7 juillet 2021
From Madonna to the Rolling Stones, from NBA all star players to South Africa’s ex-president Nelson Mandela, French designer Jeff Hamilton has created iconic jackets for the most sulfurous and desired celebrities and public figures at that time. Since the launch of his namesake brand in 1986, Jeff Hamilton shook the leather universe up with timeless streetwear designs steeped in American culture, tied to basketball and hip hop music. A real legacy which seduces artists from the new generation, just like singers Drake or The Weeknd who presented a capsule collection during his Super Bowl 2021 Halftime Show.
You grew up in France, in Paris. Tell us about your departure for the United States ?
I always had the motivation to realize the American Dream. I loved basketball, culture and music. The only way for me to be ambitious and successful was to leave for the United States. Around 23 years old, I decided to take risks and to move in 1980. I arrived in the US with 6000 dollars, a wife and two kids and the early days were tough. At the beginning I found different jobs working as a wholesaler to pay the bills. I started meeting people and making contacts. I didn’t have any training as a designer. In 1982, I had a small office in Downtown Los Angeles where I met and became friends with Georges Marciano. He hadn’t started up Guess Jeans yet. When he and his brother launched the brand, they wanted me to run their menswear line but I wasn’t interested. In 1983, as I knew about permits, I offered them to take the Guess Jeans for Men License. At this moment, as I’m holding the contract in my hand, I don’t even know you need a pattern to create clothes ! When I opened my walk-in closet, ideas came, I found pattern makers and skillful people and everything became more or less magical. Everything throve, piece after piece. I started off with a very small amount of capital, approximately 22 000 dollars, then in the first year, I was already making 15 000$/month, six months later, I was around 600000 $/month... I barely spoke any English. Well, I guess I wasn’t as comfortable with this language as I am today! And that is how my business began.
“At first, I became a designer by necessity, not by choice.”
Today you are a legendary designer… Has becoming a designer always been a dream of yours ?
I always had an artistic spirit. When I was a kid, in France or in Morocco, I painted. I always had good taste and dressed well. But at first, I became a designer by necessity, not by choice. I found my way in life and I’m also passionate about art. I am always passionate about what I do.
Your leather bomber jackets were worn by iconic NBA champions, especially Michael Jordan… Apparently it’s another basketball champion called Magic Johnson who introduced you…
When I left Guess Jeans in 1986, I launched my brand “Jeff Hamilton” because everybody knew me by that name. At that time, I wanted a name for my company that sounded “American” and not French. I didn’t want it to be cliché. I was also very tanned with long hair and many told me Iooked like American actor Georges Hamilton. The natural transition was to call my brand by my own name. I started with a clothing brand quite Lifestyle. I also had this passion for Harley-Davidson and I wanted to create my own jackets but I didn’t know how to because it was hard to make. In the 1980s, I was surrounded by many rock stars like Billy Idol, Whitesnake… and they wanted to buy my jackets. With the general enthusiasm, stores began to buy as well. From there, one of my jackets appeared in Madonna’s first music video: “Borderline”.
After all that, I made jackets for Georges Michael, Michael Jackson… I bought a house in Beverly Hills that I rented toJermaine Jackson, Michael’s brother. That’s how I became friends with the whole family. I created jackets for them. At the same time, I became friends with basketball players. A basketball player introduced me to Magic Johnson, who then introduced me to Michael Jordan and everything followed on from there: New Kids on the Block, Nelson Mandela… All the legends of American comedy wanted jackets. It was really magical and I kept on designing and I got into sports, I took all the licenses of American football (NFL), basketball (NBA), hockey, baseball and the company grew a lot. In 1996, I created a jacket for MichaelJordan and Scottie Pippen for the first time. I was there with them in the locker room. The day after, the telephone started ringing and everybody wanted my jackets.
“Inspiration is an endless and natural process, I don’t need to sit down, to think and to sketch with charcoal in the middle of the night !”
Is it what we can call a true “American Dream” or a childhood dream ?
It was kind of both. I would have never imagined succeeding in the United States like I did. But more than money or celebrity, passion is above all in what I do and the legacy I am leaving behind. Those are the things that really matter to me.
Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Shaquille O’neal, Lebron James but also music stars like Madonna,Michael Jackson, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Is it this hip hop spirit that ties the sport and music universes ? Do you consider yourself as the former bridge between the NBA and fashion ?
Not all alone but what is the most important tome is what we call “culture” in America. Since the 1990s, the NBA’s culture doesn’t stop at games, it goes beyond certain fields like fashion, hip hop music, sneakers… This is the culture that raised new generations. With Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’neal and later on with Lebron James, my name became big with this culture. The enthusiasts know that the DNA of my creations is immersed in this universe. By being close to the players and music stars, everything naturally came together.
“Jackets are a canvas where I can truly express myself as much as I want.”
Where do you draw your inspiration from to create your jackets ?
Inspiration is an endless and natural process, it’s part of me, it’s 24/7. I can see a keychain and like the drawing on it… I don’t need to sit down, to think and to sketch with charcoal in the middle of the night !
