Monday, December 20, 2010

Death of Online Auctions, Ebay and the Web

I've been swamped over the last two months.  I have been running like a maniac both preparing for the holiday season and trying to get my new website for Himelbros working for the new year.  I have large plans to try and grow my site into not just a market place for my brand but I hope to be able to sell other finely crafted "small batch" vintage inspired swag and true vintage pieces.

I had an important reminder why there is urgency for me to get this site up.  This week I decided to list 35 items in the auction format on Ebay.  I've been on Ebay since its opening.  There is a long long story here, one that some of my friends think is a tall tale, but suffice to say before Ebay, the first online auction was a vintage clothing auction in Utah.  I was flatly rejected when I put out proposals to develop an open use online auction for collectibles by developers here in Toronto.  When Ebay opened up it was a godsend for me and my forward thinking peers.

Sadly today the reality has set in for me that Ebay is dead for selling.  I've seen the end coming for a while as after almost 15 years of selling the golden era of the auction format has come to a close.

While the price of running and hosting your own selling site is as cheap as opening a blog, Ebay became an increasingly hostile place for sellers of collectibles.  Those junk dealers and garage sale enthusiasts were the very same people who built the base of Ebay.  Unfortunately for Ebay they became increasingly over managed and viewed as expendable.  The site has geared itself to try and manage customer satisfaction, and charge exorbitant fees in lieu of its increasingly managed marketplace.  What the management failed to realize is that the buyers on Ebay are also the sellers.  As it became increasingly difficult to sell, the very competitive marketplace of bidders were being booted off and alienated as sellers.  While the theorists and controllers of management debated the declines in sales, real people were being alienated from the fun and open marketplace that was Ebay and building their own sites, or the many other nearly free auction sites that are micro competitors. One of my classmates from high school assumed the head of Ebay Canada and I often thought perhaps I could convince him of change before it was too late.  Even he left in controversy as Ebay fell into dissarray. 

The long and the short of it...I listed 35 auctions at 99 cents and sold 10 items for 99 cents.  I would be better off donating my goods to a charity store.  If a brother cant sell a perfectly good n-3b for 99 cents the value of online auctions is practically nil!

That being said I am getting ready for a holiday and a new start in the New Year.  Here are some nice juicy photos of jackets and boots...some of my favourites of the last few weeks!

Here's an interesting link to a fellow who really really likes leather...I don't know who he is but he sure looks slick and into his leather...and that makes him interesting to me!
Selby on Alfus the leather king

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fit, Failure and Frustration: Truth and Authenticity vs. Vanity

 One of the greatest challenges of my life has been trying to launch my new brand of vintage leather jackets.  The task has been overwhelming.  For years my business has been supplying stores and designers with vintage pieces and knowledge to help create and sell amazing clothing that otherwise might have been lost to history.  It has been a journey of self discovery.  My grandfather died 3 months after I was born.  He was a schmata man.  He grew a small business into a successful sportswear company that was long gone by the time I was old enough to want my first pair of Levis Red Tab 501s.  I had no clue that I would ever be in the clothing business.

Since I embarked on this mad scheme to recreate  leather jackets and materials from the pantheon of recent history,  I have faced what seem insurmountable challenges to my limited and developing skill set.  One of the biggest challenges has been commitment to fit. Fit is the way in which garments sit on the body.  If a body panel needs a curve or a taper, if a seam needs a quarter inch more or less, it will affect the overall look of the entire garment.  We as a culture take for granted that we can walk into a store and order skinny fit, boot cut, regular fit, narrow fit, low cut, high cut, loose fit and the multitude of varying fits for jeans, jackets and shirts. Muddling through these combinations and permutations of pattern-making is not childs play, and certainly not a skill that you can just hire someone to  make decisions for you.

