Meet Jeff Hamilton the leather craftsman to the stars
IT’D TAKE YOU A WHILE TO FIND A POP CULTURE INDUSTRY THAT DESIGNER JEFF HAMILTON HASN’T WORKED INTIMATELY IN.
Raised in Paris as a big fan of American culture and sports, he moved to the United States as a young adult and dove headfirst into his design career, finding quick success with his determination and skill as the founder of Guess Jeans.
Eventually Jeff jumped from denim to leather (which he said he’s loved his whole life, and we 100% relate), and began building up his own brand of fine art level custom leather jackets that have reached the shoulders of performers like Madonna and basketball stars like Michael Jordan ― specifically during some of the historic highs of his career, aka the legendary Chicago Bulls three peat championship victory that was, of course, commemorated with a custom leather design from Jeff.
With his reach ever-expanding and his detailed craftsmanship evolving to even more expert levels, it just keeps getting better and better, with the value of each custom piece only gaining value and never losing relevance over time. Prime example: A$AP Rocky taking on Yams Day 2020 in the Los Angeles Lakers back-to-back championship jacket originally worn by King Mamba Kobe himself all the way back in 2001. 🐍
JEFF JOINED US IN A ONE-ON-ONE INTERVIEW to chat about everything from his initial attraction to leather, intricate creative process, experienced design philosophy, and even plans to make his highly coveted, instantly recognizable work more accessible ― which those of us who don’t have budgets like LeBron won’t want to miss.
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You have quite a resume with high-profile players in the sports industry. Can you tell us about your first experience with basketball?
So, I was raised in Paris and as a kid I was a big fan of American. I loved David King, who was American, and growing up I always loved basketball. Even when I was a kid, on my wall I had posters of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West and people like that. So, when I moved to America I began working in design, starting with founding Guess Jeans. After Guess, I started making leather jackets, and one thing led to the other, and I started designing for a few NBA players. Very quickly I got involved with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, and more big names who really helped me penetrate further into the basketball industry. I started making custom pieces, commercial jackets, and ultimately making jackets like the one I have on, similar to some of my championship jackets for Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
A notable milestone that secured your icon status in the basketball industry was the moment of the Chicago Bulls celebrating their second three peat victory in The Last Shot jacket. Even prior to that, when did you realize that you were part of the culture?
I think probably early 90s. Probably even late 80s, when I start getting involved in making the jackets, you know? Originally, I was making the jackets for myself, cause I couldn't find jackets for me to wear. I used to ride Harleys, I used to ride all kinds of different things, and at the time I was very flashy ― it was the 80s, my hair was really long, I was much younger. I started making jackets, and I realized I was a part of pop culture when I started creating for people like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and George Michael before even getting involved with sports. Then, of course, I got into sports and started working with rock groups like Guns 'n' Roses, and I did some stuff for the Rolling Stones.
Each of these accomplishments were equal to another, a means of building up, kind of like my resume. But, my role in pop culture started really getting strong in the 90s, around ‘93, ‘94. You know, when I started getting all my jackets in the marketplace, and kids in all these inner cities were wearing my work, that’s when I realized I was making an impact with my designs.
It’s touching moments like that which are really represented in your jackets, right? It’s a nice commemoration.
Right. I would say I was very flattered when I attended the Grammys this year and then I saw a jacket of mine from Madonna, one from Dr. Dre, one from Snoop Dogg, you know? So, I get to know that my reach extends far to a wide spectrum of people. I mean, I’ve created jackets for Nelson Mandela, for presidents and politicians and kings. For me, the cultures I’ve touched are very different, it's not really only one direction ― though hip-hop culture has probably embraced me the most.
So I mean, I know that I'm reaching out there, a big spectrum of people, even, you know like, even now. I mean like, I've done jackets for Nelson Mandela, and some jackets for all the presidents, you know? So, and then some of the kings, you know? So for me it's kind of like, very different, it's not really only one direction, though the hip-hop culture has embraced me probably the most.
It’s nice that you mention museums and halls of fame that transform these pieces into actual works of art. How do you find this balance between art and design in your practice, especially with people willing to spend thousands just to own one of your jackets?
One of the things I realized very quickly was when I began making the jackets, a lot of people kept telling me it's a work of art, because every jacket has to be done one at a time, sometimes with many handcrafted details. It's a very intricate, difficult process to put together a jacket. So, everybody starts telling me they’re works of art, so one thing that I started doing in the early 90s was basically signing every jacket I made. Every jacket that was very unique ― every custom jacket, not the commercial ones ― all the high-end ones I started signing and putting the date when the jacket was actually made.
Eventually, I started making art myself, basically replicating some of the designs but in large-scale leather versions, and now I have my art in a lot of different galleries all across the world. Besides that, I'm involved in the art business, I also own an art show in Los Angeles. By the way, there's tremendously amazing, phenomenal Brazilian artists. I mean, the street artists in Brazil are fantastic. My favorite one is Eduardo Kobra, I love his work. In the past, I've made pieces for a few Brazilians, I've done jackets way back then for Ayrton Senna. I remember I received a helmet from him in return, like a racing helmet.