How did you create your visual identity ? You proceed with a collage of NBA logos…
My jackets are flashy. A part of my jackets’ success is that I found an angle slightly different in the fashion business. All the jackets are limited edition, I more or less created the crossroad between art and fashion and each jacket is dated and personally signed. This process of fabrication and this particular DNA make each jacket special and unique. That’s why my 1990s jackets that were worth 2000$ are now worth 13 000$or 14 000$. Jackets were sold for up to 100 000$ at auction sales. Jackets area canvas where I can truly express myself as much as I want. Jackets are sometimes even more difficult to make than my leather canvases.
“I saw Drake a few weeks ago and he told me: ‘Jeff, you don’t realize what you’ve done for my career ! You inspired me so much and I always had that dream to wear your jackets’. To me, a compliment like this is worth more than all the money in the world.”
This idea of logos was actually very avant-garde since today we are in the era of the logo… Many chic designer houses count on this phenomenon…
It has been a while since Italian and French fashion houses got their inspiration from my creations. But I’m rather glad about it than upset. I would like them to clarify “inspired by Jeff Hamilton”. Today, there’s a real comeback of the brand. Five or six rappers wrote songs about me, I’m in some music videos so I feel like a part of the culture and I love it. Logos are something I started at the beginning with this flashy tone and now the new creations are quite different. Nowadays, I collaborate with many brands and I talk with European brands in order to create new things with them in the near future.
Even the brand Supreme drew its inspiration from your work…
Yes in exactly the same way but I’m flattered !
“At this point of my life today, the most important thing to me is to leave a legacy and to carry on my work as an artist.”
Do you consider yourself to have modernized the image of leather clothes by fashioning a streetwear look to them?
If I did it, it was unconsciously. By being constantly connected to culture, it was a normal evolution. Today, at the age of 65, I’m still in line with the culture and the basketball one. I can talk about sneakers, I can easily use an iPhone… ! I feelin sync with my time.
Drake wore one of your creations baptized “Farewell to Mamba” to celebrate the end of Kobe Bryant’s sports career at the NBA All-Star Game in 2016. At the Super Bowl 2021, singer The Weeknd showcased one of your capsule collections… Do you think their story makes the new artists' generation dream ?
In 2004-2005, I kind of stopped,I threw myself more into art. It’s been a year since the label got going again because the real reason is that the new generation and even the eldest are very hooked up to Instagram. When people see iconic pictures of Kobe Bryant and his jackets, they realize and tell themselves: “Who created those pieces ?”. When I started, The Weeknd was very young and he is a big fan of my creations. I saw Drake a few weeks ago and he told me: ‘Jeff, you don’t realize what you’ve done for my career ! You inspired me so much and I always had that dream to wear your jackets’. To me, a compliment like this is worth more than all the money in the world. At this point of my life today, the most important thing to me is to leave a legacy and to carry on my work as an artist.
You even created jackets for South African ex-president Nelson Mandela. What memory do you keep of this ?
Unfortunately none because I wasn’t with him ! I haven’t met him. But I also made jackets for the king of Morocco. To me, as I was born in this country, this was a moment of pride to know that the last two kings of Morocco had my jackets. The last king also has a collection of my art. This is even more rewarding than money, I’m talking about joy and recognition. I am deeply moved.
Did you get any request from a celebrity to create a jacket very hard to make, like Migos for example ?
Oh no ! They asked me for a jacket but the period of time to make it was a bit short. But they recently called me because they really want us to work together. We actually met at a party, it was the perfect timing !
You recently collaborated with Chinatown Market and Converse where you paid tribute to two iconic basketball teams, the LA Lakers and the Chicago Bull. Is it a chance for your creation’s enthusiasts who don’t really have the financial means to lay hands on one of your creations ?
We made a collaboration with Converse last year to honor Kobe Bryant’s and Michael Jordan’s championships. I am particularly selective when it comes to selling in stores because I really want to keep control. I only make projects I am passionate about. I created my jacket collection and I also made less expensive jackets. I also have a line oft-shirts and baseball caps… But everything is sold on my website and through collaborations. I have around fifteen or so collaborations moving right now. ``
“What I miss the most from Paris is some bread and butter in the morning with my coffee, walking in the streets, taking the buildings in and speaking French !”
Your creations are made by hand…
Yes, everything is handmade. Each little logo is handmade with a small Exacto knife. Each little detail is cut, glued and hand-sewn. Some people complain about the jacket being expensive but that’s because it’s expensive to make it too !
Do you miss France sometimes ? What do you miss the most ?
I don’t think I could ever return to live in France but I ache to go back. Because of the pandemic, I haven’t gotten the chance to go back for two/ three years. I feel so good when I’m in Paris, it’s the most beautiful city in the world. I’m still French, I still have a French passport and I drive in Paris, where I feel really free. What I miss most from Paris is some bread and butter in the morning with my coffee, walking in the streets, taking the buildings in and speaking French !
Are you preparing any new collaborations ? Any new projects ?
I have some new on going collaborations which I cannot talk about yet. There are some big French and Swiss names. I work with two big Swiss watch brands. I am going to make jackets and my own watch brand and I’m preparing some projects with other labels...