HE PUT a shy Suzi Quatro in a sexy leather catsuit and Noddy Holder in towering platform boots, but these days Ken Calder is best known for timeless jackets that are sought after by Hollywood royalty and rock gods. What is perhaps more surprising is that he runs his Aero empire from an unassuming HQ in Galashiels
House star Hugh Laurie lives out his movie biker fantasies in his. “I travel to work in a brown Aero jacket that weighs as much as I do,” says the actor. “If it were black, it would seem like I’ve got a Brando idea going on.”
Daniel Craig loves his Scots-made Aero Highwayman so much he can only bear to part with it for 24 hours, returning it for repairs with instructions to despatch straight back within a day. Johnny Depp bought two in one go, while Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl wore the brand’s 1960s-style Café Racer biker jacket at T in the Park last year.
Having celebrities wear your creations is the kind of endorsement any clothes designer would give their eye teeth for, but Aero jackets are stars too: cool without trying, undeniably themselves. Leonardo DiCaprio wore one in Inception. Aero helped save the world in the Marvel picture Captain America. Rapper P Diddy owns a heavy belted coat, even though one of the company’s cutters tried to talk him out of it, pointing out that a luxuriant sheepskin collar and cosy cord lining made little sense in the blazing heat of California. Diddy was adamant. “It’s all about the look,” retorted hip hop’s most style-conscious star.
There are no glossy celebrity pictures on the stone walls of designer and Aero founder Ken Calder’s unassuming headquarters in Galashiels. A former mill has been the company’s home since 1991. Thick sheepskins and horsehides fill storerooms and corridors. In the workshop, staff sit under lamps, carefully cutting and working the unyielding leather with special heavy-duty equipment. Each jacket is made by a single worker.
Across from the workshop, dozens of finished, shining jackets hang from racks as if carved from liquorice, and the air carries the woody, smoky scent of tanned skins. Calder may have dressed rock royalty and the cream of Hollywood over several decades but nowadays his own look tends towards comfortable cardigans. Surrounded by samples of old and new designs, and rattling the ears of his collie Caley, the softly spoken, straight-talking 67-year-old has to be coaxed into naming names because he prides himself that his individually tailored jackets speak for themselves.
They speak not just to celebrities and fashionistas but also connoisseurs from around the world. Especially popular in Japan and America, his most sought-after designs are made from front-quarter horsehide, one of the most robust and characterful leathers available. Its coarser grain and denser fibre structure are a world away from the butter-soft, vulnerable cow leathers used by high-street fashion labels. An FQHH jacket has to be broken in through use, so it can mould to the owner’s body. Resilient, and even better when weathered, this is the Clint Eastwood of leather.
Calder came to fashion by accident, rather than through a Savile Row apprenticeship. Aged 16, he arrived in 1960s London from Thurso as a promising footballer with trials for Chelsea and Crystal Palace. Later, he became a rhythm guitarist and songwriter in a band. He didn’t make it to Wembley or Top of the Pops, but as a mod he was a sharp dresser and started sketching out designs and getting them made up by John Stephen, the ‘King of Carnaby Street’.
Eventually he realised Stephen was making extra copies of his ideas and selling them. “I thought, ‘I must have an eye for this,’ so I got somebody to show me how to use a sewing machine.”
In 1967 Calder opened a small shop, Ruskin, in Kensington Market, close to Bryan Ferry’s favourite designer, Antony Price, and couture shoemaker Terry de Havilland. Musician friends were his first customers. “They wanted something they couldn’t get elsewhere. And I made everything in my size because I figured that if they didn’t sell I could always wear them myself.”
From the start he had a perfectionist streak, and when his early cutting work didn’t meet his own standards, Calder found sales agonising. “I’d started the shop too soon, and I wasn’t making stuff well enough at this point. My first customer was Mike d’Abo [lead singer with Manfred Mann]. He bought a pair of velvet trousers, and I really wanted to say, ‘Don’t buy them. They will fall apart because they’re rubbish.’”
