Bill Cosby, His Sweaters, and the Man Who Made Them

Dutch designer Koos van der Akker gets candid about designing some of Cosby's best sweaters.
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Tyler McCall
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Dutch designer Koos van der Akker gets candid about designing some of Cosby's best sweaters.
Koos in his design (Richard Koek for KoosvandenAkker.com)

Koos in his design (Richard Koek for KoosvandenAkker.com)

The Cosby Sweater, made famous by Bill Cosby on The Cosby Show, has inspired a Tumblr account, a song appropriately called "Bill Cosby Sweater," and its own party theme (come on, you've definitely been invited to a Cosby Sweater Party).

Now it's getting its own "tournament" on Bill Cosby's website where fans vote on their favorite Bill Cosby sweater.

Some people think that those sweaters were designed by Australian knitwear brand Coogi (yes, as in "Every cutie wit a booty bought a Coogi")--but those people are wrong. The man behind the best of those sweaters is actually Dutch designer Koos van der Akker, who has been in business since 1965. And while he may be known for designing the "Cosby Sweater," he's also dressed stars like Cher, Elton John, and Barbara Walters, and had a line for QVC from 1998 to 2006 called "Koos of Course!" (Of course!)

We hopped on the phone with van der Akker to see how he feels about all this sweater-hype twenty years after the show went off the air--and surprisingly, he's totally fine with his creations being used as the inspiration behind "ugly sweater" parties.

Fashionista: So Bill Cosby is having a competition where fans can pick their favorite Bill Cosby sweater. Obviously you’re the famous designer of those sweaters-- van den Akker: Not all of them [laughs] but some of them, yea.

I was hoping you could tell me how some of that came about. Well, it was very simple. It was the early '80s when his show was on and I had an actress customer called Josephine Premice. She was a friend of Bill’s, and one day she said, "I need a present for Bill Cosby, can I get a sweater?" At that time I was making those sweaters for my regular customers, so I said sure.

She took the sweater to his set, and he put it on and liked it, and then he had to go on for the camera, so he kept it on and did his sequence in that. Then a couple of weeks later there was all kinds of mail--this was before email and all that--saying, "Where did you get this sweater?" So he called and said, “I would like some more sweaters, can you do that?” And I said, “Sure!” He said, “Just make them and send them, and I’ll keep what I keep and the rest I’ll send back.”

And it was perfect for me because I don’t like working with people, I don’t like them telling me what to do, so I just created sweaters and I would send him six or seven, and he would take two or three and that was basically it. It was not a big deal when it was going on, it was just another thing. The big deal came later when all of a sudden this got attention and people were talking about it.

Can you tell me a little bit about the process of designing those sweaters? I know they’re one-of-a-kind. Oh, that’s just what I do, you know? I paint with fabrics. I just throw fabrics together. I do that today, I’ve been doing that all my life, so it is all pieces of fabric put together, collaged, totally free-form on a shape that is basically a huge t-shirt, and it was always different. I use woolens and leathers and cottons and lace and whatever I had about.

In those days it was something special, nobody had seen it. Today, you know, everybody does it, there’s nothing special about it today. But in those days, it was pretty freaked-out, everybody thought it was just ugly, or nice, or they had no idea.

But he liked it, and it gave him a certain style. He was a great customer because this was a man who didn't bother, he was just fine, he never told me what to do, I did whatever I liked doing and he bought it. And this was a great guy who never asked for special prices like everybody always does, and he was great for my career. We still make clothes for his wife. They’re great people, wonderful people.

So you still have a relationship with him? No, not a relationship with him, but we make clothes for them. Once in a while when I bump into him, it’s a nice big handshake and that’s it. He’s just good people, he’s lovely.

Richard Koek for KoosvanderAkker.com

Richard Koek for KoosvanderAkker.com

This is the thing you’ve become known for, but you’ve been in business for so long. Yea, if you go on Google, and YouTube and all that stuff you see all kinds of interviews and stuff. I have a fan-mail, Facebook--I don’t know much about all that shit--but I have lots of stuff. I do the same things I did then now and I sell it in my store on Madison Avenue and people, it’s a certain style, it’s a cool style. You either like it or you hate it. To my luck, there’s a lot of people that like it, and I love making all that stuff. Why do you think there are people who don’t like it? Oh, because it’s crazy, it’s so different from any other product that’s around. I’m a 74 year old man, I’m basically sitting behind this sewing machine every day sewing up this shit and people just love it, that’s what I do and I've done that all my life. I had a big business in the '70s and '80s and then it quieted down in the '90s because things changed, it was lots of Japanese designers with a very different style. But I always kept my own style, because I loved what was happening with Japanese styles but I couldn't do that, so I stuck to what I have and I still do it today. And it’s wonderful stuff.

What kind of customers do you have now? Well, the customers that I have, because they grew up with me, so when I was 40, they were 40. So you can just imagine that they’re in their '70s, most of them, and they still follow the stuff that I do. And I have young customers coming in there too, I never go to the store because I’m not good with people, but I have a woman who runs that store, and we sell it.

We have people that have careers, we have bank directors, we have doctors, we have women that want to be special, that don’t want to be in the magazines, that don’t want to be photographed, that have a lot of money--because unfortunately it’s very expensive, because I do all this stuff myself, it’s all handwork. But it’s a wonderful group of people who I do not know, they just know my merchandise. I never meet them, I don’t want to meet them, and I can’t sew fast enough so it’s just all perfect.

So as I mentioned, Bill Cosby is having this competition for fans to pick a favorite--Do you have a favorite? No, not really. I just enjoyed making that stuff and that was basically it. It was just really another customer, and I totally loved doing it but as I said, when I was making those things I didn't think I was making something special. I just was making merchandise, you know? And that’s it.

Today I love all the attention, of course, I think it’s great. And all those young kids--I just had people in from Holland this afternoon and they said they have a Bill Cosby sweater party in Amsterdam. It’s just silly stuff, but it’s wonderful. Who cares? It’s nice.

Check out Bill Cosby in some of his famous sweaters; pick up a van der Akker original here: