Celebrity fashion designer Jeff Hamilton has worked with everyone from Michael Jordan to Nelson Mandela. From his unconventional fashion beginnings to deals with professional sports leagues and cultural icons alike, Jeff Hamilton jackets are now a legacy unto themselves. Hear from this legend in America’s streetwear, sports, and entertainment culture.
This transcript has been generated by an AI tool. Please excuse any typos.
00:11 - 00:32
Hi everyone and welcome to The Big Stage where we talk to athletes, artists and entertainers about their legacy and impact. I'm your host, Adam Sansiveri, managing director and co-lead of sports and entertainment at Bernstein. Back with me today is Grammy nominee, former music manager and Bernstein adviser Dan Weisman. Always great to have you here, my friend.
00:32 - 00:33
00:33 - 00:57
So if you're a child of the eighties or nineties, if you're into streetwear, if you're into hip hop, if you keep up with popular culture, entertainers and sports figures, if you can recall iconic images from NBA championship games, scenes from Super Bowl performances, frames from famous music videos, and footage of some of the most influential cultural heroes of the last nearly four decades.
00:57 - 01:40
Well, then you're in for a treat today. With us is Jeff Hamilton, legendary fashion designer. And as his Instagram account with 4 million followers specifies celebrity jacket designer, Jeff Hamilton leather jackets are instantly recognizable and have been worn by more cultural icons than I could possibly list here. Everyone from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant, George Michael to Madonna, Michael Jackson to Drake, Nelson Mandela to Muhammad Ali, just to name a few. They are pieces of art unto themselves. And in fact, Jeff personally signs each one. Your designs are a unique piece of our cultural fabric. Jeff, thank you so much for joining us on the big stage.
01:41 - 01:48
Thank you so much for the amazing introduction. I feel a little humble here, though. I like the sound of it.
01:49 - 02:06
Well, I'll tell you, we're going to get into a lot more because I could have thrown so much more into that intro. But I'm excited to get this conversation going. And let's start right at the beginning. You were born in Morocco and your family moved to France when you were about ten. Is it true that you studied math and physics?
02:06 - 02:14
Yes, that was my my thing. And just, you know, I was like a school nerd and I loved math and physics never was into fashion.
02:15 - 02:19
That's amazing. So had you always dreamt of living in America?
02:19 - 02:48
I mean, I was always excited about American culture. You know, just growing up, I had, you know, posters of the basketball legend without even knowing much about what the Lakers meant or anything like that. But I had posters of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West and Lew Alcindor and and of course, I listened to all all the music, the British music, and, of course, all the American music. And I loved it. My dream was always to be one in America.
02:48 - 03:02
Oh, well. And in your mid-twenties, you did move to America to become a fashion designer. So when you had this dream of coming to America, was that the reason, or was it just because of your inspiration from the culture?
03:02 - 03:45
It was all of the above. I mean, I just really you know, I just married when I was 19 years old. And by 24, I had two kids. I really just didn't feel like getting to a 9 to 5 job in France. So when I moved to America, I really wanted to live my dream as $6,000 from my bank account. And I said, I learn how to speak English because in 1980 when I move, I barely managed to speak English. Fortunately enough, growing up in Morocco and spending all my vacation as a kid in Spain, I spoke fluently Spanish, which I still do. It's one of my great business assets and I made a jump in actually Valentine's Day in 1980.
03:45 - 03:49
Jeff, what were those early days in Los Angeles like for you? How did you get your start in fashion?
03:50 - 04:11
Nobody wanted to hire me. I was trying to do anything. If I had to go and work in a car wash. I would have done it for me. There was no way I was going to come back to France as a failure. So I was willing to do anything and everything just to make sure I would provide for my family. And so I was very ambitious. I was mega ambitious to try to do something.
04:12 - 04:34
I love fashion. I always kind of dressed well for my time and had ideas, but never was a designer. Never knew about patters. Never knew about construction. You know, about shipping. Even about wholesaling and retailing and and sets and trim and all buttons and all the different things.
