When Coogi started in Toorak in 1969 it was known as Cuggi. It wasn’t until the mid-1980’s that the name changed to something more indigenous Australian sounding. And it wasn’t until the early 90’s that it really gained traction in the US market with Biggie Smalls rapping about them amongst others.
Coogi’s success was built on quality mercerised cotton and merino wool being woven in a unique array of colours and weaves in 3 dimensions to create striking fabric which is imitated by others, but which never quite seems to reach the original production achieved by Coogi themselves.
I probably need to stop here and make a note. Cuggi and Coogi up until the early 2000’s should probably be separated from what Coogi is today. The company was founded by Jacky Taranto and in those days and under his stewardship the company was focused on producing high quality knitwear for the Australian market. This Cuggi / Coogi is a different company to today’s Coogi. In those days, and I possess a vintage one with the original care labels, they were made in Australia and so too was the fabric woven here. This makes a big difference, a sense of control and hand in the product that can sometimes mean the difference between something magical and something replicable.
Speaking of which and on a side note; one of the most famous people said to have worn Coogi sweaters was Dr Huxtable in The Cosby Show. So much so that Coogi could sometimes be referred to as The Cosby Sweater. This is not true though. In fact, a Dutch designer named Koos Van Der Akker is credited with designing a good deal of Bill Cosby’s sweaters.
Back to the story. So, the reason I mentioned the two Coogis was because I want to remind our readers that some of the best of what companies produce comes from the authenticity of those that create it. There is a reason that Coogi is featured in the Smithsonian National Museum Of African American History and Culture for its cultural significance in shaping American culture - it is original. Lyrics by artists such as Biggie Smalls who raps ‘every cutie with a booty bought a Coogi’ exemplify how it became part of the lexicon of rap with the rise of artists such as Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg also wearing these unique sweaters. And it is the old Coogi that these guys were enamoured with. The Australian production, unique, referencing in a sense Australian indigenous culture, made from Australian yarns sourced by Taranto and his team, carefully woven to deliver, even to this day, a product which is still unmatched by others who are pursuing the same line.
Admittedly, the cut is a little odd at times and part of me wishes that I could go back in time and re-tailor these garments to get a more fitting result, but another part of me thinks they should remain exactly as they are. They are pieces of art that should not be disturbed. In Australia we have spent the last three decades outsourcing production as much as we could. Let the Chinese, Indonesians and Vietnamese weave our fabrics, okay now let them make our product too. So much so that eventually all that designers do in this country is press send on an email and then wait for the freight forwarder to tell them the container is in port. This is my least favourite thing about fashion and designing. Once, when I began my business, an artist friend of mine sent me a WH Auden quote, I have never forgotten it – “a poet’s hope; to be like some valley cheese, made local, prized elsewhere”. It serves to remind me often of what it is to make an authentic product. To have a hands on approach, to make something which is unique right down to the fibres you used. It is for this reason that I have a profound respect for Taranto and the early days of Cuggi / Coogi. This is a brand that epitomises the best of our country and what is has to offer. And yes, we have given so much of it away but then perhaps this paves the way for the next generation to pursue something for themselves - the next Coogi.
I would love to know where the fabric was woven and the techniques deployed but I gather that the last time anything was woven in this country it was a different and more disconnected world. What remains of fabric weaving in Victoria is now merely a tiny reference point to a country that was once far more active in turning our raw product into cloth. It was once said, and how long ago that time seems now, 'that Australia rode on the sheep's back'.
Today Coogi is headquartered in New York. It seems to have lost any authenticity. After Taranto sold the company when it was in financial difficulties in the early 2000’s the company changed hands a few times, nothing which I tracked with any enthusiasm. It’s current owners sell it very much to black American culture, it lacks any real authenticity and reference to Australia. It is effectively dead in the water because it has lost that founders touch. Until it comes back to Australia it will never be anything of great importance, for it is only the authenticity of the country and province of origin, like Camembert cheese is to French monks from the village of Camembert, or what the Barossa Valley is to Australian wine, that invokes in us that magic that makes you sigh - this is the real thing.
And so, in conclusion, I finally own a Coogi sweater, I bought a vintage one. It even says CUGGI on it. It is magnificent, textured, layered, colourful, cosy, vibrant and very comfortable to wear. I support local production, I hope that we have more Coogis develop out of our country. We have so few.