Los Angeles menswear designer John Elliott's company is only 3 years old, but you could say he's been at it a lot longer than that. At age 8, he sent off a letter to Nike with a few of his designs intended for a legendary athlete who he thought wasn't getting enough attention.
"My favorite athlete at the time was Bo Jackson, and I felt like his shoes weren't the same level as Michael Jordan's, so I was making suggestions," says Elliott, now 32, sitting at a work table in his Culver City headquarters. "What's funny is they wrote me a letter back."
Nike is apparently still interested in what Elliott has to say. When he staged his first show at New York Fashion Week in February, showcasing his collection for fall 2015, out came his trademark elongated silhouette, with iridescent bomber jackets inspired by oil slicks that Elliott remembered seeing in his days as a skateboarder and wavy-pattern knits like TV static from the '50s. And on the gleaming runway lighted by a grid of fluorescent tubes, the shoes were all designed with Nike. Elliott's version of the LeBron 12 in pearlized white with a glow-in-the-dark sole was a particular standout — Nike then featured the shoe, $245, on the front page of its website, to order from Nike ID.
The show was also notable for the presence of Kanye West, who slipped into the second row as the lights dimmed and made it a scene covered by the likes of "Entertainment Tonight" and the Daily Mail. Elliott had decided he was ready to show in New York to "make a little noise and push the conversation forward" after GQ magazine named him one of the best new designers in America last year with its Gap collaboration prize.
"It's been a quick ride, but I guess you could say it's been a lifelong project," Elliott says. His business partner in John Elliott + Co is his best friend "since fifth grade" in San Francisco, Aaron Lavee. "He knew this was something that I wanted to do since I was yea high. And he was, like, 'together we can get there.'"
Elliott says they'd been discussing starting a business together "every lunch since I was a freshman in high school." But they started in earnest in 2011 after he had moved to L.A. to take a job as a wholesale fashion rep after a retail career earlier in San Francisco. Lavee was living here too by then, working for his family's commercial real estate firm.
"I asked Aaron, 'Could I stay on your couch for a week or two?'" Elliott says. "A week or two turned into a year and a half." They planned and started saving money. And one day in August 2011, when Elliott was in New York on business and couldn't get a cab, he walked block after block in a summer rainstorm and realized it was time. "So, I called Aaron up and I said, 'Let's go for it.'"
Back in L.A. he turned to a close friend from the denim business, designer Simon Miller (then at his self-named line, now men's designer at Citizens of Humanity and founder of cult denim label Fabric Brand). Elliott asked if he "could be a sponge" and start from the bottom as an intern there.
He worked with Miller for about a year, learning everything from how to build a jeans pattern for denim to how to source hardware to the lay of the landscape of local fashion manufacturing in downtown L.A. and beyond.
By the following March, Elliott and Lavee were ready to put together an initial collection, for spring 2013, and as Elliott says, "The first season was a mixture of what I wanted to do and what we could afford."
What the partners could afford was limited to three textiles — denim, T-shirt jersey and French terry. With denim, Elliott felt he needed to stick to authentic jeans styling. But he thought he could make a splash by offering something unique in French terry, so he devised a sweatshirt shape with two side-seam zippers that concealed a hidden kangaroo pocket. The style, Villain, became his first hit and variations (from $185-$198) are still in the line.
"Nobody knew who we were. There was no social media, no press, no nothing," he says. "Just off of, 'It's interesting, it fits well, it's new,' it started to sell out immediately and we knew we had something."
More important, in combination with the super-slim jeans cut extra long so they stacked at the ankles and the slouchy T-shirts, an identifiable John Elliott style started to emerge that was "understated yet extremely high quality," as the magazine Complex put it.
Along the way, the "+ Co" has grown as well, as a Japanese fabric distributor named Nobu Yamamoto partnered with them to help with sourcing and developing textiles. (The line is completely made in L.A. and 60-70% of the fabric is knit here.) And Mike Ingrasci, the younger brother of another San Francisco schoolmate, saw what they were doing and came on board to direct sales, following two stints with President Obama's election campaigns.
"The biggest thing I want people to know is it's a total team effort and we have a very strong team," says Elliott, who is preparing his collection for spring 2016 to show at the initial New York Fashion Week Men's next month in New York. "And I'm grateful for that."