One of my life’s biggest (retail) regrets is not having gotten a class ring when I graduated from high school. I don’t know how popular they are today (are class tattoos a thing yet?), but back then (when people knew who Joe Piscopo was and thought he was hysterical) it was still kind of a “thing,” but I was having none of it.
It was so…not…80s. Had I only known that in my later years I’d become a sentimental sap who worships at the altar of nostalgia, I surely would have made the investment. And while I was no Zack or Slater (or even Screech for that matter), I did enjoy high school, and as Brian Wilson taught us…
So be true to your school now
Just like you would to your girl or guy
Be true to your school now
And let your colors fly
Be true to your school
Sure, I could get a Class of ’87 ring today, but it wouldn’t be the same. Ditto for a varsity jacket—while I cheered on my Cicero-North Syracuse Northstars, I could never have myself have lettered in any sport…that is unless the district athletics department decided to embrace a competitive version of tripping over your own feet. But I love that classic collegiate style, and if you do too (and don’t have or maybe can’t fit into your old colors) I can help.
Sure, there are a lot of places where you can score a varsity jacket, but the vast majority are made overseas and embody all the worst things about that fact—poor quality materials, shoddy workmanship, and no attention to detail. That’s why I chose a Made In The U.S.A. Golden Bear. If there was ever a company that lovingly made things you want to use forever, it’s these guys, one of San Francisco’s most revered brands.
For the last 98 years, if you wanted the very best varsity jacket money could buy (and it takes less than you may think), Golden Bear continues to lead the way. Clarice Weatherford (VP of Marketing) and Cheri Wong (VP of Sales) gave me the play-by-play of their company’s storied past, exciting present, and plans for their bright future.
Heddels (John Bobey): Tell me something about Golden Bear’s history that might not be popularly known?
Golden Bear (Clarice Weatherford and Cheri Wong): We made jackets for the secret service back in the 90s, which is something not many people know. Also, to this day we still make all the San Francisco Police Department’s motorcycle jackets which they use daily on duty and during police escorts.
H: How long has the varsity jacket been a part of your collection?
GB: Our oldest records show us producing our first varsity style in 1952, and the style has been a large part of our collection ever since. And as the varsity jacket has evolved over the decades, so has our clients’ needs for this style. We started out supplying local colleges and high schools, which lead into band and teamster jackets for the ever growing culture that was San Francisco in the 1960s.
Most recently, we make jackets for professional sports teams, world renowned brands, and A-List celebrities…even a few presidents. To this day we still find our varsity jackets at vintage stores around the Bay area, some with personalized letterman varsity patches still proudly pronounced on the chest, some dating as far back as the early 1960s—all still in great condition.
H: What are some features that distinguish a Golden Bear garment from other makers?
GB: What makes a Golden Bear varsity jacket distinctly a “Golden Bear” is our materials and craftsmanship. Any brand can make a generic varsity jacket, but making a new one that has vintage feel yet still appeals to a younger audience, isn’t so easy.
We apply our traditional construction techniques, using the latest trending materials and colors to keep our vintage styles current. Also, our embellishments and knits are uniquely Golden Bear. We still use a chain stitch machine to apply looped yarn embellishment details that are rarely found on other varsity jackets. Our knit ribbing is still run piece by piece, using vintage patterns and traditional knitting machines, sourced from the same vendor we have been using for over 40 years. All of these components combined make for a varsity jacket built to last a lifetime.
H: Your wool and the leather—do you source these in the U.S.?
GB: When we can, we do. We source our materials from all over the globe, but generally we take pride in true craftsmanship. People come to us because we specialize in high end, American made men’s outerwear, varsity, leathers, and wools. We seek out vendors for raw materials who produce their goods with the same respect and enthusiasm we do for our outerwear.
Most of our varsity wools come from mills across North America, while our tweeds and lux wools generally come from Europe. Leather greatly depends on the animal, but we receive a lot of cowhides from Brazil and the U.S., while deerskins mainly come from New Zealand, and horsehide, lambskins and goat skins from the U.S. High quality materials are a key part of what makes a Golden Bear jacket so unique and dependable.
H: I was intrigued by the cuff detail…instead of just knit, the leather of the sleeve extends into the cuff, and that’s naturally where I tend to grab as I pull my arm out of the jacket…it’s essentially a tab. I’ve never seen that anywhere else—that’s by design I assume?
GB: Yes! We call this piece a cuff protector; it is an extra piece of leather that is sewn at the cuff rib seam, to reinforce the stress point. Designed by Sam Slater, the original owner of the company, it was patented by Golden Bear in 1953 to help extend the life of the knit cuff ribbing, a detail rarely seen on other varsity styles.
