04/07/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
In March 2000, when Peter Capolino heard there was a famous rapper in Mitchell and Ness, his Philadelphia store, he went to introduce himself. "Now which one of you," he said, surveying the clientele, "is Fat Joe?"
Capolino, 58, may not be familiar with the work of his celeb customers, but they're familiar with his. His replica vintage sports jerseys—which sell for $250 to $750 and use the same fabrics, colors and logos as the originals—attract the likes of L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant (who owns a copy of his dad Joe "Jellybean" Bryant's Philadelphia 76ers shirt) and Billy Crystal (Yankees and Knicks uniforms), among others. "The work he does," says director Spike Lee, owner of Jackie Robinson and Jim Brown jerseys, "is exquisite."
Capolino began working at Mitchell and Ness, his father's store, at 11 and inherited it in 1978. Seven years later he came across some old flannel and decided to make six vintage baseball jerseys "for fun," he says. They sold out in days, but business didn't explode until '99, when the hip-hop crowd caught on to him, helping drive up annual sales from $2 million to $36 million—and inspiring Capolino (who runs the store with wife Fran Deitrich, 50) to copy the Philadelphia Phillies shirt of obscure second baseman Dave Cash. "I knew the young, urban kids," he says, "would love to wear a jersey with 'Cash' on the back."