It means a tremendous amount to me to create that way, the mixture of it is the perfect combination for me, because I'm still making art, yet my jackets are in themselves considered works of art. People don’t necessarily buy my jackets because they're cold. People buy the jackets because they wanna make a statement. In the same way someone doesn't buy a Rolex because they need to check the time, they wanna make a fashion statement or a social statement, whichever it is.
What quality do you think that makes something timeless, like your jackets?
I really think it’s about not being a follower. I don't necessarily try to follow industry trends, I'm basically trying to create an expression of a moment, such as when a championship happens.I'm trying to keep it to capture that moment in time, like when somebody takes your picture. For example, right now I'm hoping that the Lakers win the championship. If they do, I would have designed for Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James, having all three wearing my jackets in the locker room. So, I already made the designs and I'm waiting to hopefully see them come to life.
Can you identify when your connection to leather in streetwear began?
I was always attracted to leather, even when I started Guess Jeans, that attraction has been there my whole life. I started putting that together and applied it when I began making jackets myself, I figured out that I could make one of a kind jacket. Even though it would take me much longer to make compared to different processes like painting, or embroidery, I was able to make only one. The disadvantage was that the jacket was very expensive, but the advantage was that I could make it one of a kind, without having to just put a whole clothing production line together.
And it's all produced by hand?
Yes. All cut by hand. So, I create all of the artwork to make sure that everything can be done. But, everything is cut by hand and then pieced together and sewn by machine, but by my hand machine, you know?
We heard that you're planning a comeback, and, like you said before, you're hoping for a Lakers win. Can you tell us a little more about your next step, and how you plan to bring your pop culture Hamilton signature to it?
What I’m trying to do is basically create a whole line under Jeff Hamilton that focuses more on lifestyle trends, which will feature mostly t-shirts, sweatshirts, and jackets that are priced for commercial use. I'm going to do it in two different ways, through distribution to stores, to a very very limited amount of stores, and the rest through my own e-commerce website. Hopefully that will be ready before the end of the year.
What do you hope to express with this collection?
It's unfortunate, the high-end pieces are so expensive that not a lot of fans who have known my brand for up to 30 years can really afford it. I hope this will allow me to open up the channels a bit more to reach more people who have been following my career, and even make my products more accessible to the new generations.
How do you think nostalgia influences modern design and younger generations?
I really believe that nostalgia plays a big factor in modern culture, and I think quality and the design itself has a lot to do with it also. Fashion is constant, you keep continuously reinventing the process. So, if something was good quality and successful two years ago, it’s still gonna be good and successful today. There's a lot of different things that may need to be adjusted like the sizes, the fashionable fit is maybe not as oversized as it used to be, people prefer more fitted. There's a lot of different elements to adjust, but overall, it's pretty much the same.
What’s your version of winning a championship?
I don't know, there's so many different elements ― just being happy in getting the recognition of what you are doing. It's not necessarily the money, the money just comes with it. It's a kind of validation, the recognition of people knowing that you're doing something that makes a difference. Seeing icons like Mike Tyson, or Michael Jordan, or Kobe Bryant, or even Nelson Mandela, seeing all these iconic pictures of these people wearing my jackets. For me, I mean, it is priceless, there's no price that could ever equal me being in the locker room with Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, or having all the 50 greatest players in the NBA wearing my jackets.
We’ve heard that you are passionate about iconic cars and bikes, can you tell us the top five classic wheels that you love?
As I'm getting a little older, probably more like Rolls Royces and Bentleys, but I still love beautiful cars. I love to look at beautiful cars like Ferraris and Bugattis and Lamborghinis, you know? For motorcycles, I love the Bugat- the Ducatis, really love Harley-Davidson, and I’ve owned a lot of Harley-Davidson in the past. I don't ride Harleys anymore but for the 20 or 30 years I rode, I had a lot of Harley-Davidsons, and designed a lot of them as well.
When we think about Harley-Davidson, we think about a powerful leather jacket behind the wheels, so it’s a nice connection.
This was when, back in the late 80s, I was making a lot of jackets for all the rockstars. I used to ride a lot of Harleys, and I used to ride with these stars like Billy Idol, all the guys from Poison, all the guys from Mötley Crüe ― we used to be always riding as a team, and always running around together.
CHEERS TO ANOTHER 30 YEARS OF JEFF CHANGING THE RULES WITH TIMELESS LEATHER PIECES. 🥂
Speaking of changing the rules, we just launched a collab with The Shoe Surgeon: an exclusive custom of the Air Jordan XI Concord. & it can be yours with our giveaway happening 'til Oct 9th, so don't miss it.