John Elliott's rise has been quick. The sensei of sweats has built a brand with fervent followers and a knack for giving the people what they want. While John Elliott + Co. burst on to the scene less than three years ago, the build up was longer and more perilous than simply designing the game-changing hoodies with side zippers or the perfectly tapered sweatpants readers of this site, and many others, lose their collective shit over. The brand itself is a product of John's ability to look at things a little bit differently.
John is a child of early '90s San Francisco, a skateboard-heavy city where, at the time, the DIY culture amongst the skate community manifested itself in kids starting their own businesses to solve their own problems. This inspiration to resolve one's own dilemmas continues to drive John's creative process today, partly due to those early years. Severe dyslexia hampered his education and forced him into non-traditional career paths. As a result, fashion became the plan, so to speak.
"I don't really buy into admitting it," he says. "But finding out you have a learning disability at a young age, you get classified as different. I knew I had trouble reading and spelling, and it made me feel I had to overcome through other means. Art and design were an outlet for me—a way to daydream and escape the reality that school was tough for me."
Still, John attended college and once he graduated, returned to San Francisco to work at one of his favorite stores, Villains on the city's iconic Haight Street.
Talk to John for any amount and he constantly touches on the concept of timing. His father always told him the timing had to be right for him to get into a new opportunity. While timing factors into the development of many brands, it perhaps affected John Elliott + Co. more than most. In around 2004, menswear began to carve out a true corner of the web for itself, establishing that it wasn't going away. Streetwear was in the midst of experiencing a huge revival, Hypebeast was churning out more content that ever and even one of John's friends, who taught English in Japan, flipped items from companies like Bape online. The timing couldn't have been any better.
"I wanted to infiltrate that world and be involved," he says. "I saw brands like Nom de Guerre—and their shop and the experience of tight curation. It really affected me."
With a few years at Villains under his belt, John met two ex-Silicon Valley vets who bought a clothing store, Jack's, and brought him on as both manager and head buyer. The job became his fashion crash course.
"They had no experience in fashion," he says. "But they were smart businessmen and this was all I ever wanted to do. The advice from my dad was always, 'Get in the best situation to succeed because you're only going to get one shot.' So the plan was to learn the industry through experience. It was like school for me."
Built upon an aesthetic John single-handedly cultivated as buyer, Jack's took off and eventually opened a second location in San Francisco. In the course of his duties, he made a visit to the Simon Miller showroom in Los Angeles in 2007 and was struck by intricate denim details. Before raw denim became the trend du jour, and in the era of Rock & Republic, here was a clean, minimal denim line.
"There was a lot of 'back pocket bullshit' at the time," he says in reference to the ornate branding boom seen on jean pockets at the time. "That shit was cool for a minute and guys bought into it, but Simon's jeans were completely different than what was in the marketplace. I had to sell the guys [at Jack's] on the brand and when we brought it in, it sold really well."
As Jack's grew, John bounced around. He left his post there and moved down to L.A. for wholesale work. He stayed on his best friend, Aaron Lavee's floor for a year and sold off extra clothes and shoes to build up the funds to start what would eventually become John Elliott + Co. Eventually, Aaron became a partner and the two pooled together $30,000 between them—a pittance compared to a typical clothing brand's start-up costs.
From these, it was pure fucking hustle (and not the type where you send networking emails while listening to the latest Drake). John quit his wholesale gig and helped Rob Garcia, whom he'd become good friends with while in college at SDSU, during the early days of En Noir. Simultaneously, he worked tirelessly with Simon Miller to learn the intricacies of garment construction. For a year and a half, he was the proverbial sponge, albeit an incredibly broke sponge. All the while, he started to build the foundation of John Elliott + Co.
"I worked my ass off and told myself each day that it was one less day and kept the ultimate goal in mind," he says. "That was the most exhilarating part of my life. I had no money and was left to my own devices. There was a lot of self-questioning. I knew if I wanted to change course, I could get a job. But there's this thing that bugs you about giving up on the dream you'd worked so hard for."