04:34 - 05:07
. And basically everything that I have today was 100% learned on the job. The first four or five months I ran out of almost $6,000, just finally found a job as as a rep that was so persistent, calling them every day. And that job didn't work, didn't last a day. Because, you know, when I went there, they told me, we can pay you only when we when we collect the merchandise, which is when we're going to ship in three months, and then you're going to get paid two months. And there's no way I would have been alive. But I already was in the streets, kind of like.
05:07 - 05:37
Angeles in where all the jobs were and start going from job to job were and try to push it enough. There were some French Moroccan there. There were some Latino guys and I kind of developing relationship with the people and each one of them had this sort of need or I need to sell this, I need to do that. So I took from store a three piece source to store be the story piece and made $0.50 of it's $15 or whatever it was.
05:38 - 06:02
And one thing that they are going to start designing in like 81, 82 are making a true living, not not like a living. Like, you know, I was able to buy myself like a a $15,000 car. I rented a beautiful home with a swimming pool. So I was making, you know, a few thousand dollars a month just by me being a true a street hustler in a fashion business.
06:02 - 06:05
And so your first designing job was for guests, is that right?
06:06 - 07:01
Yeah. So. So what happened is during those years, I. I befriended the Marciano's because, you know, we were in a same building. You know, I had a look about me. My hair was up my shoulders. I was very rock and roll. And I wear pink sweaters and, you know, pink socks and cool shoes, you know? I mean, I had a look that people were attracted to because of my image. And likewise, I mean, in the elevator, I was would write to that guy that were beautiful red cashmere sweaters and always dress up nice, nice glasses, nice bag, you know and that was it was Marciano and at that time, he had just started Guess Jeans, yet he had a company called Marciano, which was a woman's blouses and his brothers. We were still in friends at the time. I think only two stores call MGE Space.
07:01 - 07:33
So Maurice George Gennaro at the time, but even the Jewish was not involved in it. George said, Well, let me create some merchandise. Just you create for the stores in order for me to to make some money and pay my bills. Even though we've been on the outs for 40 years, they were geniuses in what they did and recognizing the need of the market at the time and and with the advertising and whatever they did then it's nothing but admiration for that. And in fact, you know, I don't think I would be here myself without the inspiration of George Marciano.
07:33 - 07:51
So it seems like you're definitely driven by instinct and perseverance. You were the first licensee for Guess Jean's and between January of 1983, when you started the menswear line and two years later, in January of 85, the company went from 22,000 and sales to 75 million and sales. That's a staggering amount of growth. Can you tell us more about that?
07:52 - 08:33
In 1980 when I started, yes. You know, obviously, I didn't know anything about designing doors. I tried to hire people to help me out. So I basically learned how to become a designer on the go. And the way I did it, you know, I went to my closet, as it were, to let that shirt dispense. Maybe if I just did that, that would change this and that and that. That's what it opened up my my vision of me being an artist. So that part is very instrumental for where I am today because those years of basically earning the work ethic, not only I learned how to design by necessity, but also learn how to be a businessperson, which I had no experience in business in my entire life.
08:33 - 09:01
Jeff, I want to turn to these jackets and I see you wearing one. I see Dan wearing one. And from what I read and researched, you moved from Guess jeans and found your niche right after that. Designing leather jackets. And I read you began making funky hand-sewn leather jackets for yourself because you couldn't find any on the market you wanted to wear and people liked them and custom orders started coming in. So what goes into making your jackets? We'd love to hear about the process.
09:02 - 09:27
My real name is Jeff Bobo. That's my legal name. And because my company name was called Jeff Hamilton that owned the guest license and the natural evolution for me was to use a name Jeff Hamilton as a branding because people knew the name. I used to ride Harleys. I was riding Harley's all over, you know, with Billy Idol and Poison's and Guns N Roses and Jimmy Car and then, you know, like nothing but celebrities.
