We recently interviewed the good folk over at Bill Kelso MFG Co. and asked them a few questions on their history and future. Enjoy.
Q. So let’s start simple, how did Bill Kelso MFG Co. start?
A. This is a little known fact; the idea of creating the Bill Kelso brand started around 2006 with the ambition to create the perfect Indiana Jones jacket replica. However the resources available at the time forbade it so we chose to launch an A-2 jacket replica instead. We thought it would be fun and also ‘borrowed’ the name Bill Kelso from John Belushi’s character in the 1941 movie as we wanted to have a funny/friendly name for the brand. Of course making the A-2 proved quite a difficult task but we did it. I know that making an A-2 jacket might seem easy to some, but trust me, it isn’t. So originally we made a budget, let’s call it “house A-2”, and then later moved to replicate some original contract WWII A-2 jackets. Needless to say, we now offer a prefect replica of the Indiana Jones jacket.
Q. What inspires Bill Kelso?
A. The first thing that inspires us is that excitment you get when handling an original A-2 jacket. Those jackets are indeed pieces of history, they are garments worn by men who fought for their country and faced great danger. You can’t not think of that when touching them. Also, their pattern is remarkably good and the jackets fit very well and look really cool. If you are a tailor, you immediately get an urge of wanting to clone them so to wear them yourself and give others the opportunity to wear them as well. It’s really motivating. This way this piece of history and everything it represents can stay alive throughout the centuries. Bill Kelso also draws inspiration from everything vintage. We love the period from the 1930s and postwar and luckily thanks to the internet, we can find many info, photos and stuff from that golden era that are true inspiration to us. We also get inspiration from related books and old movies (e.g. The Wild One with Marlon Brando), and of course original vintage jackets. I must admit also that we are watching also what other brands are doing so we can identify possible trends etc.
Q. What does the future hold for you guys?
We aim to expand so that our jackets be available in shops all over the world. That is going to take some time of course, a few years. In the meantime, we would like to add up some more items like jeans, boots, shirts, hats etc, not necessarily military style, but vintage and become a complete clothing brand. Our goal is to be able to increase volumes so to be able to offer more economical prices so that our customers can benefit.
Q. Are there plans to produce other jackets alongside the flight jackets?
A. Oh yes, we already produce some civilian style jackets, sports jackets, biker jackets etc. See for example our famous Aeronaut and our classic half belt style Westfall jacket. We are always on the look out for new styles and have a literally a ton of vintage jackets to choose from. However, while selecting which jacket to release next, one must be able to somehow forecast the demand for this particular style, otherwise sales might be much lower than hoped for.
Q. I noticed that American Classics London now stock you guys, are you looking to get into more shops?
A. Yes, American Classics are our loyal friends in London and we thank them for their support all these years. Other shops that stock our products are in USA, France, Japan and China.
Q. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
A. Hard to say. Our future depends on factors such as the steady supply of materials upon which we have no control, e.g. horsehide. We really hope our suppliers will continue to offer the products we need to construct beautiful jackets. Another factor is the demand for classic styles which our Japanese friends and competitors have invested heavily upon and kept alive for at least one decade now. We hope they will be able to continue for the next decade. We do our best to help them. We don’t see ourselves making any huge leaps forward in 10 years but what I can tell you for sure is that we will maintain our products’ quality and try to increase it as much as possible as we constantly strive to improve our products.
Q. Favourite 3 jacket brands of all time?
A. I am not going to surprise you. Got to be J.A. Dubow Mfg for their A-2 jacket, Gordon & Ferguson for their M422 jacket and Winfield Mfg for their M-65 jacket. Unfortunately, all these three great brands don’t exist today.
Q. If you could only wear one Bill Kelso MFG Co. item for the rest of your life, which one would it be?
A. That would be a Rough Wear 27752 made with Victory horsehide, the first one we made with that great leather.
Q. Where do you source your leather and why don’t you use Shinki horsehide like other major brands?
We use leathers we import from Italy from tanneries that we visited in person and know what they produce and how they produce it. We do not use Shinki because the all the examples we have seen had a plasticky feel/hand to them and were glossy, unlike vintage leathers, and frankly we do not think it is as good quality as the Italian leather. Shinki leather is the obvious leather Japanese makers would use, but it’soverrated probably because it’s expensive (as are all Japanese products). I don’t think anyone can beat the Italians in leather much like anyone can’t beat the Japanese in electronics, or… sushi! Also import charges and custom duties would be too high for us and we try to keep our prices reasonable.
Q. Being a huge McQueen fan myself, can we expect to see any more Steve McQueen related items?
A. We once thought to make a limited run of his pants based on an original mint pair in our collection but haven’t found the time to do it yet. If we eventually do it, that would be the only one item we are going to make. The truth is there are some impressively good replicas of all his stuff out there and most come out of Japan.
Q. How many vintage jackets have you seen and how many are in your collection?
A. We have seen hundreds. Bought many to examine and then sold. We have also repaired many flight jackets and civilian ones for our customers.
Right now we have in our collection around 10 A-2 jackets some in mint condition, a dozen USN jackets out of which some really rare ones and 6-7 vintage civilian jackets.
