Heritage Businesses in WNY / New Era
A family of hatmakers reinvents the baseball cap
The company’s world headquarters on Delaware Avenue.
Contemporary photos by kc kratt
160 Delaware Avenue, Buffalo,
How old: 100 years
How many employees: 1,000-plus
From baggy berets to fitted baseball caps, for nearly a century, headwear industry leader New Era has woven itself into the fabric of Buffalo. In 1920, German immigrant Ehrhardt Koch saw an opportunity to redesign “fashion” headwear. The family-owned business embarked on a journey that would revolutionize and redefine the headwear industry on a global level.
Harold Koch (center) checks caps in a 1950s-era photos.
Menswear in the 1920s was defined by its headwear. Koch had great success early on with fashion caps, but they started to fade in popularity. The 1930s brought Ehrhardt’s son, Harold, into the business. His arrival ushered New Era in a new direction: the baseball cap. It was a calculated risk that paid off and ultimately defined the legacy of the company. The Koch family proved to be resilient, even through the privations of World War II, and, by 1950, New Era was the sole cap maker for big league baseball teams. The 59FIFTY was born, showcasing a more contemporary look to the original baseball style cap. This design would singlehandedly change the headwear game around the world.
In the 1970s, Harold’s son, David, was named president and the company saw rapid growth. New Era started producing headwear for MLB, college sports, AAA, and International Baseball leagues. Fast-forward to 1996, when Spike Lee came calling. According to New Era’s Brand Historian, Jim Wannemacher, “Lee called Chris Koch with the idea of making a custom-made red New York Yankees cap. He wanted his hat to match his coat for Game 3 of the World Series.” The rest is history. New Era went from a $120-million-a-year company to a $500 million company in just three years. That single custom-made hat shaped the future of creativity and collaboration in the industry.
Company historian Jim Wannemacher
With a global vision, current CEO Chris Koch has pushed New Era further. Even though the company is closing its Derby manufacturing facility, it claims its commitment to Buffalo is stronger than ever. New Era is now the number one headwear brand in the world, embracing all levels of culture, including sports, fashion, music, and entertainment. In 2016, New Era reached an agreement for naming rights for the former Ralph Wilson stadium, which is now New Era Field.
New Era has offices in Canada, London, Japan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Korea, Australia, Spain, France, Germany, Mexico and Brazil, and employs more than 1,000 people. Its headquarters is located on Delaware Avenue in the old Federal Reserve Bank, which it retrofitted in 2006. The company’s ninety-nine-year pride is front and center in an entranceway museum, which displays an impressive display of the company’s history, including the “twenty-two steps to perfection.”