Anyone who has ever owned a jacket with knit rib cuffs knows this is the first point to wear out and tear, so whether it’s your favorite hoodie, or beloved jacket, it’s always the biggest bummer. Even though the patent expired, we still use it in all of our varsity styles, helping ensure the quality of the knit will hold up for the life of the jacket.
H: The fold-over of the knit collar…I feel like that’s a detail I’ve seen that on vintage jackets, but on contemporary jackets, not so much…
GB: True, some of our styling details haven’t changed since the 1950s and that’s why some brands seek us out. Sometime in the early 2000s “vintage” became “in” again, which was great for us because we never changed what we do.
We still have all of the options we did back in the 50s—shawl collar, roll collar with button down tabs, shirt collar, standard knit collar—offering these options has allowed our customers the freedom to personalize their design to fit their brand and their customers, but still have that authentic Golden Bear feel.
H: You manufacture everything in San Francisco—what are the challenges involved in not only making your stuff in the U.S., but in one of the most expensive cities on the planet?
GB: The simple answer is cost—we are always trying to stay competitive with cost, but never willing to compromise on quality, so naturally it makes our jackets a little more expensive. Also, cutting and sewing leather is a highly skilled craft, so finding the right operators to cut and sew our garments can be a challenge. Luckily, we have an amazing team that takes great pride in its work and the integrity of the product.
H: And keeping all that old school machinery running? That can’t be easy.
GB: When you have a good mechanic, it really helps! Our sewing machines are all vintage, so they require regular maintenance to function properly. We always keep them in top working condition, because a well-tuned machine is essential for a properly sewn jacket.
H: You’ve clearly got the old school manufacturing techniques down—how do you manage to marry those with the stylistic desires of younger customers? Essentially, what keeps you relevant after all these years?
GB: We have the benefit of working on one-of-a-kind collaborations with some pretty amazing brands, which helps us stay relevant with the youngsters. Collaborations with Todd Snyder, Kith, Billionaire Boys Club, Shinola, Huf, Taylor Stitch, Tellason, and Rag & Bone have resulted in mutually beneficial projects which increased Golden Bear’s visibility in the men’s fashion world—we’ve become the go-to manufacturer of high end varsity jackets.
We have also updated our fits, to make our jackets well suited for the modern man… appealing to the younger crowd. But don’t worry, we still offer our traditional fits for the old school brand that wants it the way their dad and grandpa wore it.
H: The varsity is obviously a mainstay of your brand, but how many other new designs do you launch each season?
GB: We stay within our wheelhouse of expertise—varsity, luxury wools, and all-leather jackets. For leather styles, we produce various moto jackets, dockworker, trucker jackets, Harrington’s, baseball jackets, and bomber jackets. Our detachable fur collar bomber has been very popular in recent years because of the versatility it offers—fur on or fur off. We also produce many of the same styles in various wools, tweeds, and sometimes lightweight materials like cottons and nylons.
H: You’re two years away from your 100th birthday as a company—congratulations! Any centennial celebration plans you can share, and to what can we look forward in your second century?
GB: Thank you! We have been tossing around some ideas about a throwback jacket, but can’t share any further details quite yet. But I can say it will be iconic and timeless. In the next 100 years, we are looking forward to building on our existing partnerships and establishing new ones by continuing on with our tradition of domestic skilled craftsmanship with only the best materials!
Years ago I worked a TV show where customized varsity jackets from Ebbets Field Flannels were given as annual holiday gifts, and that had always been my high water mark in terms of the fit and finish for that style of jacket. While I still cherish those and hold them in very high esteem, I must admit that my new Golden Bear is a notch above. The premium, accept-no-substitute quality is indisputable.
Mine is a Classic Fit varsity jacket (as my “contemporary fit” days are deep in my past), and it’s a thing of beauty—chalk white “naked” cowhide leather sleeves, rich red wool, fold-over collar, snap front, deep side pockets (and one inside breast pocket not shown)…putting it on is like getting a warm hug from a favorite aunt. The materials are clearly best-in-class, and the workmanship is par excellence. I got mine in a size XL Long (to accommodate my lanky frame) and it’s a perfect fit.
This jacket will clearly last my lifetime and at least one more—those looking to snag it in my will had better start sucking up now. And like with a number of the brands we celebrate here, owning a Golden Bear is like having a small piece of history hanging in your closet.
They’ve been doing it the right way…for Golden Bear the best and only way…for nearly a century, and they clearly show no signs of stopping. In our time where it’s near impossible to be absolutely sure of anything, companies like Golden Bear remind us that, no matter what, quality and tradition will endure.