Six Decades of Alpha Industries: How One Brand Influenced the Bomber Jacket
Six Decades of Alpha Industries: How One Brand Influenced the Bomber Jacket
- Words Rae Witte
- Date September 24, 2018
Fashionably, what constitutes “classic”? Is it when an item becomes considered a basic piece required in the foundation of every wardrobe among the likes of jeans, T-shirts and hoodies? One would want to believe each and every version, no matter the decade, cost or materials, is guaranteed to have required design elements allowing it to be worn by any sex or age indefinitely.
A staple in collections from high fashion houses to streetwear brands alike, the bomber jacket's roots are firmly planted in function from its earliest days in the military and more specifically by pilots. Not unlike plenty of men’s sartorial references stemming from military history, the bomber jacket (or, more technically, the MA-1) has managed to only get better while staying relevant for 60 years, and it all started with Alpha Industries.
Flight jackets as we know them today were first introduced in 1948 when Robert Lane and his wife’s company, Superior Tags Corporation, were commissioned to supply the Department of Defense. For reasons unknown, their brand, which offered the B-10 bomber and A-10 flight pants, shut down in 1952. Under the name Rolen Sportswear, Lane would almost immediately take over the same contracts and then some, finding such success that he decided to start yet another brand, Dobbs Industries. He’d go on to partner with Lane’s accountant Samuel Gelber. In 1959, Lane was accused of trying to bribe a government official thus killing his credibility and resulting in Dobbs Industries and Rolen Sportswear losing all government contracts.
Throughout these personnel and name changes the original B-10 flight jacket would trade its introductory fur collar for a knit one and transition from being produced in dark navy blue to the color synonymous with all things military: sage green. They would also start to be utilized by law enforcement. It’s a move that would launch its own specific design changes, like the once-real fur collar being switched to acrylic faux fur. Albeit less warm and arguably lower quality, the faux fur lasts longer in storage for wearers using them in conditions that offered fluctuating temperatures, requiring jackets to end up tucked away for months at a time.
Gelber took note from the Department of Defense (DoD) and also cut ties with his former client and brief business partner following the aforementioned scandal. By the end of 1959 Gerber would link up with Herman Wynn and found Alpha Industries in Knoxville, Tennessee.
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The United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War and Korean War would overload Alpha Industries with work, allowing the fledgling company to create silhouettes and staples still used in a large majority of Alpha’s (and other brand’s) bomber jackets today.
After the various design revisions throughout the various company changes of the 1950s, the MA-1 as we know it released in 1963 as a replacement to the B-15 flight jacket. The N-2B Parka came out the same year, as well as a lighter version of the MA-1 called the L-2B.
The MA-1 had a nylon shell to protect soldiers from rain and a heavy wool lining for warmth. During this decade, Alpha Industries jackets were produced with the now-signature orange inner lining specifically to make pilots more visible by rescue groups should they find themselves in compromising circumstances.
The Vietnam War would start in 1955 and last until 1975, obviously providing increased production of Alpha Industries flight jackets. By the mid-’70s, Alpha would reach a point where it was producing upwards of 550,000 jackets annually.
Although it wouldn’t need the division as much until the end of the war, Alpha Industries entered the commercial market in 1970. Jackets and its pants would fill army surplus stores, opening the brand up for the public. In order to differentiate the commercial jackets from those being produced for the DoD, Alpha Industries instituted the 3-line label. The only major changes the jackets would see were the colors they were produced in.
Interestingly, it was during this decade when the military-inspired MA-1 look would find a home in subcultures outside of the U.S. In Britain, a second wave of skinheads would adopt the oversized jackets, frequently dying them burgundy and pairing them with slim cut denim and Dr. Martens. A similar look was also popular among “scooterboys” , a subset of 1960s mods who attended scooter rallies and traveling scooter events. They’d collect patches from each event, adorning their flight jackets with them as marks of pride.
Similar in structure but made of satin and traditionally embroidered, Japan’s souvenir (aka “Sukajan”) jackets became a popular export among U.S. soldiers during post-World War II occupation. It wasn’t until the late-1960s, however, that the working class youth would reclaim the style. Repeating a trend that began in Japan, the Sukajan satin bombers became popular among American soldiers stationed across Asia, and gained new life with soldiers in the Vietnam War.
In 1982, Sam Gelber would die leaving his wife Mildred and son-in-law Alan Cirker to run the business. Though it started selling commercially in 1970, it wasn’t until 1984 that Alpha Industries took its styles wholesale and really expanded its civilian reach. Just over five years after the Vietnam War ended, the bomber jacket would make its way out of the exclusive scenes and subcultures and hit the mainstream, especially in Hollywood.
Before Top Gun firmly put the bomber jacket on a pop culture pedestal, Steve McQueen made the intro in The Hunter—only to have Harrison Ford wear the style's predecessor (the leather A-2 jacket) while trying stop Nazi’s from taking over the world in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
As the ’80s came to an end, high fashion would finally get ahold of the bomber jacket. In the 100th issue of The Face from May 1988, a photo was captioned, “Jean Paul Gaultier, in a continued bid to give the paying public what he knows they want, must be the only designer clever enough to successfully re-invent one of the ’80s most visible garments—the MA-1 flying jacket.” This reinvigorated classic by Gaultier would kick off 30 years (and counting) of the bomber jacket’s place in fashion.
