John Chapman’s World War II flight jackets were so authentic, Hollywood wanted them. In fact, they wanted 20 of them, one for every speaking character in the 2012 film “Red Tails.” The only characters in the movie who didn’t wear Chapman’s jackets were the ones in the background who didn’t say anything — those characters wore his competitors’ jackets. Hollywood paid Chapman $700 apiece.
“The first time I watched the movie, I was completely distracted,” Chapman said. “It was hard to follow the storyline. I was like, ‘Oh my God! I remember that jacket!”
Chapman's Queen Anne-based company, Good Wear Leather Coat Co., has been noted as one of the best companies of its kind in the world.
Chapman’s interest in making jackets was sparked shortly after high school, in the early 1990s, when a friend remarked how he wished he had a leather flight jacket from World War II. Since that comment, Chapman began noticing when people wore them and thought about how he, too, would like to own a World War II pilot jacket someday.
Chapman proceeded to acquire a jacket. However, in the early ‘90s — with no eBay or social networking — coming across an authentic jacket was rare. Going through a collector was the only way, but Chapman didn’t know any collectors.
It was not until 1996 that Chapman managed to get his hands on an authentic jacket. However, it was a “horrible” authentic jacket, he said. Over the next decade, Chapman began buying jackets on eBay and developed friendships with collectors.
In 2006, Chapman bought an original jacket, which happened to ignite a spark of inspiration.
“How hard would it be to make a copy?” Chapman asked himself. And so began his mission of creating virtually authentic World War II jackets, himself.
“I started off with a cheap sewing machine — it was $1,000, and I thought, ‘Wow, it was a lot of money for a sowing machine,’” Chapman said. “But you have to have a lot of money for the right type of machine. If you don’t use it, you will never make what you want.”
Chapman’s first replica was a learning experience.
“I was inspired, even though it was a horrible job and I didn’t know how to put it together correctly,” he said. “The jacket was a joke, but I made a couple more and thought, ‘I could probably start a company doing this. Wouldn’t it be fun if I could make the most realistic-looking World War II jackets of any company?”
Currently, only around 10 such companies exist.
“In my opinion, they are all OK but not great. My plan was to take it to a much higher level: jackets that were so close to the original, you could fly it back to the factory, and employees would say, ‘Oh, we made that — that’s not 2012, that’s 1941.”
A shared fascination
Chapman and his Good Wear Leather Coat Co. (based at 2445 Warren Ave. N.) became known in the flight-jacket community, having made CDs of 7,000 different photographs of the time period so people knew he understood the history of flight jackets.
“When I started making jackets, people trusted that it was something that was high-quality and looked correct. Of course, I didn’t know much about sewing; it was my weakness, and that took me years to develop,” he said. “But the jackets are very popular. The backlog is anywhere from three months to a year.”
It takes Chapman eight to 12 hours to make his most common type of jacket. He also makes Navy jackets, which are three times more complex and typically take three days, he said. His motorcycle-style jackets take a day, since they are simpler.
Chapman makes the jackets from scratch, buying all the individual parts he needs, from the zippers to the buckles.
“Some people buy just one jacket, but some buy more — two, four, five, 15 even. It keeps me going,” he said.
Chapman’s customers are from all over the world: United States, Europe, Russia, Australia, Canada, Japan.
Chapman’s fascination with World War II, specifically, comes from how his mother was at Pearl Harbor at the time of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack, and how the war impacted nearly everyone on earth, he said.
“You begin to see in World War II something that was insanely fascinating,” he said. “You see aviation and modern aircrafts that was insanely powerful. The warplanes are unbelievably beautiful, powerful and amazing.”
For more information about Chapman’s World War II-style jackets, visit www.goodwearleather.com.