Puffers of the Concrete Jungle

By Sanai Rashid

New York to me.

As the winter sun peeks through and snowflakes cling to windows, hundreds of Beacon students sift through our closets to find the perfect coat to wear to school. After finding a jacket with the right balance of style and comfort, we walk the chilly streets of New York, on the trek to school through subways and buses, and stuff our coats into our neon lockers at 7:55 am. We spend the next seven hours of the day engaging in heated discussions in history class, chatting in the third-floor bathroom, and staring out the window during math, exhausted at the mere thought of having to walk back home in the cold. But once 2:20 arrives, we pour onto the streets and let the winter blues melt away because for the rest of the day we can operate by our own demand. Teenagers in Canada Goose Parkas and Moncler Jackets flock to the Q train, students in Aritzia and Uniqlo puffers head to Vanilla Gorilla for study groups, and kids in Carhartt hoodies walk to Sticky’s. However, only one coat has reigned supreme for New York City students and New Yorkers for the last three decades — The Black North Face Puffer Jacket. 

You can’t turn your head without spotting someone inside these marshmallow-like coats, massive like wooly mammoths and trying to squeeze through subway turnstiles. Long before the 0°F wind chills whip through the city in January, you can be sure to spot The North Face’s stitched mountain logo. Every morning, dozens of Beacon students in North Face puffers march into the school building. PureWow editor — and former Manhattan high schooler — Chelsea Candelario says it best: “Right next to bagels and yellow taxi cabs, The North Face puffer jacket is a symbol of the Big Apple.”

New Yorkers will always find a way to express themselves, no matter how harsh the weather gets. Several Tik Tok pages and Instagram accounts showcase candid shots of New Yorkers in their winter fits. Take the Instagram page, @watchingnewyork, for example. Photographer Johnny Cirillo takes photos of everyday, stylish New Yorkers  who he deems “real people with real style.” As the next generation of New Yorkers, many Beacon students share a desire to be authentic and keep the world on its heels. 

Junior Rebekah WolfsonKilayko, lets their creativity fly free in the winter by “ignoring temperature limitations” and experimenting with accessories, like the rainbow scarf they just bought. Layering is also a popular choice amongst students. Senior Taino Rodriquez admitted that they always keep their zipper down because “even if it’s cold people will still see this fit.” With the sea of black puffers at Beacon, sophomore Geily Gonzalez decided to wear cream-colored earmuffs to avoid looking like another fish in the sea. Similarly, I love my North Face puffer, but I have started to wear different earrings every day of the week to keep my outfits original. Whether it’s a pair of dangling sunflowers, teacups, or matcha lattes, I let my earrings peek out from my hat and express my individuality. Yet fashion can feel confining at times, as junior Dani Suiero notes, “It’s sad how we can let expectations control an art form that should truly be about expression.” So she finds herself experimenting with complex eyeshadow and wearing vintage jackets to let her style express joy. 

However some students simply want to stay warm. Junior Emerson Alexander puts it best when stating that the weather makes people “depressed.” Thus, coats are utilitarian items — they need to be well insulated and circulate body heat. Puffer jackets are excellent insulators motivating their continuous reappearance, and make people feel as warm as their morning hot chocolates.

The many coats of Beacon

But Beacon students are not the first wave of kids to adopt the puffer coat — these jackets have kept people warm since the 1930s. After nearly approaching a hypothermic death on a camping trip, American businessman Eddie Bauer crafted a waist-length quilted puffer coat with a knitted collar. In the early 1970s designer Norma Kamali was inspired to enhance the puffer jacket when she wrapped a sleeping bag around her shoulder to keep her warm during a late-night camping trip. “As I’m walking into the woods I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God this is such a great coat,” Kamali told the Museum at FIT. “So I went back home, I took my sleeping bag, and I cut a coat out of it and I didn’t waste one part of the sleeping bag.” 

Around this same time, The North Face began making a name for itself in the hiking and mountaineering community in San Francisco. But, once the 90s arrived, the brand’s jackets diverged from the dirt paths of California and entered the concrete jungle. 

But who made North Face puffers relevant, you ask? Black New Yorkers. 