So I've spent hundreds of hours making cloth models and mock-ups trying to decide on fit.  To sum it up the new millennial man is taller and heavier than the 1930s man.  So any jacket designed has to be modified to fit the longer frame.  But the real question becomes whether or not to keep the "true" fit.  True fit is different then changing the body type.  It is extremely important when designing clothing to understand the history of "fit" when jackets were designed. Jackets designed before WW 2 were distinctly different then jackets made during the war.  Previous to the war many companies often existed in relative isolation.  Until the advent of radio, a national transportation system, news papers and other forms of mass communications, it was difficult for designers of clothing to compare and study their competitors.  In fact the "trades" were learned in centres of commerce.  And those traditions were more likely "folk" in nature passed from craftsman to craftsman, and unless situated beside a neighbour in competition there was less impetus for development and change.  This is often reflected in the relative simplicity  of design of pre 1940s clothing. 
 The body shapes of early clothing are often repeated from company to company.  The earliest manufacturers were more influenced by new technologies like the sewing machine, snaps and rivets, and threads and fabrics then the exploration of fit and body type.  It would take the research and standardization of sizes to create the new patterns of the post 30s which honed the fits that would accommodate the soldiers of WW 2.  So there in lies the rub!
 My greatest dilemma and what is costing the most money has not been designing the beautiful lines of my Himel Bros collections.  It has not even been tracking down the most authentic materials.  It has been trying to work out the patterns the best reflect the authentic fits of the periods that the designs fall in and whether or not to modify those fits to meet the interests of some who would rather have a body hugging modern jacket look!  Look at all these 1920s-30s jackets.  Notice how the body shape is in actuality not tapered at all.  In the early period of jacket design, part of the beauty and simplicity of these early designs reflects in the fact that the body is essentially a symmetrical tube, like a sausage.
 The shape of the torso rarely changes in dimension from the armpits to the waste.  What this meant in fit terms is that the jacket always seemed to look awkward.  It meant that the back of the jacket required extra space to allow the wearer to lift the arms, and that the arm holes must have fit right up into the arm pits to allow mobility!

Also typical of these early jackets is the use of gussets.  Rather then the more complex bi swing backs of the 1940s, simple expansion and contraction gussets were used to allow the fit and tightening or expanding of the jacket at the back and waist.  The arms are usually awkward tubes, and the cuffs and waist often finish higher or shorter than a modern jacket.  This was likely for a couple of reasons.  In the pre war period, workers would wear their pants much higher up.  The waist would fall at the bellybutton allowing jackets to come down less.  This would allow for more mobility and not force a design that needed to accomodate the hips.  Also likely one could access trouser pockets easily.  Secondly most people wore gloves and or worked with machinery.  A long sleeve length might inhibit access to tools, pose a risk of being caught or just plain get in the way.  A lot of times earlier jackets accommodated gauntlet style gloves which would cover the gap between the cuff end and the hand.  That would make for a very nerdy fit.

 One of my goals with my Himel Brothers Jackets has been to maintain a true "depression era" fit.  So while lengthening the jackets to accommodate the longer modern man, for the most part I have struggled with creating the perfect awkward 1930s fit.  The arms are somewhat tubular, the body is sausage like on my shawl collared Heron jacket.  The body never quite seems to sit right while at the same time the arms allow very nice movement because of the extra leather on the one piece back.  This was an extravagance that was typical in early jackets when the availability of clean nice big hides to cut big back panels was not an issue.  It is interesting to note that early motorcycle leather jacket companies started to modify the design of a sports jacket to meet the unique needs of early motorcyclists.  The earliest innovations included a centre weighted expansion gusset, underarm gussets to allow forward extension of the arms , the addition of tapered cuffs and shorter body lengths to keep leather out of the spokes.  The tighter fits helped keep skin off the dirt in case of a fall.
 The early motorcycle jacket makers created larger closable wind flap collars, using zippers with wind proof flaps and other innovations that specifically addressed the need for warmth and protection when moving fast.  These adaptations come to a head in WW 2 when money for research and military specifications force an entire new approach to mass production and the garment industry.  I am writing more about production on my new wordpress blog about the trials and travails of starting a jacket brand at Himel Brothers Leather Blog

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Authenticity, Nostalgia and the Uniform of Labour!

Vintage is my life.  I love vintage leather, and certainly shirts, boots, tees and the myriad of other garments that I own.  I live and breath vintage clothing day in and day out.  I define my day by periods.  I pick vintage eras, and rarely do I ever mix garments up that might not have coexisted with each other in a natural time frame.  You might say that when I dress up, and out I always try and create visual authenticity.  I would say that my favourite era would be the 1970s, that being said the majority of my customers pick truer looks from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.   Classics like the rockabilly style with a McGregor shirt, or Pendleton, and a rolled up pair of selvage jeans, or a 1930s chore jacket, with painter paints and logger boots.  I often ask myself what is driving this desire to dress in the past?