Although overshadowed by the politically charged T-shirts and ethical fashion philosophy she is best known for, Katharine Hamnett was also creating her version of the MA-1. It would go wholly forgotten until Kanye West stumbled upon some in a vintage store outside of Milan in the 2010s. Subsequently, he’d go on to request upwards of 300 pieces from her archive while working on his own Yeezy line.
The DoD also increased its spend with Alpha Industries throughout the Reagan administration, especially after it was allotted $1.8 billion, purely for textiles. Although it would shift to a halt, this allowed for new business and product development; these efforts resulted in the new CWU 36/P, which replaced the MA-1 bomber jacket.
Hollywood and the fashion industry’s love of the flight jacket would be instrumental in keeping Alpha Industries afloat once the DoD cut its spending 75 percent at the end of the Cold War in the early-’90s and would continue to decrease through the Gulf War. However, the last decade of the 20th century would bring Alpha Industries’ first international military contracts starting with Japan and later including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, Ecuador, Holland, Jordan, New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Taiwan and Uruguay, among others.
The brand itself would see a refresh and new additions outside of the apparel. The "Flying A" logo would replace the old logo in 1996. A year later, Alpha’s first website would hit the world wide web and the ‘90s would also introduce children’s sizing of their popular outerwear.
Other iterations of the bomber jacket like the letterman jacket and baseball jacket would be introduced in the 1950s and ’60s but really take over in mainstream style during the ’80s and ’90s. While you’d see these versions all over TV shows and movies that had any mention of jock or private school life (think Saved By The Bell, Fresh Prince or Paul Walker’s jacket in Varsity Blues), Helmut Lang would spend the end of the 20th century creating bombers in luxury fabrics mixed with bondage straps. These pieces have become influential in their own right, resulting some of the most sought after outerwear in the resale market today.
Similar to the time during Gulf War, the DoD would continue cutting contracts with Alpha Industries as the military’s focus became more technological and less dependent on humans—despite the United States’ involvement in the Iraq War.
In the early-2000s another designer would go on to create his own interpretations of the bomber jacket which, like Helmut Lang’s interpretations, would become grails all on their own, inspiring designers of the 2010s. Primarily influenced by subcultures’ adaptations of the flight jacket, Raf Simons would show bombers in pivotal collections throughout his career including: the Pyramid designs of the “Summa Cum Laude” collection in Spring/Summer 2000, the Manic Street Preachers patched camo version found in “Riot Riot Riot” in Fall/Winter 2001, and the logo-heavy and parachute styles from the “Consumed” collection in Spring/Summer 2003.
In 2009, Alpha Industries celebrated 50 years by teaming up with artist Brian Wood for a series of MA-1 jackets and a full history book of the brand. Made for both men and women, the jacket would feature a two-tone washed nylon shell, D-ring and stencil details, and contrast stitching with a special 50th anniversary patch on the chest. A special black 50th anniversary ribbon replaced the zippered sleeve pocket’s signature red one; the jacket would be available in sage green and black.
H&M. Topshop. Public School. Off-White. Yeezy. Rick Owens. Supreme. You’d be hard-pressed to find a brand anywhere on the fashion spectrum that has created outerwear but didn’t have their own version of the bomber jacket directly inspired by the MA-1.
Further, the cultural originator started to branch out; Alpha Industries collaborated with Palladium in 2014; Ben Sherman in 2015; Undefeated and Burton together in 2015; Opening Ceremony in both 2015 and 2016; Vetements in 2017; Alyx, Public School, Stutterheim, and Staple in 2017; and finally Kith, 3Sixteen and 424 x Slam Jam in 2018.
Owner of one of the biggest Raf Simons collections, David Casavant, frequently has designers tap into his archive filled with some of the most desired Raf Simons and Helmut Lang pieces. “I think the Helmut bombers are more referenced,” Casavant notes. “Raf bombers are too, but they are just regular bombers with patches and stuff on them. Helmut is more about the detail and new fabric usage and are a bit more perfected. Raf is more coveted and recognizable, but Helmut is more perfected from a design perspective.”
A testament to the original design and modifications the MA-1 bomber jacket from Alpha Industries, even Vetements’ CEO Guram Gvasalia shared feedback Alpha Industries gave him on Demna’s designs. He told Wall Street Journal, “They looked at the bomber we were trying to make in Italian factories and said it had 47 mistakes in it.” This prompted the Vetements team to take a more technical approach, like Alpha Industries always has, to its bomber designs.
From the early days with the Superior Tags Corporation, throughout multiple international wars and into collections of the likes of Helmut Lang and Raf Simons, the bomber jacket is a sustained style mainstay. Today it’s been adopted by everyone from law enforcement to the “it” girls on magazine covers. Thanks to labels like Alpha Industries, the design has become more democratic that ever; given that the one-time military manufacturer finds itself at home both at Army surplus shops and the international runways, its Alpha Industries (and its ilk) that have helped propel the bomber jacket into the modern era. With staying power built on function and adapted for fashion, the bomber jacket has solidified itself among the league of classics—it’s not going anywhere, anytime soon.