Puffer jackets were introduced into NYC through Black hip-hop artists who preferred wearing The North Face with it because of its bold colors, distinctive designs, and arctic-like shield over brands like Columbia and Patagonia, who failed in the quality and flair department. Lei Takanashi of The Cut describes how North Face coats dominated the East Coast rap scene, “In Method Man’s debut music video”, two members of his entourage are  seen wearing bright red and yellow North Face Steep Tech jackets. LL Cool J rocked a crowd in a fire-red North Face in his 1993 video for “How I’m Comin.” Heather B left her house with a North Face beanie and a Forest Green Nuptse vest in her video for “If Headz Only Knew.” And when the late Harlem rapper Big L went on his first, and only, tour in Europe, he relied on a trusty North Face parka to keep him warm.”

As I talked to my father and his brother, Shareef Rashid and Idris Rashid, elation coated their words while they recounted their experiences living in Flatbush, Brooklyn, during this golden age of hip-hop. My dad went to a public school in Brooklyn during the first half of the 90s, while my uncle Idris pursued art at LaGuardia High School during the second half of the decade. 

“It was an amazing time to dress,” Idris recalls. “My friends and I were heavily influenced by the hip hop culture at the time. I was as skinny as a string bean, but for some reason I wore a size thirty six to forty jeans because baggy jeans were in style. Polo and Ralph Lauren were top of the tier, while Tommy Hilfiger came in and out. The North Face jackets were huge.” 

My dad often jokes that his little brother got his sense of style from him, while he developed his style from an older friend named Rodrick Charles Wells III: “He was the flyest guy in our apartment building and the epitome of cool. He had a mustache before anybody had any facial hair. He wore cologne. He wore the dopest clothes. He walked like he was a king, no matter where he was. Nobody could tell him anything. Whenever we were around him, he would check the tags of our clothes to see what brands we were wearing. If you weren’t wearing a dope brand, you would get laughed at, so we always made sure that we had the flyest clothes.” 

New York rappers were a product of their environments — dressing cool elevated your status and becoming a rapper was the extra golden star. My dad and uncle found their footing in the same communities DMX and The Notorious B.I.G. were name-dropping in their songs. In “Dead Wrong,” Biggie raps about copping a North Face jacket, an homage to his city youth. 

Complex writes, “[New Yorkers] flipped a brand originally linked to affluent outdoor hobbies for their own means.”

My uncle (Super H) and his friends in 2000

After a while, white students from private schools like Dalton, Trinity, and Packer wanted the “hardcore” and “swag” lifestyle of Black rappers, so they too bundled themselves into North Face coats, slipped on Timberland boots, and faced the arctic streets of Park Avenue. 

“Their heads chuck back and forth inside North Face jackets to Tupac bumping on the sound system: Ain’t nothin but a gangsta party—,” Nancy Jo Sales wrote in her 1996 New York Magazine story, “Prep-School Gangsters.”

One could say the same about white Beacon students — who make up 46% of the school population — that flex North Face puffers but remain blind to the cultural significance of their fashion choices. Sophomore Faith Liu expressed, “North Face Puffers derives from Black American fashion from the Golden Age of Hip Hop in NYC. All of these kids wearing them are just appropriators. These are the outfits of my ancestors — something they’ll never understand.”

There has always been a complex relationship between Black culture, the fashion industry, and the white customers who buy into what is popular in our communities. Many white people profit off Black culture without acknowledging the Black creators who made their style possible. 

From Air Jordan 1s to hoop earrings, as my dad said it best: “everything we do as a culture is cool.” No wonder everyone wants to join in on the fun. However, the problem arises when white America tries to appropriate this “cool” as their own while ignoring the versatility and power in Black Americans.

Providing Black artists with the economic opportunities to elevate their artistry is truly important – more so than just acknowledgment of the Black community’s impact on mainstream culture. As said by my uncle Idris: “How can you celebrate the thief and forget the inventor?”

There is also a distinct amount of economic privilege that comes with wearing $300 North Face puffers, $600 Canada Goose parkas, and $1,000 Moncler coats that are sprinkled throughout Beacon. 

Beacon students walking to school.

The New York City school system is one of the largest districts in America, with 1,094,138 students enrolled in NYC schools. Of those students, 73% are economically disadvantaged, meaning that their families participate in economic assistance programs such as free or reduced lunch. A household had to earn between $15,301-$21,775 a year to qualify for a free lunch program before lunches were made free city-wide. Yet, less than 36% of students fall into this income bracket at Beacon.