 All these nouveau working class hipsters seem to share some common interests.  Obsessions with the uniforms of the past seem primary.  Whether it is the authentic brand or manufacturer of a tree climbing rated logging boot, or the raw denim or canvass cut of a working miners buckle-back pant with twill drill cloth pockets, the quest for lost authenticity in both manufacturing technique, cut and materials seems to drive the market.  Different brands will achieve different levels of this authenticity.  And generally, the more authentic the materials and production techniques, the purer the aesthetic of the garment the higher the retail price, and often the higher the cost to produce the garment.   As an example from my own experience, when you use cotton thread to sew a leather jacket as they did pre 1950...the thread will often snap as it pulls through the hide.  This makes for a much more difficult and costly task to sew a jacket.  Now why use cotton?  It certainly is not stronger the polyester, it will rot, it snaps and breaks?  But be authentic cotton is the thread that was used.  Not just that, but Coban (poly thread) will saw through the leather over time, and ultimately in the 1940s preserving the leather for long use was far less costly then paying someone to do a quick restitch and voila...authenticity when labour was cheap and available

 So what is this really all about.  I think there is a meta narrative driving this quest for the past and all this authenticity.  I believe that people long for the simple times when the labour market, food, the environment were well defined entities.  There is a sense of complete detachedness and schizophrenia lingering in the air today.  At the pace of knowledge and technology and the progression through which we exist and co mingle, a persons life and job can become obsolete within a few years of learning a new skill.  Software and technology upgrades, cheaper labour markets, and outdated modalities make more and more of us irrelevant, downsized, and obsolete. 

 A horsehide jacket, a pair of raw denim jeans made by a guy on a sewing machine in his own studio, or shoes hand cut and hand sew with waxed linen thread seem to act like anchors to the past...when you knew the historical zeitgeist of right and wrong, morality and sexuality seemed well defined, labour markets were growing and jobs were available, governments looked out for their citizens and food didn't kill you.  I think perhaps their is a generation out there that lives nostalgically for grandpa's day in a seemingly fluid and diminishing present.  That being said, our present is starting to emulate and ooze an eerie simulacrum to the labour and economic conditions of the 1920s perhaps the fashion is an accurate reflection of the times.  The photos are from the Time-Life Google image project. (except the colour one: from the Inspiration Show, Rin age old school cobbler/belt makers doing it oldtimer style)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Keystone Business: Boots, Leather and Heritage Brands

 Every good motorcycle jacket needs a good pair of boots.  Part of the tradition of the working man and the outdoors-man was a good coat and a better pair of boots.  It is a little known fact to the outsider, but the boot industry was tied to the jacket industry intermingled and intertwined like a Navajo rug.  The reason for this is strictly logistical.  Always before the leather jacket became common place the boot and shoe and glove industry was the paramount focus of the tanning business.  The best shoe leather was cordovan, and cordovan came from the butt of the horse. Only the thickest parts of the skin could be used for the soles, and only the butts for cordovan.  This left the front quarters of the horse as a waste product of the shoe industry!  And voila, the value of the jacket industry to use up the remainder of the thinner skins. This explains the prevalence of early rubber manufacturers like ACME Rubber, and American Rubber Co, Firestone and others that manufactured jackets, garments and outerwear.  The zipper was first used commercially successfully in Goodyear Boots, and it must have made the transition to jackets an easier proposition for the shoe    
companies to integrate zips into their garments.There are few of the heritage jacket manufacturers in operation today, however many many of the original shoe companies open since before the turn of the century are still in operation.  Red Wing, Viberg and many others are enjoying a vibrant revival with a new appreciation fuel-ed by the high price of vintage collectibles.In Toronto, my good friend Doug Malcolmson, owner of  Get Outside, is one of the great preponderates of this heritage footwear movement. We Canadians prepare for our harsh winters by going out and buying a new pair of winter boots.  From fashionable to strictly practical Doug carries only heritage brands including some Native produced boots made right here in Canada. 

Get Outside has adopted a philosophy that markets only the classics.  Classic boots have a predominately functional character over frill.  These features are not always simply identified but the brands are readily acknowledged as classic.  Who doesn't know Red Wing, Sperry Top-siders, Hunters, Converse, Doc Martens, Frye, Sorrells and the myriad of other great brands that have carved out their brands with good solid construction and wear, and classic styling.
 Last year Nancy bought a new pair of Sorrels.  This year its a pair of simple black Frye boots.  The beauty of these utility boots besides the tall upper and old school design is the oil tanned leather upper.  That oil tanned upper not only puts up with piles of abuse, but gets better looking with age.  It is easily treated with a mixture of oil and wax.  That combo waterproofs and renews the leather over the lifetime of the boot and allows for the resistance of our major enemy here in Toronto, street salt!

The modern heritage boot looks backwards, today you can find hand stitched welts, linen threads, urethane soles, crepe soles, gum rubber soles,  just about any feature your grandfather might have seen on his old dogs. Doug has gone as far as the Arctic to buy Inuit made boots, and even offers dearskin, beaded Mukluks.