I try to avoid the 'I design sweatpants' conversation. I prefer to let others do the labeling for me.
Through connections at Simon Miller, John built the blueprint for his own signature denim: a hybrid mix and match of his favorite aspects from other jeans. He constantly showed up at the Fabric Brand offices, a Japanese denim company, to meet with Nobu Yamamoto and learn more about the denim industry. Through him, John got his hands on samples and began frankenstein-ing jeans and working with a pattern maker.
"I was starving and would show up at people's offices everyday," he says. "I begged Nobu to teach me about Japanese denim. I thought I had decent knowledge, but he was on a whole other level, like Master Yoda."
John ran around L.A. and established relationships with wash shops to create the perfect jean. To create his signature knits, he kept with the denim inspiration and chose french terry for its similarity to denim: It fades with wear, conforms to the wearer's body and maintains a structure other knits don't. From the start, fabrication became a mainstay. With his Northern California DIY skater mentality firmly in the forefront of his mind, details like side zippers and interior kangaroo pockets helped separate John's designs from the pack. But the big break was, not surprisingly, a function of timing.
In Las Vegas in 2012, as Rob showed the new En Noir collection to buyers in his hotel room, John brought four pairs of jeans with him. Based on the strength of just two pairs of raw and washed denim respectively, he set up a meeting with Atrium in New York. A week later, John and Aaron were in the basement of Atrium to show the collection.
"The rep is going through the collection and pulls out the Villain crew and goes, 'What are you doing with this?'" he says. "At the same time, this kid salesman walks down the stairs, sees it and goes, 'What is that?!' He tries it on, unzips the sides and sees the kangaroo pocket. I swear his mind melted out his ears. That was the moment that changed my life."
Atrium placed an order immediately and John leveraged the name to place the first John Elliott + Co. collection in 11 stores across the country, selling out in all of them on the back of little press and some minor Instagram buzz. A brand was born.
Now, less than two years later, John has worked to carefully expand the collection without alienating the fanbase that helped create it. He wants to keep that teenager who originally shit his pants over the Villain on board for the long haul, and hopefully in head-to-toe John Elliott. The line is designed to be worn and layered all together, he says.
That means more materials, new colors and updated versions of previous designs. The mesh Rebel hoodie joined the catalog earlier this year partly based on inspiration from John's love of basketball—he's been known to wear jerseys underneath his shirts—with more mesh pieces than ever incorporated into the S/S 15 collection. The original Mercer tank transformed into the Mercer tee due to a groundswell of customer requests and quickly became a best seller. New fabric blends are not planned or forecasted as much as they organically resemble experiments gone right—for instance, silk blend tees. While his designs have taken shape over the seasons, he continues to design for himself. Fortunately, the pieces possess a style that's immediately connected with a devoted section of the menswear masses.
But classifying the John Elliott aesthetic along the fashion spectrum isn't easy. In fact, that may be the beauty of the whole thing. While sweats remain the Sunday uniform for out of shape dudes with 12 straight hours of football on deck, John doesn't believe they're relegated to the sofa anymore. The substantial knits and slim cut aren't your dad's mustard-stained Walmart specials.
"I don’t think I'm too unique as denim, french terry and jersey cotton is my uniform," he says. "But the culture has changed and these fabrics are more acceptable as work attire, so guys can justify spending more on them."
As the first iterations began with basic french terry hoodies, sweats and well-crafted denim, the new collections show the designer and his eponymous line's progression in such a short amount of time. Insane leather jackets, 42" inseam sweats (we still can't get over those, guys), premium work shirts, crews with sleeve pockets, supima cotton mesh shirts and jogging tights all make future appearances. John Elliott + Co. is no longer just "men's basics," as he's said in the past.
"I try to avoid the 'I design sweatpants' conversation. I prefer to let others do the labeling for me," he says.
His most recent collection shows that the new John Elliott doesn't leave his roots behind, but wants to show how much better it can be.