MAKERS LOG: 001 — SHIP JOHN & THE WILLS JACKET
Mike Elias of Ship John in Portland, Oregon has created the most badass jacket of all time.
Retailing at over $450, the Wills Jacket is second to none.
I drove from Seattle to Portland to sit down with Mike Elias and hear about the unique journey he's experienced while creating a masterpiece of a jacket. These are Mike's words:
The Wills Jacket is named after Bob Wills. Pretty much everything I name is after a country musician. I love Bob Wills and it just kind of fit.
The name Ship John comes from growing up in New Jersey. My first job was on oyster boats out of Port Norris and Money Island on boats my dad ran. There’s a lighthouse in the middle of the Delaware Bay where we’d dredge called Ship John Shoal. I’ve always loved it as cool piece of architecture and spent many a day rocking in the water staring it. When it came time to rename the business from Tomahawk Portland, it just popped into my head: Ship John. It just seemed to fit. I’d already had the lighthouse tattooed on my left arm as an ode to home. It’s kinda like my hickory wind. I miss it there and I miss my family.
When I sewed the first jacket, I was working as a stone mason and in bars in addition to the leather and canvas work. Stone masonry destroys clothing… I destroy clothing anyhow, but moving heavy basalt and bluestone around really tears stuff up. I love waxed canvas, but inherently all the thinner waxed canvas fails because all the high points in the creases and folds stay that way. Over time those higher areas get really worn down. Especially with some of the new canvases people are using and the new waxes coming from overseas — it’s just not as good as it used to be. I wanted to try making something thicker just to see if it was a possibility. There was a hole in the market. If you wanted a waxed canvas jacket, it’s either super thin like a Barbour — which are great — or like a 10 or so ounce Filson. But there was nothing beyond that. This was kind of where the whole idea started. There just wasn’t a beefy enough jacket for me, and I like beefy shit! The twill I use is 18oz dry and after it’s waxed it’s a 24oz. fabric. The Wills is bomb proof and wears like a leather jacket. As it breaks in really forms to your shape and its pretty cool to watch it patina over time. The design is very classic and simple, but the way that it wears and breaks in is pretty special.
Up on the wall here I have the first Wills Jacket ever. It worked. It’s the one that made me say, “This material will actually work for a jacket,” which was awesome, but it was also my first real piece of clothing. A lot of things had to change with the construction just to make it a better jacket. For example, the openings on the cuff went through three different incarnations. The original was just a lockstitch side-seam in through the sleeve and the cuff opening came right out of the seam. It made the cuff wear in a really weird spot. That changed on the next incarnations using a placket cuff opening which featured single needle felled side seams. A handful of jackets and many machine breakdowns later enters Steven Heard, who helped me dial in the final version. We added some pleats on the back because, with the waxed twill being so thick, it just needed that little bit of extra room for movement. Now everything is fully flat-felled which just makes this thing bomb proof. We changed the sleeve design to a two piece sleeve which is articulated and already bent. So instead of fighting the jacket to begin moving your arms, you’re already starting off in a slightly bent position which makes it that much more comfortable to wear. The Wills Jacket was forming into the beast of all shells.
DEALING WITH DEMAND
The demand is really interesting. It’s amazing that so many people have shown interest. The “waiting list” has grown close to 3,000 now. That means so fucking much to me. I feel like a broken record sometimes because someone new will find out about it and ask, “So how can I get one of these jackets?” All I can reply with right now is that we’re making them in very small batches. I’ve tried to keep it very consistent with the way I offer them — which is first come, first served to the mailing list only.
We had to jump through many hoops to get to a point to make more of these and are still working out kinks. Starting with a denim version to iron out details on the pattern, fit and production. A couple of denim runs later, it was time to re-launch the waxed beast. I sent the list a date and time for which we’d take pre-orders. That time came and, as I was watching the orders come in, the website crashed and we ended up with 50 orders… we were prepared to take 12! This, while amazing, really sent us into full "oh shit" mode. We’re honoring each of those orders, currently working our tails off to get them through the pipeline and preparing to offer more.
Through all of this, and working closely with Steven Heard, we’ve decided to up the game and build our own manufacturing facility in Portland. The Wills Manufacturing Co. will be in full effect early next year. I’m working hard now on finding us a great location which will include our manufacturing and a storefront; jackets, wallets, accessories and a stock of Wesco boots. We will be the only brick and mortar Wesco dealer in Portland.
In other aspects of Ship John, I’m starting to train new people on leather goods because those orders aren’t stopping either. I feel stretched pretty thin right now, but it’s great. I love it. No complaints. Honestly, it feels so good to have built this thing without a dime of financial backing. Not a lick of training. Everything is just from the ground up. Figuring it out every day. When problems arose, we’ve always tried to figure it out from the inside out. Instead of just watching YouTube videos or something like that, I’d rather just tinker with it until it works. You know, my wallets are leather wallets. The way that I like to design things is to always start with a sketch and not take in too many outside influences going into something new. That carries over into how I approach the construction of certain things using weird stitching techniques that you don’t normally see. Like putting two different stitches together where things are held together. I didn’t invent the stitch, but I’m choosing to combine stitches in a way that hasn’t necessarily been done before. The future will hold more of these ideas, furthering the clothing line and growing the business in a healthy way. I can’t wait.