Michael Elias didn’t initially set out to design clothing. But after releasing a heavy-duty waxed canvas jacket, named after a Country music legend, he became an underground success. In recent years, Elias’s brand Ship John has garnered a loyal following of customers hoping to purchases a Wills Jacket, and he has, in turn, ramped up production and expanded his offering to include shirts, vests and boots, among other things.
Born in New Jersey, Elias made his way west to Portland, Oregon via Philadelphia. At the time, he was making his own cycling hats, devoid of the branding typical on commercially made styles. These pieces caught the eye of Sacha White from Vanilla Bicycles which resulted in collaboration and permanent job in bicycle fabrication for Elias. Though he wasn’t producing hats full-time, his job at Vanilla, doing machine work and executing the brand’s distinct design aesthetic provided a necessary education. “That’s what really trained my mind and hands,” Elias said.
During his four-year tenure at Vanilla, Elias started producing small leather goods and waxed canvas bags. He eventually changed jobs and worked as a stonemason for a few years. “As a stonemason, I was just tearing through clothes because you’re down on your knees, rubbing your elbows on rock all the time,” he said.
Wax canvas was particularly bad because it had a tendency to crease. The high points of the creases got more abrasion and would wear out quickly. One day, Elias was struck with a novel concept upon examining his latest custom-designed waxed canvas Waylon bag. “I wondered if I could make a jacket out of the 24-ounce waxed twill I was making bags out of.”
With no formal training in pattern making, Elias examined the faults of numerous jackets he’d worn out and designed the Wills jacket. He avoided chain stitching where he’d seen it fail before and “beefed up” seams that had a tendency to wear out. The design featured a solid-brass zipper and brass snaps, two chest pockets and two hand pockets. It retained the beauty of waxed fabric but also lasted much longer than commercially available options thanks to its hefty weight.
After sharing photos of the jacket online, Elias quickly developed a following. Instead of creating a wait list for his one-man operation, he opted to set-up a mailing list. Potential customers — now upward of 4,000 — are “on the list to be notified for one.”
For the sake of quality, only 20 jackets are produced at a time. Customers pay a $200 deposit and receive a keychain with their jacket number on it. The rest of the $475 list price is due when the jacket is ready.
“This is 100 percent intended to be a working man or woman’s jacket.”
With the success of the Wills jacket, Elias hired veteran San Francisco pattern maker Steven Heard. Though Elias initially relied on Heard’s three decades of experience to fine-tune the Wills pattern, he subsequently partnered up with Heard and hired four other employees.
Ship John offers small leather goods and bags along with shirts and vests. “A lot of the stuff I design is basically just stuff I can’t find anymore,” Elias said. The brand’s Townes shirt is even based on an old Western shirt Elias had that is no longer in production. “We’re not necessarily reinventing the wheel with all this stuff,” he said. “Just nudging it into the place we like to see it.”
Along with its in-house products, Ship John also offers a few collaboration pieces with brands like Langlitz, Wesco and Good Art Hlwyd. “They’re the heroes to me,” Elias said. And it’s a win-win situation. He can utilize their expertise while introducing his followers to “tried-and-true, well-crafted American stuff.”
Most Ship John products are named after iconic country musicians. It’s something close to Elias’s heart — his own country band, Denver, has been playing shows in Portland for 10 years. He even opens the Ship John shop for intimate live shows of up to 100 people, a prospect he’s just beginning to explore.
And while the brand has grown in recent years and the product line continues to expand, Elias’s original no-nonsense jacket is a distillation of his continued outlook. “Even though I think what we make looks good, we’re not a fashion company,” he said. “This is 100 percent intended to be a working man or woman’s jacket. I want a welder working in Minnesota to be able to buy one.”