09:27 - 10:06
. And, you know, in order to make sure I look good in my my special customized Harley and Harley's had three of them. I want I designed them making all hand-cut made jackets for myself because I was going to all the big designers at the time and and they had beautiful jackets and they all all played in that storage design. They don't have eagles. And for me I wanted all Americana stuff and I still have everything is Americana. If you look at my logo and all my assets of all my branding is always American and I want to be an American brand. So it's not a French guy behind an American brand. And.
10:06 - 10:30
So I designed this jacket and then I had no idea how much they cost and how long they took to make, but I made them. So everybody wanted those jackets. So I start asking ridiculous prices because I knew I could not make them because my sample makers were basically making it with little scissors and cutting every piece by piece and doing kind of like a paint by color puzzle. I didn't even have cash.
10:30 - 11:11
When you have computers, every time everything was all handmade or had designed. My orders were all they can manually. And we will write everything. My my production reports were all manually and I had like thousands of people doing it. And, and I start designing it. Everybody start wanting it. So I went to the shows and because I knew there was so much attraction and and traction on those jackets, everybody just came and said, we need that in our store. So everybody said, we want to have that. And now I'm in a dilemma. How am I going to produce that? Because I don't know how to produce it in best quality. So I start building up a crew and slowly but surely people start going into that.
11:11 - 11:24
Jeff I got to be honest, I've always been a huge fan of your work, having grown up in Los Angeles and been a huge streetwear fan, sports fan, and just entertainment culture fan in general. Who are some of the first A-listers to really catch on and wear your jackets?
11:24 - 11:47
You know, we got Michael Jordan that wanted something and magic and then then we got like a michael Jackson, you know, and I was friends. I hadn't been married, you know, I guess days. So I bought a house in Beverly Hills, but it was too expensive for me to live in it. So I, I rented it out to Jermaine Jackson and I became very good friends with him and became friends with his family, with his kids.
11:47 - 12:11
And of course, everything led for me to meet all these brothers, including Michael. And in 1996, 87, they asked me to design the victory tour. I designed all the jackets for that, and I met Michael numerous times and was at the height of Michael, the Thriller died and stuff like that. And, you know, one of the greatest icons of our times.
12:11 - 13:04
Then Madonna. Madonna didn't get it for me. She bought it from the store, not for her. Like in the first video was borderline. The guys wearing mac jackets then George Michael the same is obvious. I'm making all special jackets for him to wear just for stage and and you know, then Andrew Dice Clay came to me you know he's known as of today for leather jacket. You know, I'm still making him a new one because you're making a whole documentary about his life. And fortunately enough, I'm involved in the documentary because jackets and leather are such a part of his image and persona that they wanted to know who the guy behind the leather jacket was. So everything, certainly it became almost natural. But really, I didn't look at it. It was not by design. It was very organic in a way that things came out.
13:04 - 13:17
Your career skyrocketed in the early nineties when you got licensing deals with all of the major professional sports leagues, including the NBA, NFL and NHL. What's the history on all of that?
13:18 - 13:42
What really start changing is when a friend of mine who was in the NFL, an NFL licensee, wanted to give away one of my jackets as a present custom jacket to, I believe it was Steve Tisch from the New York Giants. So I met him a jacket. The logo was probably crooked, but then we went crazy. They went crazy with that jacket.
13:42 - 14:29
. And the next day, I got a call from the NFL, say, we want you to make jackets for us. And I said, You know what? I don't know that I can sell how many jackets. That's 500 bucks I'm going to sell. But on the other hand, on my letter, I had the NFL logo on me being a Navy great and having one of the big names like NFL would be so amazing to have. That's on my older forms and they gave me the license at the time was really in the middle of like NWA and the Raiders. And so everybody wanted the Raiders merchandise and all NWA team. They all had my jackets and so everybody wanted those jackets. Shook him up and asked them to create a cheaper version for like $250 retail. They gave it to me and then it was snowballing.
14:29 - 14:53
Then the NBA came to me and said, We want you to do it. So we doing Chicago Bulls in 1989 was 85% of the business in the Raiders and 90% of the Raiders of the NFL. Then, of course, we went to MLB because MLB had the White Sox, we sold the Yankees, but was nothing compared to the White Sox. And of course, to make good measure, we got the NHL with the L.A. Kings.