Q. How many are the crew of Bill Kelso and what is their job?
A. There is seven of us. I am the designer and responsible for sourcing all the materials. Then there is Elias who is the production and quality manager who oversees everything. Alex, and Andrew are the machinists. Alex is assembling the jackets and Andrew making the linings, hand sewing the buttons etc. Roman is the pattern maker and Chris the cutter. Patroclos is our web designer and art director and Andy is the sales rep and our customer service guy. Since we are very few inevitably share tasks so Elias and Alex also help with the cutting.
Q. Tell us a bit about what goes into making Bill Kelso flight jackets?
Oh not much, we just sew them. I am kidding. It’s actually really hard to make a proper flight jacket. Let’s take the A-2 for example. First you need an original of the contract you are trying to reproduce. Originals are of course hard to come by and are expensive if they are in good shape. Let alone you must compete with hardcore collectors in order to buy them. We don’t care much about the condition we find them in but we definitely need them to have the spec label in good shape. The woven label is maybe the part that is most difficult to replicate exactly as it has to be digitized and then given to the label makers to make. Unfortunately, label makers don’t understand the level of detail we need and often deliver a piece of black woven taffeta label with 5 rows of yellow letters on it and that’s it. We reject that and explain that we need it to look exactly like the original but they don’t really like to spend much time on it so they just find a matching font and make another run. Unfortunately, todays fonts did not exist in WWII or they were different so you can’t match one word exactly by using one single font. It seems each character they used belongs in a different font set. It’s crazy. Meaning we have to reject the label again. So after failing to make the label using fonts, the label has got to be recreated digitally in vector format or hi-res graphics. It’s not an easy task. We have done it many times but every new label that have to recreate is as difficult as the previous one. There are too many factors that the label makers can do wrong. The size can be wrong, the stitching, or even the colors. After the label is done the rest is routine if you have the setup, meaning if you have the right horsehide, cotton lining color, knits etc. So the next step would be to make the pattern. When making the pattern we also look at many photos we can find from other original examples in order to confirm the details of the pattern that we see in the original jacket. When all that is OK we select the materials cut the leather and sew the jacket with love and attention to detail. Again not as easy as it sounds. Suppliers tend to make everything else except what you need. Finding the right leather required enormous effort, huge expenditures and travel. Sourcing the knits and the right cotton wasn’t easy either. For example the cotton has to be the right weight, right weaving and color. If you can’t custom make it, which would require thousands of yards and be very costly, it’s next to impossible to find it. Same goes for the knits. There are some knits around but none use the right size or count. Unfortunately, knitters have become scarce as dinosaurs and the few left tend to use acrylic and not wool that we need. Then you have the hardware that is manufactured by two factories in the world. We are lucky enough to have found good sources for all the materials we use but we are still in the look out for new.
Q. How Bill Kelso’s A-2 jackets differ from the other high quality repro brands?
A. We aim to create jackets that are identical to the originals. Maybe to the untrained eye all A-2 jackets look the same but speaking for myself I can identify the maker of a repro jacket by just looking at pictures. Each repro maker has its own attributes that make him detectable. Sometimes it’s the leather they use, details of the pattern, sewing style and the like. Our goal is to be able to make jackets that are indistinguishable from the originals. The first and major step towards that direction is to use the right leather. For various reasons other repro makers use beautiful leathers but leathers that don’t resemble originals very well. Maybe their intention is to serve a part of the market that want a classic style pattern made with a becautiful leather and do not care much about authenticity. Or for example other makers have tweaked the patterns to suit the modern physique or the Asian physique if we are talking about the Japanese. Others also use leather colors or specific hardware that were never found in original jackets. I can respect all that and accept it as fashion statement but beg to differ. I am happy to report that we use Liberty horsehide which is correct to the original A-2 spec and makes jackets as close as possible to the originals. With a little wear our jackets will develop the patina you see in the originals. Same goes for our civilian style jackets as well. Our jackets are labors of love, we pay attention to the last detail, so when you get one of them you know that our people have strived to give you the correct pattern that is going to fit you perfectly, searched all over the globe to find the right zipper, thread, the right button, the right fastener, collar hook, buckle or whatever other small item goes into this beautiful vintage leather jacket reproduction and hand sewn it to perfection.
Q. What is in your “TO DO” list and what jackets are you going to make next?
One thing that we should do if we can get the time is update our website to show the jackets made with the leathers we currently use. Many of our jackets are shown in Victory horsehide which, as much great as it was, has been discontinued by the tannery due to the complexities and time required to produce it. We have replaced it with Liberty horsehide which as I said is a perfect match to WWII leather and at some point we must update all the photographs on the website. Another step maybe would be to make a new website that offers more capabilities to the customers. You must have noticed that we offer the most comprehensive options in our products page, e.g. you can select thread leather color, lining color, insignia, NOS or modern repro hardware and the list goes on. In any case, we think we can still come up with an even better website, let’s see. Next we would like to release some jackets we tested but did not offer publicly such as the Californian (as worn by Bruce Willis in the movie Surrogates) the Poughkeepsie and Perry A-2, the Hercules half belt etc. We do have original patterns for some popular Cafe Racer jacket and some other jackets we plan to make soon. We plan for next September/October to start with the release of the Buco J-23 jacket to be followed by the Indiana Jones jackets from the Temple of Doom and Last Crusade movies as fans are anxiously waiting for them.
Huge thanks to everyone at Bill Kelso, and Platon for doing the interview. You can check their website over using this link.