You may never have heard of Jeff Hamilton unless you’re a big American sports fan. Even then you probably still haven’t heard of Jeff Hamilton. Still, you’ve probably seen his jackets, particularly if you were a fan of Netflix’ Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance. Adorned in NBA logos, they were worn by all the big NBA players of the 90s and they show up in scene after scene of the series. The journey of how Jeff Hamilton came to be is every bit as astonishing as the story of Jordan himself.
Jeff Hamilton was born in Morocco and moved to France at a young age, although he liked to dress well he was more interested in Maths and Physics and chose to study these subjects. Never once did he think about fashion. He did however have an obsession with American culture which was to become the main motif in his future career.
This obsession led Jeff, who at 24 was married with two children, to move his family to America with just $6000 and no real grasp of the English language. Unsurprisingly, for a young unknown with language barriers, he found it difficult to be hired but, as he says “I would’ve worked in a car wash, I was never going to go back to Paris a failure.”. He slogged on regardless and found work selling items of clothing from shop to shop, small money but he was making connections with some of the right people.
One of these people was Georges Marciano - the French-born owner of Guess. In Hamilton’s own words Marciano liked him “because I looked rock n roll, I had pink sweaters, pink socks, and cool shoes”, clearly he knew what looked good, just not any idea how to go about making it. His first job was to figure out how to design so he did what he knew: went to his own wardrobe and picked out what he liked, got a team of people, and started learning and creating. Marciano made him the first licensee for Guess Jeans and it proved to be a smart move, despite Jeff’s lack of knowledge.
Within 2 years Guess had gone from making $22,000 in sales to $75m. Clearly Jeff knew what he was doing, thankfully for him this all happened just as he ran out of that $6,000 he took with him to America. Never one to forget his roots, Jeff has stated “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Georges Marciano”. However denim was never his passion, his real passion was for leather, and it wouldn’t be long before he outgrew Guess.
Jeff's success (and passion for Americana) meant that he now had a nice house, a car, and three Harley Davidsons which he rode around with celebrity friends such as James Caan and Billy Idol - a far cry from the Moroccan-French maths and physics student he once was. Again, his vision was such that he knew what he wanted to wear whilst riding around with A-listers but it just wasn’t available anywhere. What other option would he have but to make them himself?
Jeff began creating hand sewn leather designs with different patches on, all symbols of America, after leaving Guess, and by this point he was fairly well known. So much so in fact that he started getting personalised orders, all of which would have to be designed and made completely manually; the upside to this being he could ask ridiculous prices for them. This is when things started to really get moving.
Pushing the Product
Jeff started going to fashion shows with the jackets, knowing there was some interest in them, but not realising just how much there would be. Suddenly stores were putting in orders which he had absolutely no chance of completing whilst still personally hand sewing each individual piece. He also had no real idea how to create them in mass quantity so he started to assemble a crew who could help him complete the vision. This is when the rest of the celebrities came on board.
Before he knew it, NBA stars started wearing them; Michael Jackson & Magic Johnson. Madonna and George Michael put in orders for their tours, and he was hired to make his jackets for the whole of Michael Jackson’s Victory tour. Then the early 90s was the moment it all came together, the moment the NFL got in touch.
“A friend of mine who worked for the NFL asked me for a jacket, so I made him one. I think the logo was probably crooked but they went crazy for them”. Hamilton ended up getting a license from the NFL, then a license from the NBA, and then one from the NHL. He was suddenly licensed for all the major sporting leagues in the USA still not entirely sure how he was going to fill all the orders.
As he seemed to always do, through sheer perseverance, focus on his vision and, in his words, “a sprinkle of luck”, he did succeed and even found a way to produce slightly cheaper versions so that fans could buy the jackets that their idols were wearing, themselves. But as with every great success story, at some point, it had to all come to an end. Unfortunately for Jeff (and for us), it did.
In 1993 a partner tried to steal from the now greatly successful Jeff Hamilton and he managed, as is often the case, to lose everything. In a nutshell: Jeff sued the lawyers involved and tried to regain his licenses. He succeeded four years later and within months of regaining those licenses he was back, more successful than he had ever been but it wasn’t to last long.
Jeff states that “as with any success, jealousy crept in” and he was sued by his first wife. He did eventually win the case but it cost him $7m and somewhere along the way he sold the business to a NASCAR company. By this point he’d never felt so washed up and low and had essentially given up. But then in 2013 something entirely new came along that was to breathe life into Jeff once again.
A friend introduced Jeff to Instagram which he took to instantly, using it to document his own history with pictures of him and Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Nelson Mandela, Madonna, and a whole host of those he had met along the way. He starts gaining followers in the thousands fairly quickly, but this was doing nothing to provide for him or for his family.
Jordan and Ali
Fast forward to 2019: Jeff’s instagram is still growing, into the millions now, but he has finally hit rock bottom financially. He’s receiving DMs from people all over the world commending his work and, however proud this may make him, Jeff knows something has to happen if he is going to escape this rut. Thankfully one of those DMs comes from a familiar name.
Rapper and friend to fashion, A$AP Rocky got in touch with Jeff Hamilton directly to tell him how much of a fan he was and that he would love to work with him. They met at a party and everyone there knew him and knew his work. Things were finally falling back into place for Jeff, after travelling such a long and hard road it looked like it might all pay off properly, so much later in life. It was about to, more than ever.
A$AP told Jeff that he wanted a custom jacket for an upcoming gig in a weeks time. With neither the resources nor ability to achieve that but knowing the potential for such a move, Jeff decided to lend A$AP Rocky a jacket from his own archives - the one Kobe Bryant wore when he won the championship. After just that one gig Jeff’s phone started to blow up - a generation of people who probably weren’t even old enough to see the championship win in the first place. Then two weeks later Kobe tragically died and the fans would not stop calling Jeff Hamilton.
Suddenly, once again, Hamilton was bombarded with orders from all over the place. He provided archive items to rappers such as Fabolous, Chance the Rapper, and Dave East knowing that they’d wear them on stage to major hype. He was once again finding his own path and going at it with vigour and intensity. Then when The Last Dance came on to Netflix that cemented Jeff Hamilton’s comeback: he was in every other scene, as were his jackets, and people, the world, took notice once again.
“People realised I’d been there all along, right from their childhoods”.
Now, thankfully, Jeff is also here for a whole new generation.