Friday, December 11, 2009

Fit: Japanese vs North America, and the 70's

In case it isn't obvious, I started this blog to share my passion for vintage leather. I also decided it was a great way to share my rather isolated tale of 20 years in the vintage clothing business and my dream to get back into "making clothing". I started in design selling street fashions of my own creation in the early 90s to support my "art habit". Since then I traveled down an awkward road retracing the steps of both my grandfathers: one an artist and one a "Schmata Man".
Back when I was a kid clothing was all made in North America by people like my Grandfather. If you were Jewish, either your parents or your grandparents were most likely in the clothing business. It was a past marked by a secretive love-hate relationship. In the 1920s there was no where else for Jew's to work..I hear the stories over and over. But that's not what this post is about..its about the 70s to now. Part of the reality of the clothing business back in the day was the off shore production of North American companies. Long before China, Japan was the "go to" place to save money and move your manufacture. I remember my adolescence and the strange effect of this shift to Asia for clothing production. All of a sudden shirts and pants started to fit "funny". My 6 foot 2 180 lb frame would wear clothing and the sleeves would be too short or the neck was too narrow. I attributed this to puberty, where as in reality it was about fit. Japanese people are skinny, fit and smaller then 1970s North Americans. Since that time..the Japanese are still skinny and fit...and "fatness" has boomed here. With the fat boom has come the "bag boom" and clothing is made like giant sacks. It would seem that the average North American has not only lost their shape but lost the ability to even understand the concept of "fit".
I am amazed how in developing my leather jackets how difficult fit is. I am also amazed at the difference my Japanese friends who try on my jackets and my Canadian friends. Canadians try them on and marvel at the apparent quality of the materials and the look of the jacket. My Japanese friends instantaneously understand not just the materials, but the stitching, zippers and the language of fit. My anonymous friend in the photos explained so eloquently to me about my jacket "this is a one t-shirt jacket, not a two t-shirt jacket, the fit is excellent!". He of course gave me some advice with which to tweak the fit. My hope is that one day everybody understands the beauty of fit, cut, material and quality!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Quadrophenia, "Ton Up" and the Cafe Racer

When I was fourteen I remember feeling super cool and rebellious secretly watching Quadrophenia about the trials and exploits of youthful English mods and their exploits and clashes with Rockers. I had no idea who these subcultures represented yet I was drawn so much to the film that I went out and bought a fishtail parka. I could not see the connection. Later in life I started to listen to every genre of music I could get my hands on, including punk, ska, reggae, rockabilly, old soul, rock, funk jazz. I was continually exposed to these massive cultural productions and still I had no idea about the cultural context, politics and subculture that spawned all this energetic music.

Recently I started moderating on my friends motorcycle club site "" and never even asked what this term "the ton" meant? I was selling "cafe racer" leather jackets and had no clue what the origins of "cafe culture" implied. I was sent on a research mission!

Post WW2 was an interesting time in England. Like the U.S. and Canada, soldiers returned from the stresses and dangers of post war Europe to a quiet life and an shattered economy. The work of rebuilding Britain included a rapid new transportation system and a baby boom. With the massive surplus of cheap available military surplus motorcycles, post war riders would buy up these clunkers and customize them for civilian life. The roadways in the English countryside were winding and often in bad shape. Many of the routes traversed original roman roads that weaved through the English countryside avoiding ancient topographic obstacles long gone. Motorcycle enthusiasts would chop down their heavy military bikes into racing machines capable of handling the bad roads with their winding turns and poor conditions. With the paving and creation of asphalt Ring Arterial s around the larger cities, and the building of Cafes to service this new transportation network, the cafe race was born. Hungry for adventure, motorcyclists would customize their bikes (ranging from bobbers to "cafe racers") for handling and speed, and then race each other from cafe to cafe, roadside stop and back. Often the race was timed by playing Rock and Roll on the Juke box and if the speeds hit 100 mph..the rider was said to have done "The Ton" or reached the 100 mph mark. These were referred to as "record races" as in the time to play a song on a 45 vinyl record. Needless to say the culture of customization, bike culture, clothing and location are all what are referred to in "rocker" or "greaser" culture.

The cafe racer jacket is one of the many offshoots of this post war motorcycle culture. Cafe racers refer to a British or European style of simple sleek leather jacket particularly functional for racing. Minimal pockets and impediments were left off, and tight fitting military style cuts, with a mandarin collar were the norm. This type of jacket appears very early in Canada and Britain. I have many examples of simple mandarin collared jackets from the 1920s and 1930s. But that final racing style became common in the 1960s and 1970s made by such great companies as Lewis Leathers, Beck, Brimaco, Score and Buco.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Plastics: Miracle of the Future and Buttons

I have spent the last few weeks touring the last vestiges of the garment industry looking for parts. Toronto was a hub of garment manufacture. Fortunes were made in the garment industry in Toronto, Winnipeg, Montreal, New York and the entire great lakes basin. The clothing industry paralleled the industrial boom. For every new plane, train or automobile, new technologies in clothing had to follow. And where clothing is produced buttons and findings are needed. When the great "schmata" producers retired or went out of business because of competition overseas, the findings and buttons manufacturers followed suit. There were many many companies producing buttons right nearby where I live. Now I tour the few remaining companies that are like button archives mostly selling to the few specialty manufacturers left or providing various sundries to home sewers.

