BY BOB KLAPISCH, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
FOR ANY NEW YORK GIANTS FAN, invoking the name “Carl Banks” brings a rush of memories from the franchise’s golden era. The linebacker was part of a legendary defense in the ‘80s, teaming up with Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor and Harry
Carson, and leading the Giants to two Super Bowls. Considering how sluggishly the G-Men began the 2017 season, you couldn’t blame the die-hards for wishing they could turn back the clock.
Banks might be flattered by the thought, but he’s moved on to a new career and the second act in his life. Today, Banks is the president of his own clothing line, G-III Sports, and has been particularly successful relaunching the Starter brand line of ‘80s satin team jackets. It might seem like an odd leap—football to fashion—but Banks was interested in clothes as early as 1985 when Starter asked him to be a brand ambassador. He was instantly hooked and knew he’d be in the apparel business after his gridiron days were over.
But that’s not to say Banks is entirely divorced from football. His sports commentary can be heard on Sirius NFL Radio and WFAN. And in 2007, he became an analyst for the Giants’ radio broadcasts. Here are his thoughts on his fashion business, the NFL (then
and now) and how social media has changed the world for athletes.
COMMERCE: It seemed like your entire upbringing was geared around football, at least by the time you were at Michigan State. Yet you were also preparing for a business career after retirement. Why?
CARL BANKS: Well, I grew up in Flint, which meant you either went to college or you worked at a GM plant. In my case, I was digging graves in a cemetery. So, when I got
my scholarship to MSU, I wanted to make good use of it. I never allowed myself the luxury of thinking I’d be a pro athlete, even though I aspired to be.
Things were a little different back then. You weren’t ordained to be a star, as some young players are today. We weren’t very good [at MSU], so I had no way of knowing I would be the third player taken in the NFL draft. I wasn’t talked about very much.
I had to play in the Blue-Gray Game in Alabama at Christmas just to get [NFL teams] to notice me.”
Q. So, despite your talent, you were unsure about a career in pro football?
A. Put it this way —the day I was drafted by the Giants, I was joining four All-Pro linebackers, two of which are in the Hall of Fame today. But [head coach Bill] Parcells told me, “I didn’t draft you to sit on the bench.” That’s when Harry Carson said, “What are you going to do to get on the field?” I knew I had to earn it.
Q. Obviously you survived the challenge, but almost immediately you started branching out into fashion. How did that happen?
A. Well, Starter began its relationship with the NFL in ’85, and I was one of the first players they approached. They wanted me to be a brand ambassador. I thought it was really cool. I had a chance to spend time with [Starter founder] David Beckerman to learn what he was doing with sports, culture and fashion. This was long before Nike
was doing this. I dug it. I said, “When I grow up I want to be just like him.”
Q. That was your formal entry point to fashion, wasn’t it?
A. Yes it was. Around 1987, I started designing leather outerwear because I didn’t see anyone doing it in sports. I thought it would be great to do team jackets, so I developed them in a place called the Smoke Room on 37th Street in New York City. They only gave me big and tall in suede, but I never took my eye off the prize. I knew I had to start
somewhere. I grew that business with the NBA and Major League Baseball and became the biggest and best outerwear manufacturer in sports. But my goal was still to be what Starter was.
Q. You ultimately relaunched the brand and brought it back to where it was in the ‘80s. How did that happen?
A. You have to fast-forward to 2013, at which point I was developing sports jackets from movie moments, like Beverly Hills Cop, Major League, Coming to America. I wanted to be as authentic as I could in replicating that. I had the rights to the team logos, but I didn’t have the license to the Starter logo, which was by then defunct. I was put in touch with Iconics, which had the IP rights to Starter. All the [professional leagues] were on board, because Starter had such a connection with what sports were all about in the ‘80s. Because of that, we have been able to build a really strong company. When I started this, I never thought I’d be able to relaunch Starter. That’s near and dear to my
heart. Starter is my thing, I love what it stands for, and I’m happy it’s resonating with the younger generation.
Q. So, as far down the road as you are in fashion, do you ever find yourself missing football?
A. No, for several reasons. One, I have two Super Bowl rings. Two, I played for some very dominant teams. There’s not much to miss. There’s nothing left to chase.
Q. But you’re an analyst on the NFL Network, still very much aware of how the sport has evolved. How does it compare to the ‘80s and ‘90s?
A. Today’s players might be bigger and stronger and slightly faster, but if you gave the same training to guys in the ‘80s, they would likely dominate these kids today. Look, I have a great appreciation for the kids; I am the last one to say, “back in my day.” But if you were to tell me Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice couldn’t play today, I would say
something is very wrong. And if you told me Jackie Slater and Anthony Munoz couldn’t be the most dominant offensive tackles in the game today, you’d be sadly mistaken. Trust me, if you lined up one of today’s defensive tackles against Munoz, they’d go back
to the huddle crying.
Q. What do you appreciate most about the present-day version of the NFL?
A. The game is “safer.” It’s in everyone’s best interests to preserve the crown jewel, so quarterbacks are now safer. I have no problem with that. But there’s a flip side to what I previously pointed out. You can’t say [Tom] Brady couldn’t play in the ‘70s and ‘80s
because he could. He’s physically and mentally tough. My point is that football is football—when you’re good, you’re good.
Q. And what’s your long-range prognosis for the Giants?
A. Obviously I’m a Giants fan, but the beautiful part of this franchise is that you can be critical without it being personal. That comes from some of the greats I got a chance to meet and know, like Sam Huff or the late Frank Gifford, or being a teammate of Harry Carson or playing for [Bill] Parcells. It’s all about accountability with the Giants.
Q. Do you think the current generation of Giants understands that legacy?
A. I think so, but they have different careers than we did. The biggest change is in social media. It amplifies their lives in a way we never had to worry about. I mean, if you lived in New York back in the day, you went to Studio 54 or Joey’s in Clifton and you didn’t have to worry about social media. Today, everyone wants to be a nanny for a 24- or 25-year-old athlete. If these guys are seen out at night, people want to say, “They shouldn’t be doing that.” I believe they’re being unfairly criticized, which is why I’m sensitive to the
world they live in.