaks for itself. To speak on the process a bit: The mesh arrives; it’s sent to a cutting room; after that they’re sent to be sewn; a truck grabs them and takes them to be screen printed; another truck grabs them to where they're steamed/pressed and packaged; and finally they're shipped.
How does it feel to see people reselling your shorts?
I don’t think there’s a right answer for that. It’s a good feeling to know that your product’s in demand, but I’m also like: “Gee, I wish it went to the people that actually want it.” It’s frustrating when I see it on Grailed or eBay. People have commented that they wish I would do a pre-order so I can meet the demand, but I'm an instant gratification shopper — I want what I bought ASAP!
Beyond shorts, you’ve also done collaborations with New Era on caps, and kicks with both adidas and Reebok, how would you describe the EE signature touch to these products?
The partners I work with are all brands I grew up with. For the most part, I want all of the product I touch to remain as classic as it should. I may throw in my favorite “EE Pink” — PANTONE213C - the color blocking of the original product remains intact.
You’ve also got this 76ers collab coming up, right after another iteration of Iverson’s sneakers. Is it weird to be making basketball shorts when there hasn’t been a season until recently?
I always go back to one thing: Allen Iverson was always number one on my mood board. The recent collaborations are truly a dream come true. The lack of games hasn’t affected my desire for shorts — I love shorts with or without basketball, and whether it's summer or winter. It’s exciting to see things kicking off this weekend though!
What other collaborations are you cooking up?
The Reebok Club C-EE is up next! My favorite shoe to date: an easy, everyday wear. It's the first shoe I’ve done that my Mom and Dad can wear often, [laughs] that makes me so happy.
In the past you’ve experimented with fabrics like mohair, leather, and bouclé, both on shorts and sweatpants, is there a dream material you haven’t worked with yet?
I really love cashmere. Cashmere shorts would be amazing, but that seems like a pretty standard answer — so maybe GORE-TEX? That, and and more waxed canvas.