An Interview with Ken Calder of Aero Leather

Starting Almost Vintage Style has been quite a journey so far. I have met a myriad of awesome people and have learned a lot and hopefully helped some people out along the way. Even though my articles are written for people interested in wearing high quality clothing, I must admit that the most flattering occurrences are when people within the industry itself read my articles. Just such an occurrence happened recently when I received an email in response to my Top Ten Leather Jacket Brands article. It took me a few moments to fully comprehend that I had actually just been contacted by the legendary Ken Calder himself.

For those who do not already know, Ken Calder is the founder and owner of Aero Leather Clothing, a jacket company based in Scotland. In the reproduction leather jacket community, Aero is the standard. People have their opinions on which makers are the “best,” but everyone knows who Aero is and they are greatly respected. In fact, the brand is a living legend. Reproduction jeans started in Japan, but reproduction leather jackets hail from Scotland and Aero is the pioneer of the modern reproduction leather jacket scene. Amazingly, the first Aero jacket was made in 1981 and the company is still going strong today.

To put this in context for more denim-oriented folks, speaking to Ken is like speaking to the original members of the Osaka 5 at the same time. Aero has made jackets for tons of rock stars and actors including Dave Grohl and Johnny Depp. They also have made jackets for many films, including the new Freddie Mercury biopic starring Rami Malek. Coincidentally, Freddie Mercury once worked for Ken’s company before the Aero brand had started for about a week many decades ago, adding more to Aero’s fame and clout. Our conversation has been cordial and extremely enlightening. Ken was very gracious when speaking to me and has so much knowledge that I had to ask a few questions in order to share more information here on the website. Without further ado, please enjoy leather jacket wisdom and history of Aero courtesy of the original reproduction leather jacket maker, Ken Calder.

2013-09-25__AERO-LEATHER_MakeWorks_StudioRoRo-9693Image via Roomique

Almost Vintage Style: How did you learn to make leather jackets?

Ken Calder: I’d learnt to sew, after a fashion, as a teenager repairing used Levis, old clothing was known as “second hand” in those days, not vintage. I’d been getting these through a contact at a US Air Force base and selling them to Mods to supplement the wages from my job as a DJ and doing “Light Shows” at legendary Marquee Club in Soho. It was hard to find anywhere selling 1930s & 40s clothing at that time but I’d built up some sources and in early 1968 I decided to open a tiny shop in Kensington Market and make some new clothes to go along with the bits of period clothing I’d gathered up. I started Henley Vests and straight leg velvet trousers in a time where every other shop was full of flares……..I’ve always loved to buck the trend, and I had a big contact list amongst bands from my years at The Marquee who all needed clothes.
Even my biggest fan would admit that my cloth sewing was no better than on the poor side of good until, within a few days of each other, I bought a bundle of leather out of the back of a Mini and met a leather machinist called Colin Bennett. He taught me a huge amount and he still remains the best leather machinist I’ve ever come across. Last I heard he was in USA somewhere, if anyone knows where please say “hello and many thanks.”

AVS: What makes constructing leather jackets specifically so difficult?

KC: Here’s the odd thing which makes this question difficult for me to answer, I found leather really easy from day one, I had a great teacher though, but even to this day I’ve still not mastered thin cloth to my own satisfaction yet I was making really good jackets within my first week using leather. I find this even odder nearly 50 years on and after training well over a hundred leather machinist as perhaps as few as three or four of these found leather easier than cloth in the first few weeks of “converting”.

AVS: What made you start Aero leather?

KC: I’d given up making leather jackets in 1974, I’d got so fed up with the stuff I was being asked to make for my “private clients” AKA Famous but tasteless Glam rock stars. After a couple of years back in the peace and quiet of Scotland, I came back to London and in 1976,opened The Thrift Shop, a large Vintage Clothing store in a really scabby area of “The Smoke” with a “pile it high, sell it cheap” philosophy. We started buying bales of vintage leather jacket from USA, it didn’t take long to realise the value was in the Grade 3 bales. That meant jackets with ripped linings, burst seam, broken zippers etc. I found these very easy to repair, no “modern techniques” such as glued or skived seams to deal with and the leather it’s self was usually perfect. In 1976 a Men’s Vintage shop in London was as rare as Rocking Horse Droppings, they’d all folded after the Gold Rush days of the late 1960s, this meant we virtually had the market to ourselves for at least the first few years. The price of original A-2s and the lack of any quantity in bigger sizes led to us starting to supplement the original stock with our own jackets, hence the birth of “Aero” in 1981.