The period between 1870 and 1910 led to the discovery and manufacture of buttons made from new man made materials. First was nitrate cellulose discovered by the Hyatt brothers (looking for a pool ball replacement). Then cellulose acetate quickly replaced nitrate cellulose for industrial applications. The cellulose was too flammable to be moulded safely. In 1907, Leo Baekeland invented bakelite and the plastics revolution was born. Bakelite turned out to be an excellent material for making components with the exception that it darkened easily so light colored plastics could not be made. In the 1920s urea replaced bakelite as a preferred material. Part of my search for the perfect buttons has led me to caches of left over buttons made of urea compounds and melamine. These buttons mostly have the classic "cat eye" configuration (which in the button industry is referred to as the "fisheye" button). Modern plastic buttons can be dyed using specialty dyes depending on the material of the button. Nylon dye for nylon buttons and such. I have searched and found the best most original parts for my jackets. Some are purely stylistic, and most are absolutely original parts from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Check out the dyed buttons on the table.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Profiles: Amato Roberto Tranquilli

It is my belief that the amazing clothing of the past was born out of necessity, but also the interaction of the stylish. These style makers were not always the average joe but unique characters with incredible sense of design and bravado. Part of my love of clothing is the wonder of who wore the vintage that I discover every day. I've asked people I meet along the way to send me stories and photos of these past style masters. You can trust me not everybody was cool back in the day. I go through hundreds of thousands of pounds of clothing every year and it is the rare man or woman who dared to live in the exceptional garments and leather that I love so well!!
"He was born Amato Roberto Tranquilli in 1902 in Porto San Giorgio, a resort town on the east coast of Italy.
He came to the United States in the 1920s. Evidently there was confusion about his paperwork which caused him to spend a few months in the immigration jail in Bellingham Washington, before being put on an Italian ship and deported from the US. Right away he got in trouble. Mussolini had come to power in Italy--he caught hell for not giving the fascist salute. Because he was a deportee, they wanted to chain him to his bunk, but somehow he talked his way out of it. The ship's first mate had it in for him, though---always picking on him for the slightest thing. Finally, my dad reached his boiling point and challenged him to a fight. They came to blows, and the fight was broken up by people who were alerted by a metallic banging...This banging was caused by my dad repeatedly knocking the first mate's head into the deck of the ship. Amato was in trouble again. Fortunately the captain (who had taken a shine to my dad) ruled that when the first mate removed his jacket and cap, that he no longer represented the Italian navy!!!

Dad had many adventures---South Africa made quite an impression on him. He recalled one time he gave a little boy a pair of his old shorts....the boy was as proud as anything of his new garment.....Later, my dad and the boys on the ship went to the black part of town to drink.....They stayed past curfew, and started getting some VERY hostile looks from the natives. It didn't look very good. Whites who stayed in the black township after dark had a habit of coming to a very bad end. But then who should appear but the boy to whom my dad had given shorts. He guided them to safety...
Other memories of Capetown include seeing a plantation where blacks toiled as far as the eye could see, and their overseers poised over them with bullwhips.
Another story he told was of giving loaves of bread to the crowds on the dock....Not a single person ate until everyone had a share.
" As told by Bob his son.

Roberto was clearly a stylemaster. He worked as a fisherman, a miner, and he was ultimately and utmost a terrazzo mechanic. Bob told me his dad said of mining..."I'd rather work a mile in the air than 10 feet underground" . What amazes me about Bobs dad is the dignity that is apparent in every picture of him, and that as a working class immigrant that his sense of fashion was impeccable. What an adventurer he was!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

1930's Jackets: The Perfect Horsehide

Part of making perfect jackets is learning about the materials that make up he bricks and mortar of vintage jackets. Another part is about learning the techniques used to put these unique materials together. These are not the same techniques that are used today in mass produced garments. The great challenges of the last two years have been about both the materials and the unique requirements necessary to put them together in an excellent jacket. Finding the perfect leather has been a global search. I have looked on my local doorstep and overseas searching high and low for the perfect horsehide and goatskin. The requirement was simple
: find tanneries that produced an ethical quality product that was made the way leather was produced pre-1940 and also did the least amount of "harm" to mother earth. My search was paid in spades. The horsehide I have is bark tanned in a solution for months, recreating a tough tear resistant leather that is a near perfect match for early horsehide. It is super strong and yet it is supple. It is hand staked and shrunk to create a perfect hide top grain. The horses are deadstock and therefore the hides are unblemished by mistreatment or transportation. My tanneries are subject to strict 1st world regulations that produce the finest quality leather with the least amount of impact. Interestingly this leather emulates early 30s leather so well that the leather had to be spray finished, the same as in the 30s. Early vegetable tanned leather did not take black dyes well as I learned speaking with my friend Wolfgang, the Chief chemist at Dominion Tanning throughout the 1950s and 1960s. On early jackets scuffs and scrapes often revealed the underlying natural color of the leather. Check out my latest versions of early 20s and 30s jackets!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Halloween: Death and Flying with my Co-pilot

I love Halloween...being in the vintage clothing business I have access to the best stuff! Costumes become super fun and a great way to express your inner being during Halloween. My greatest joy is to go out to a rockin party and see what fantasies my friends and associates express in their garb and makeup. Halloween is a time for abandon where adults often release their inner scary stuff on the outer beautiful selves. It's just great...wife said Amelia Earhart and navigator...guess who gets to navigate, lol! Awesome that I have my early Swedish flight coat!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sharing the First One!

So being a chronic oversharer I am proud to show off my first model. Its a size 38 1920s style goatskin jacket. The design is super primitive with a rare large one piece back panel and side gussets with D rings. The shawl collar is complimented by the 1920s cotton taped grommet zipper. The leather is 1.2 mm (3 oz) vegetable tanned goatskin identical in weight, tannage and character to original 20s-30s leather, with cotton topstiching. I tracked down original 30s buttons and have a small supply that I will be using until they run out. The liner is 100% cotton flannel Saskatchewan tartan. This is the very first, I will be making more this week tweaking style versions, design and techniques. I will say that I am very proud of the result!