14:53 - 15:15
You know, of course, things are evolving when we start creating all the various teams, various designs, improving the quality, lowering some of the prices, and getting into the arena and getting also in the culture where people were buying it, not only as showing you collars, but also because you're a Pittsburgh fan or you're dolphins.
15:15 - 15:38
And you've said this to me and you said this publicly, you've had really high highs and lows, lows and some moments of incredible success and some significant lows. Can you reflect on that pendulum swing a little bit and what is it really meant for you to have so many different chances, opportunities, collaborations across generations and across time? Because it seems like now your work is as in demand as it's ever been.
15:38 - 16:27
It makes you realize that we are pretty much we here due to uncertainties, not about me, quote unquote, my talent or my vision. It's all about the channelling of what the universe wants to give, you know. So during those years, I became very successful with a sports that I had a partner that basically tried to steal everything for me in 1993, lost everything, just went back to the lawyers, sued them, tried to regain the licenses, won the lost to 1997. Again, everything was magical. I would just go back again into work and two months later my business was created again and I hadn't the energy. I was like, if there is one thing that I never dropped was like my work ethic that I really knew that there was no shortcut and I should be working.
16:27 - 17:00
And then in 97, you know, I finish a lawsuit with my second company and I just became mega successful, even more successful than the guess jeans days, maybe not as far as the small invest based presence and maybe beaming Jeff Hamilton being happy doing the things and being creative to the models and really finally being recognized as a designer and also at that point already making more marks into the culture we love.
17:00 - 17:27
As I was getting more and more successful, the jealousy started building up around me and my first wife basically decided to bring in a second lawsuit. And basically that lasted less than 19 years and gas was $7 million in attorneys. I want it in 2007. But in between I was so burned out with everything that I sold my company to a NASCAR company, I'm like on the ground, I'm like washed out.
17:27 - 18:04
. And even though I still had money and I still just always made deals here and deal there in 2013, the biggest blessing that I had was a friend of mine told me, Once you go on Instagram, it's a new platform. I hated all the social stuff, but for some reason, Instagram turned me on as supporting nothing but my history. You know, where there was a Springsteen picture with the Nelson Mandela? Picture me, me and Madonna and me and Michael Jackson like nothing but iconic crazy pictures that people saw it. The first months I had Instagram, I had 30,000 followers.
18:04 - 18:27
So fast forward now to. 2019. Nah, I think I'm hitting rock bottom financially. Cannot pay. My mortgage is going to pay my cars cannot pay to provide for my family. But yet, through that time, my Instagram is still growing. So growing them 800 million from all those years.
18:27 - 18:52
Jeff, you're a prime example of how these days social media platforms can really alter the course of one's career. Your Instagram account appears to be a brand unto itself, and you've said how instrumental it has been to your reach and earning potential too. Can you give us some behind the scenes account of some opportunities that have manifested via that platform for you?
18:52 - 19:15
So 2019, like December 2000, that's really rock bottom. Then I got a call from my GM from somebody I'm a big fan of yours. I love to see if we can create together. I look at it and it's like the blue mark is up Rocky. So I said, Sure. I meet with him and also at the same time concretely do that. One of my mutual friend Ronnie took invited me to the opening of his launching of his game.
19:16 - 20:00
So when I went there, I realized, like, everybody knows me, Caddie knows me and Ben Simmons and Dave East and Ben Baller. And I mean, I was such a big fan of yours. And at that time, James Jones calls me, so I want to write a song about you. So I wrote a song called Jeff Hamilton with Value, and it's all about Jeff Hamilton. Like, you know, Jeff Hamilton has a million followers, you know? You know, but if you don't have a Jeff Hamilton and momentum, start building up. So ASAP, Rocky comes in and says, I want you to make me custom jacket. He's going to be a champion. So I didn't have the resources nor the ability to manufacture anything. I didn't know where to start to get a factory that was going to do it for me. I said, it's impossible to do anything like that in a week.