The Beatles, Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg bought his clothes, but Calder’s real breakthrough came when another tailor suggested he try working in leather. “It didn’t move around like cloth, it doesn’t have a bias, it doesn’t have a grain. Also, leather was more suited to the ideas I had in my head. Within weeks, people were going mental for what we were making.”
By the late 1960s, his new line was selling to the likes of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Stephen Stills and Marianne Faithful. He opened a second shop, Obscured by Clouds, named after a Pink Floyd album – their first singer, Syd Barrett, used to sit in Calder’s home and serenade his dog. In the era of glam rock, his work took a new direction, although he had to halt a battle between Slade’s Noddy Holder and Elton John over who could get Calder to make the tallest platform boots. “When they reached 12 inches, I said, ‘That’s enough. One of you is going to fall off them and break your neck.’”
He also took a timid teenager called Suzi Quatro and transformed her into the leather-clad rebel who rocked Devil Gate Drive. Record producer Mickie Most wanted her dressed in Calamity Jane buckskins like Doris Day, but when Calder heard Quatro’s music, he immediately thought of Marianne Faithful in Girl on a Motorcycle. Unfortunately, the singer wasn’t keen. “Mickie said she would never wear black leather, but he arranged for me to meet her anyway. She was like this little shy girl. Didn’t say anything much, and I thought, ‘Christ, she really won’t wear black leather.’”
So shy that she refused to go to Calder’s shop and had to be fitted in Most’s office. She wouldn’t let him measure her either, so Calder had to judge her proportions by eye to create a prototype. Even then, she refused to model it for them. Fortunately, Most was able to persuade Quatro that the look was a hit, and her rock chick chic caused a sensation on Top of the Pops.
While he has worked in an industry of flamboyant characters, Calder has always been low-key. He prefers word-of-mouth recommendations to pages in glossy style bibles, and refuses to display a brand label on the exterior of his jackets.
In the mid-1970s, he quit the leather business altogether, in disgust at the increasingly outlandish outfits he was being asked to design. The final straw was “a copper metallic mini-skirt suit” he was asked to make for one of the all-male band The Sweet. “I hated the outfits, I hated the look of them, I hated having to make them. I need to feel proud of something I’ve made and I gradually realised that I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing.”
Disillusioned, Calder went home to Scotland, but returned to London in 1976 with a new idea: vintage and reproduction leather jackets based on classic coats from the 1930s to 1960s. His best-loved and most-imitated design is the Highwayman, developed in 1982, which was released under his then-new Aero label. He created the jacket after 23-year-old customer John Taylor asked him to come up with a design based on a 1950s biker style. His response was a deceptively simple, hip-skimming jacket that became his calling card. The original cost Taylor a week’s wages, but it became a fashion standard among Scottish students, who admired it on the backs of Deacon Blue, The Rezillos and Wet Wet Wet. By the 1990s, he was taking orders from Japan.
Taylor still owns the jacket - 30 years on, it is a collector’s item but timeless enough to remain eminently wearable.
He also holds the title of the first customer to own a jacket with the Aero label, and last month he visited the factory to return the item, an
A-2 American Air Force flying jacket, which now has pride of place on its maker’s office wall. Taylor admits to having a serious Aero habit.
“They still look right today, which is down to Ken using traditional methods to create something you can wear. I probably have more Aeros than I will ever live long enough to wear out.”
After flirting with retirement, Calder and his wife Lydia recently took up the reins of running Aero once more – this time with his children Holly and Denny on board – and is in the process of producing new designs. “I always like to add at least a couple of jackets a year.”
Calder’s designs draw inspiration from the past, but he keeps up with customer tastes by dipping into style web communities such as the Fedora Lounge, where devotees discuss and advise on current and future purchases. His sales list may be glitzy, but the clients Calder values are those who are as uncompromising as he is.