Beacon promotes a culture filled with class-based exclusions. If you aren’t spending $15 on lunch every day, you are out of the loop. When GovBall season comes around, people expect you to purchase a $300 ticket to see your favorite musicians in concert, and if you don’t, have fun tearfully sitting at home all weekend watching videos of your friends screaming to Phoebe Bridgers. Teachers show little mercy to students who work jobs after school because why aren’t you indulging in the dozens of clubs Beacon has to offer? And forget about summer plans — if you haven’t already figured out what you are doing in the sunniest months of the year by January, shame on you. 

Clothing, in particular, demonstrates Beacon’s lack of economic diversity by enforcing a “have” and “have-not” mentality at our school. 

When junior Zeinab Keita was a freshman, she recalls being “star struck” by the amount of expensive clothing and brand logos she observed students wearing. “It brought me down because I knew I couldn’t afford those things,” she expressed. As the oldest daughter of a single mother from Mali, Zeinab understood how hard her mother had to work to keep her family afloat. She realized, “It’s ok to not do everything you want. It’s a matter of working for what you want, working for bigger and better things even though clothing seems like the big thing right now. In a week or so, these trends will be gone, so you can’t hop on everything.” 

Perhaps, the reason we aren’t having more of these conversations on class, privilege, and race is because of how self-segregated Beacon is. 

Five years ago, Beacon student Anne Isman wrote about the “safety in squads” — only surrounding yourself with people who act like you, think like you, and look like you. “Self-segregation could also be symptomatic of a lack of diversity in Beacon’s admissions process,” she explained. “Beacon accept[s] the same type of people from the same schools, resulting in a student body that shares similar lifestyles, mentalities, and racial identities.”

Simply throwing students from different backgrounds into a classroom together and calling that “diversity”  is ineffective as students will still find a way to end up at a table with people who are just like them. You can walk into Beacon’s cafeteria and see this happen right before your eyes. Our school is a microcosm of New York: a split between races, where one group gets off at one train stop and the other at a different station. “New York City is only diverse in the subway,” as my uncle Idris says. 

In my friend group, I too fall victim to surrounding myself in a liberal upper-middle-class bubble, finding comfortability in cliques of people who resemble my beliefs. After all, high school is already an overwhelming time — you are figuring out who you are and who you want to be while studying for your AP Bio exam the following day. Yet, I have realized that while it may be easier to find solace in people like you, surrounding yourself with people who might not “get” you at first glance might help you learn something about yourself in the long run. 

New York winter by Sanai Rashid

As tiresome as it is to hear, we have a lot more in common with one another than we like to admit. After all, every Beacon student has to wear a coat to get to school in the morning. So aside from the price of your coat or what brand it’s from, the conversations surrounding our puffer jackets give way to are undoubtedly worth exploring. 

As students, we can all break out of our friend bubbles and learn from each other. While white upper-middle-class students make up the majority at Beacon, there is no denying that Beacon students of all backgrounds color this school with their distinct personalities and inquisitive minds. There is a story behind every community, so it would serve to everyone’s benefit to listen to each other.

The North Face mountain you see stitched across every shoulder pad is a testament to the summits we must climb to recognize one another. Their motto is “never stop exploring,” so it is time we all explore out of our puffer coats, learn more about each other’s communities and in the process understand ourselves. 

Many New Yorkers struggle to afford coats in the winter, but thanks to DonateNYC it is easier than ever to find agencies near you accepting winter items so we can keep our less fortunate neighbors warm. 

One comment

  1. Sanai,

    Your article brought back memories of searching NY stores trying to find sales on North Face jackets. Traveling to Woodbury Common Outlet and Reading’s PA Outlet; we hit a gold mine of sales! Our sons walked proudly the halls of their NY schools wrapped up in their puffer jackets and Hip Hope attire associating with a bigger purpose of black pride and diversity. Even though we both had jobs, without those rare sales on North Face jackets, our sons probably would not have gotten those jackets. Your article express differences of privileged and not so privileged students juggling school and work as oppose of joining clubs is a reality; still achieving their dreams. Excellent piece on associating with diverse communities as a plus; it allows you to understanding and appreciating the commonality of the human race.

    Very insightful article.
    Ummie & Baba

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