My favorite travel apparel is made by a local Los Angeles company called Aviator. Don’t tell anyone I said this but I essentially live in two pairs of Aviator’s comfort-stretch travel jeans — officially called The World’s Best Travel Jeans — made from 49% Lyocell, 42% cotton, 6% elasterell, and 3% spandex. You know travel jeans are extraordinary when you wear them in a year like 2020 when everyone is stuck at home all the time.
Colby Kane is the designer and former Macy’s art director behind the brand, and he and I kindred spirits. We both live to travel and make travel part of our work. But since March, he’s had to adjust to the radical new realities of running a small fashion brand in the most challenging business climate in recent history.
Aviator recently introduced a new air-dry polo shirt made from the same sweat-proof, odor-resistant, take-it-anywhere fabric that’s the brand’s signature. Aviator makes hoodies, t-shirts and, now, face masks with merino wool, and the stuff is practically bombproof. The new polo is cut like a classic with a crisp collar, a tailored fit at the shoulders and a nifty Aviator airplane logo at the chest that signals: you haven’t given up on going places.
I asked Kane how he’s managing in the face of pandemic shutdowns, and what keeps him sane as he pivots and re-prioritizes, all while staying in style.
Being a small clothing company among the giants of retail was already challenging. How did the pandemic impact on Aviator?
Colby Kane: The pandemic had a huge impact on Aviator. Since we make clothing for the travel lifestyle our sales completely stopped from March 13th to the beginning of April. I remember seeing a couple sales come in for jeans and thinking “who’s buying jeans right now for their next trip?” It was over those first couple of weeks of the pandemic that I think being small and scrappy was an advantage. Most of those ‘giants’ don’t make products here in the USA, making it much harder for them to pivot to masks. Without pivoting to masks I believe we would have closed down the business. We are self-funded with zero investment and never would have survived.
Wow. How big a part of the business did masks become?
It was a huge part of our business from April through July. I never envisioned making masks before but here we are. On April 1st, I spoke with some of my LA factories to see if we could work together on becoming an essential business and stay open by making masks. We have since donated thousands of masks to the frontline workers and other essential businesses. We started selling the masks through our website which helped keep our factories open and saved jobs. Mask sales actually skyrocketed as we moved into the beginning of summer, and we could no longer keep up with the demand. I feel like every small brand in LA and beyond started making masks to help keep their businesses afloat. People now have mask fatigue but post-pandemic I do believe that mask wearing will be a big part of the Western world’s culture. People in Asia have been wearing masks for decades as part of their day-to-day life. Masks are now a small part of our revenue, and sales of our core products—the jeans, hoodies, and shirts—have started to pick up and are about 75% of where they were pre-pandemic. Masks will be thought of as an accessory moving forward.
Take us inside your design mind on the new polo shirt. What was wrong with the classics you see everywhere else?
I’ve been so excited about the launch of our polo style shirt. There have been brands built on the polo shirt from Polo, Ralph Lauren to Lacoste, Fred Perry and others. It’s a staple shirt and everyone has at least one in their wardrobe. Just like all Aviator products the shirt had to have style and function. I knew I wanted to use merino wool because that would provide the function. Using merino wool meant this polo can be worn over and over again without needing to be washed. When it’s time to freshen it up with a hand wash, merino wool dries faster than cotton.
For the style of the polo, it was important to me that it have a rib collar and armband like the original designer polo shirts from the Sixties and Seventies. I originally also wanted the body to be a pique knit, which is mesh-like. We tested this several times but the merino wool just gained too much weight and began to get torqued. The solution was to keep the rib collar and armbands, but change the body knit to a classic knit.
What I released after several samples felt like the perfect balance of style and function I was looking for. Adding the Aviator logo to the chest was an easy decision for me. I wanted to create a sort of badge for the modern traveler or jet-setter; just like those older brands were a badge for the country club. We worked hard on developing a fit that’s tailored and diverse. The merino wool jersey has a nice natural drape while the collar has enough structure to pop up and keep the sun off the back of your neck.
What’s selling best for you right now and why?
During COVID we launched a new “fly-light” five-pocket jean for men and women that don’t have the extra hidden travel pockets. They are more like traditional jeans but with our special denim blended fabric that is extremely comfortable. The thought process for these new styles was to create jeans that are for everyday wear. We also wanted to make a jean in the USA and retail them at an unbelievable price point. They’re $85 and have been our best seller since launching this past September.
What’s exciting you most about the future?
Getting back to traveling! Once the world opens back up I believe there will be a travel boom like no other time.
Any new personal pursuits or guilty pleasure you’ve taken up during the pandemic to stay sane?
I’ve been spending as much time as possible in Mammoth, California, with my family. We have been exploring the Eastern Sierras and Yosemite. Lots of outdoor activities like mountain biking, hiking, and, my personal favorite, snowboarding.