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Ken in 1984 – Image via Youtube

AVS: When you started, did you realize that the reproduction leather jacket market would become as big as it is now?

KC: Not even for a moment, I was looking for a far lower profile than I’d had in the 60s! Until 1984 when we sold The Thrift Shop and moved back to Scotland I had no intention of making more than the odd jacket, I’d designed the now famous Aero Highwayman in 1983 and probably made a couple dozen in the 18 months from inception to when we moved. We’d bought a huge 22 room wreck of a house untouched by any tradesman since the 1920s which turned out to be the proverbial “money pit” Meanwhile I was getting daily calls from London shops asking me to make a few jackets for them, which I did and very soon realized this was going somewhere and set up a tiny workshop with four trainees. In 1986 we discovered Horween and the source for Horsehide. They were as pleased as we were as they told us they hadn’t sold Horsehide for clothing for over 20 years and were we sure this is what we wanted! That was when I realised that the look was going to take off. Being discovered by the Japanese market in 1987 turned what was almost a profitable hobby into a serious business in a matter of weeks.

What has kept you going and kept Aero such a respected name in leather jackets?
I’m not sure what keeps me going, we’ve withstood two frauds, a trusted staffer getting 21 months in jail for one of them. I think it was the loyalty of our long term staff members that kept me going through the dark years. Re our name? We’ve never sold out, we’ve never copied another contemporary’s product and of course, The Highwayman, there are very few leather manufacturers of any genre that haven’t copied that design
What makes Aero jackets stand out from the rest?

That’s easy, because we base all our techniques on reverse engineering. We are one of a very small number of our genre only using true traditional pre WW2 US construction methods, those I’m aware of, bar Goodwear, all date back earlier than us. This involves working without gluing seams and never skiving leather on the seams, both of which makes sewing much easier but detracts considerably from repairability and strength. We even hand sew all our buttons for appearance and strength.

Skiving seams, to my way of thinking, is cheating the buyer, sure shaving off some of the thickness from the leather makes seams much easier to sew and gives a flatter neater seam, especially at the head of the sleeve or coming off a bi-swing back seam, but at the cost of strength. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that a major seam point with (for arguments sake) five layers of 1.2 leather isn’t weakened by the leather at the stitched areas being reduced to nearly half its original thickness. A 1.2 hide is a fairly substantial leather, I’d imagine anyone buying leather of that weight and thickness expects the leather at the main stress points to be 1.2, not a lot thinner because the seam areas had been skived to 0.6 or 0-7.

Gluing seams is very popular amongst Japanese makers, it’s a huge aid to neat stitching but sadly it makes the jackets near on impossible to unpick or to repair any broken stitching, gluing the front edges alongside the zipper makes is so much easier to do a very neat top stitch but extremely difficult to replace a broken zipper neatly. If the top stitch is too small that job goes from extremely difficult to impossible. An Aero jacket is put together in exactly the same way as the ones I repaired back in the late 70s, very few of these original jacket would have survived had they been glued and skived like so many of the current offering by others in this field
Our range of original designs. We rarely replicate a vintage jacket, instead we work as if we were living in the era we are designing from, so we do what we’d have made back then

AVS: Do you have a favorite jacket model?

KC: Vintage? The 1756 Type A-2, The 1930s Sears Hercules and the WW2 AN-J-4
Aero? The Highwayman for what it has done for brand and The Dustbowl

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The legendary Aero Highwayman

AVS: What has been your proudest accomplishment so far in the leather jacket business?

KC: Maybe kick starting the Horsehide revival? Maybe winning the British Exporter of the Year award in 1994 Paul Smith was runner-up, still pretty good for a wee firm? Maybe surviving the frauds and the attempt to close us down in 2012?

AVS: Are there any new leathers or models coming out soon that you can share?

KC: There are three vintage zippered jackets in our archives earmarked for replication. (Yes I did say we rarely do this but these three are all very special) A gabardine 40s jacket with a detachable shearling lining, a fully reversible Horsehide and Whipcord Levi Half Belt from the 1930s, I love the way truly reversible jackets are constructed, so far we’ve only made the Waterfront and a few Varsity jackets that are/were true reversible jackets. When we find the quality Gabardine that the style deserves that one’s a must. The third one is another half belt civilian horsehide from the 1950s that I’ve been meaning to get round to since the 1980s, it’s very complicated, we will get round to it one day! (I just love half belts!)

I would like to thank Ken for taking the time to answer all of these questions and for going into such detail. This was the first real interview on the website and it will be hard to top, but I plan on doing more in the future. You can check out Aero’s website here and follow them on Instagram here.

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