By Stacey Kusterbeck
While flying vintage military planes at air shows in the mid-1970s, Jeff Clyman noticed that at times, the audience seemed almost as interested in his attire as they were in his aviation skills. Bystanders frequently asked where they could get a jacket like his - Clyman usually wore either his father's or uncle's WWII leather flight jacket.
Clyman began selling surplus jackets by mail order, but real ones were getting hard to find. Thus was born a unique and profitable business making authentic replicas of vintage jackets for the commercial market, sold under the Avirex brand, through The Cockpit catalog.
Wearing flight jackets as a fashion statement was a new concept back then, and it was a big hit. "It wasn't just people who were interested in wearing a flight jacket for what it represented, but as a cool piece of Americana clothing," says Jacky Clyman, the company's executive vice president.
The jackets resembled vintage ones in every way but one - they looked brand new. "People would always tell my husband that they wanted a jacket that looked just like his, but they didn't want to spend 20 years waiting for it to look old," says Clyman. Working with a number of tanneries, a process was eventually perfected to come up with what ended up being called "distressed"leather or sheepskin - another new concept at the time.
Niche No. 2
The company found a secondary clothing niche with its Avirex brand, making retro collegiate jackets to resemble team jackets of the 1930s. "We brought the varsity or stadium jacket to the fashion world. And that became a huge hit," says Clyman. That business developed multiple offshoots, licenses and an international business.
Meanwhile, Cockpit USA opened up its own aviation-themed retail stores in New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle and London - yet another first for the company. "Themed stores were not common back then. And if you put yourself in the mentality of the 1970s, retailers did not understand a brand having its own store or catalog,"says Clyman. For this reason, the store was called Cockpit instead of Avirex.
Demand for flight jackets surged in the mid-1980s with the release of the movies "The Right Stuff" and "Top Gun,"and sales tripled in one year. Another pivotal moment came when Cockpit USA became the official supplier to the U.S. Air Force for its pilot's leather A-2 jacket. "We were already making the replica jacket. At the time it was not part of the uniform, and we worked with their clothing development board to reissue the jacket for the 40th anniversary of the Air Force," says Clyman. "We started delivering those jackets in 1987 and continue to do so now."
In late 2005, the company accepted an offer to sell the Avirex brand, mostly known for high-end varsity leather jackets and related varsity sportswear. "We became an international brand under Avirex and in 2006, we basically started up again. We are now a small company again. Which actually, we enjoy greatly," says Clyman. "With a small company, everyone has their hands in everything, from design to marketing."
After "relaunching" the company as Cockpit, it next developed a new line of Americana-themed sportswear under the CPT (Civilian Pilot Training) Cockpit brand, which is sold at Bloomingdales, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and in specialty boutiques. "We developed a whole line of sportswear with the same kind of attitude and quality as the military has when they develop their clothing,"says Clyman. "Unfortunately the financial crisis hit us just as we were getting some traction, but our shirts, T-shirts and outerwear are selling through very well. We are very excited."
Following its company relaunch, in November 2007 the company relaunched its single retail store in Manhattan (which had originally opened in 1986) as Cockpit USA General Store, and at that time began selling other "iconic" or "authentic" brands in addition to its own, spotlighting those brands using a new "shop within a shop"concept. The brand's entire product line is sold in-store for two months, with the best-selling items carried regularly thereafter. "We use our store to either feature authentic brands, or to launch them," says Clyman. "Two years ago we became the only retail store carrying Pendleton products, a brand which was not seen in New York in years and years."
As for e-commerce, plans are in the works to expand Cockpit USA's online retail channel. "It used to be that your customers did not want you to compete with them, but now it's an accepted way of doing business," says Clyman. "So this is becoming more of a focus for us now."
In four decades, the company's focus on classic, vintage Americana hasn't changed a bit. Neither has the fact that most of its production is done domestically, mostly at facilities in the New York and New Jersey area. "That's always been something we tried to keep in our development," says Clyman. "If you stand there and say that you are making classic American apparel, it means a lot that you are actually producing it in the U.S.A."
Stacey Kusterbeck is an Apparel contributing writer based in New York.
The Clymans are considering training young people to continue the fast-disappearing art of hand cutting and sewing leather jackets. "These are skilled cutters, and the next generation is not following in their footsteps. It will be interesting to see what happens when these people retire," says Clyman.
After a lifetime of collecting WWII aircraft and memorabilia, the Clymans founded their own museum on the military history of flight. The American Airpower Museum opened in Farmingdale, NY in 1993 and is 90 percent volunteer-run. The goal is to teach current and future generations "about the people and machines that were instrumental in protecting our freedom," says Clyman.