GW Alumni Recreate WWII-Style Jackets for a Mainstream Audience

 

Tucked away in a small building in midtown Manhattan is the retail showroom for Cockpit USA, a fashion brand that specializes in WWII-style jackets, gear, and accessories. Founded by GW alumni Jeff, LAW JD ’70, and Jacky Clyman, CCAS BS ’69, the brand is finding new traction in the digital age.

Stepping into the Cockpit USA showroom is like walking back in time. Coat hangers are laden with A2 leather jackets, sheepskins, and parkas, each designed impeccably to adhere as closely as possible to the original military designs. The walls are stacked with old helmets, gear, and adverts, all of which evoke nostalgia for the greatest generation.

The brand: Cockpit USA owned and operated by Jeff and Jacky, began as a mail order company called Avirex in 1975 with a catalog that launched in 1978. Jeff, who is a pilot himself, would wear his uncle’s and father’s old leather jackets and military uniforms to air shows, where many fans and well-wishers asked excitedly where they could get a leather jacket just like his. Realizing there was a market for these pieces, he set out to recreate the classic designs, which was a first for the fashion market.

Eventually, he found the right material and finishes, producing results that are impressively close to the real thing. “We have a right to say that these products are pilot tested and approved,” says Jacky, who helps manage the company alongside her husband. “Today people really appreciate the story behind the work. When we put patches on a jacket they mean something, if it’s an Air Force jacket, it has Air Force patches, it’s all researched.”

The couple eventually sold the Avirex trademark, focusing instead on Cockpit USA, the name for the retail stores and the original mail order catalog, which was re-launched in 2006 as a lifestyle brand of premium contemporary clothing. By mixing fashion and functionality, Cockpit USA resonates with a diverse group of people, from military veterans and pilots to celebrities like Seth Rogen, Tom Hardy, and Alicia Keys.

“Customers have told us, when they put on the jacket, they really feel empowered,” says Jacky. “And that was true back in WWII as well. The A-2 leather jacket was called a second skin for Army Air Corps pilots. What the pilots painted on their planes, they would paint on the back of their jacket, and it was their good luck charm so to speak.”

Historical accuracy is something the Clymans strive for in their brand. Both studied history and political science at GW, and Jeff, who is an avid historian, is the creative director for every line the company produces. They also sponsor the American Airpower Museum, a nonprofit foundation that promotes military history of flight, which sits 45 minutes outside New York City. The museum also houses a collection of vintage aircrafts that perform demonstration flights at air shows. The museum provides another outlet for the Clymans to advocate for history.

“There’s an important connection between the two because the museum and collection really work together,” says Jacky. “Jeff always wanted a way to teach about history and the museum … the Cockpit USA products are meant to honor those who have served and are serving to protect our freedom.”

The couple plan to continue designing and creating new pieces, while trying to adjust to the fast pace of the internet and social media. “There’s a constant learning experience,” says Jacky. “You’re only as good as what you’re doing presently and how much you are reaching your customer.” And though Cockpit USA has a large following of loyal customers, the Clymans are eager to reach a new set of customers that appreciate the thought and process behind each piece of the collection.

“It’s very important to us that our customers understand what they are wearing,” says Jacky. “They need to understand … that this country may have made a lot of mistakes but it’s a great country, and we should honor that.” —Kelly Danver

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