20:00 - 20:23
However. If you want to, from my library, which I kept on my special jacket. The jacket that I wore when I was with Kobe in the locker room. By the way, we are only four people in the shower when you took that iconic picture. But I'll be glad to know that you said, well, that would be great. Please do that. And I went to a sapiens, got a jacket. Put me on with him on stage.
20:24 - 21:23
Then I start getting calls from Virgil, getting calls from folks, from everybody just saying, you know, are you an icon? You're the O.G., you know, bam, you're a legend. And now suddenly everybody's calling me a legend. You know, I just I don't get it. And of course, I met Rihanna, which I had done stuff for her in the past, and everybody's just all over me. And two weeks later, Kobe dies, and suddenly I get bombarded on Instagram because that's the only lifeline that people have with me. They call me and you talking guys over 20 years old, Kobe, they were not born when he had won the championship. And suddenly they start putting a name, a face to the product. And myself, I was so blessed and so appreciative and so humbled by people knowing that that I would face time them. And to this day, if a fan calls me and they want to say, sign me, I'll FaceTime them. I don't care if they simply want to give me a compliment, because if I give them joy, they're giving me joy because I know where I come from.
21:24 - 21:32
That's incredible. And not something many designers make a practice of doing, at least not that I know of. It sounds like this is a point where the jackets really started to make a comeback. Is that right?
21:32 - 22:09
I started getting bombarded with orders. You know, I called the NBA. I said, you know, this is what's going on. I don't have a license. But with Kobe being these, everybody's asking me. So right after that, there was the All-Star Game. So now at that point, I'm getting, like, energized. I called two Chainz I call Chance the rapper. I call Fabulous. I call Ludacris, Dave East. I run into K and probably another six or seven. In my whole collection of jacket that I had in my personal archive, I send it to them for them to wear. And on top of that, we get Netflix documentary, The Last Dance.
22:09 - 22:44
Now in the Last Dance, you know, I mean, like, I'm all over you see me, you see my jacket, you see Michael. So it's not only like like, you know, that it was Kobe, but it was Michael. And then you realize I did the Martin Lawrence jacket. I did the in living color jackets. I did The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I did the 50 greatest players Nelson Mandela. So everything BUZZER pass up that but not necessarily in a way that it was just oh he's a quote unquote great design it does that is stuff that has that has marked a childhood in a culture where he has been present along the way.
22:44 - 23:05
So all those things kind of like like you say, like a perfect storm of rewards. But really, I try to suppress my ego and saying this is not about ego. And if I'm able to achieve the impossible, which is 65 inches was 20. So I make a comeback at 65. It is is going to go in the annals of business.
23:05 - 23:20
Jeff, you clearly have been everywhere and the stories you're telling are so good. I'm so impressed and what a comeback story. It really speaks for itself. I want to make sure I get one really important question. So I'd like to ask what's the best piece of financial advice you've ever received.
23:21 - 24:19
From a financial point? And I think I referred to it many times, nobody can take away your work ethic. You have to work hard. If you work in the morning till the end of the night, you're going to make money on. The work is the first thing. Number two is. Work smart. Don't try to go right away for the kill. Just try to take step by step. Don't. Don't be greedy. As long as you have food on your table and your family is is covering your necessities. You don't need to drive. The Rolls Royce works might do baby steps, but make sure that before you make a decision, you're thinking very thoroughly. Number three, identify what your talent is. I'm going to tell you, I can stop right there. You have the three. It's a guaranteed success. Now, if you will, bring the spiritual God, given the fourth element, which is the sprinkle of luck, which myself are called blessings, you're going to be successful.
24:20 - 24:29
Well, it's clear the journey that you've taken and the legacy that you've left behind is so impressive. So, Jeff, I really appreciate you making a pit stop on that journey with us.
24:30 - 24:32
In order to be part of it with you guys.
24:33 - 24:53
Thank you all for listening. This has been the big stage. If you enjoyed this episode and you'd like to subscribe, please go to Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Please email us with your thoughts, questions and any feedback to insights at Bernstein dot com and be sure to find us on Twitter and Instagram at Bernstein GWM.