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Jesse James Wants to Take You From Dork to Cool in 20 Minutes

Elizabeth Khuri is the assistant editor for West's style section and the former managing editor of SOMA magazine. She has also written for Women's Wear Daily.

Jesse James has definite ideas about fashion. He knows what he likes, and what he doesn’t. The plaid shirt he’s wearing buttoned up to the rim of his beefy neck--a shirt from the West Coast Choppers line that you can buy at Wal-Mart for $20--is something he likes.

Of course he does: He designed it.

He also likes the enzyme-washed, deconstructed T-shirts silk-screened with images of pistols and skulls that are hanging on racks in an office down the hall from his workshop in Long Beach. He designed these too, or at least signed off on every step of the design process. And if James gets what he wants, which he often does, they’ll be selling for more than $100 a pop in Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Fred Segal this summer.

James, best known to many as Sandra Bullock’s husband and the host of “Monster Garage” on the Discovery Channel, doesn’t see any particular challenge in making the leap from Wal-Mart to the mall to Melrose Avenue with his new High Caliber line for men. He figures he knows what his people want, no matter where they swipe their plastic.

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Fashion isn’t only for “guys that never get dirty,” he says, sitting at an antique mail-sorter’s desk that is HQ for his multifaceted company, West Coast Choppers. A British World War I helmet decorated with the Maltese cross, the company’s logo, rests on a shelf, along with statues of the Virgin Mary. The movie “Titanic” plays on multiple flat-screen TVs hanging on the walls. A framed photo of James and his beloved pit bull, Cisco, is close at hand. Cisco lives in an igloo-shaped doghouse behind the West Coast Choppers compound, a former paint factory near the 710. Inside, there are no evident pictures of his wife.

“Guys that can wear a white shirt and white pants and Topsiders and never touch dirt anywhere in their lives--I don’t think our customer is like that,” James continues, resting his big hands on denim-clad thighs. “I think our customers get their fingernails dirty, and if they rub up against a car, it’s not the end of the world.”

Jesse Gregory James, born 36 years ago in Long Beach, gets his nails dirty. He was an outside linebacker at Riverside City College, worked for a while as a bodyguard and a bouncer and still puts in time as a welder and machinist. His parents named him after his great-great-grandfather’s cousin, the notorious bank robber, and he spent his childhood hanging out in his father’s antiques refurbishing shop, conveniently located next to a Harley-Davidson parts supplier. Now he’s a prosperous businessman with “Pay up sucker” tattooed on his right palm. He owns a television production company, oversees five clothing lines and designs and sells custom parts for cars and bikes. If you have $50,000 or more he’ll build you a chopper from scratch, like he did for Shaquille O’Neal. Pretty soon he’ll be peddling hamburgers: A joint called Cisco Burger is under construction next door to the compound.

What Jesse James secretly wants, though, is to be Martha Stewart. Maybe he won’t put the Maltese cross on sheets or shower curtains or gravy boats (though the West Coast Choppers website does sell a cozy pair of house slippers), but he does see himself creating a wide-ranging lifestyle brand for men and women who would shudder at the phrase “lifestyle brand.” He wants to market it all, just like Martha does. “One-stop shopping,” he says. “From dork to cool in 20 minutes.”

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Clothes are key. The success of the West Coast Choppers line of relatively plain T-shirts and button-downs, which has been in Wal-Mart stores for about three years, satisfied him for a while. Then he began to notice that other companies, L.A.'s Von Dutch in particular, were selling high-end shirts and hats that looked awfully familiar, with their blue-collar, mechanic-themed edge. “They’re all copying everything right from us and making bank off it,” he recalls thinking. “And they don’t make motorcycles, they don’t build cars, they don’t know how to weld and fabricate and have this whole lifestyle and shop. It tells me that I’m the benchmark and I need to step up and cater to a market that is there for me.”

Besides, the world’s largest retailer is a little, you know, confining. “With Wal-Mart we can’t go as crazy,” James says. West Coast Choppers shirts can’t sport four-letter words or “really crazy heavy religious symbols. In the Bible Belt, they might get a little uppity.”

So the High Caliber line was born, with more of the attitude that has made James a legend. An explanation is stenciled inside the necklines of some of the shirts: “The High Caliber line is a no bull, non-compromising division of West Coast Choppers. We don’t apologize for anything and we’re not pulling any punches.” Other expositions can’t be printed here.

That High Caliber is high-end gives him pause, sort of. “Some of the prices we charge, to be honest, I feel a little guilty,” he says, grinning. “ ‘Wife beaters’ for $200 bucks, I’m like--sucker. I could get three for 10 bucks” at the Compton indoor swap meet.

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James isn’t going alone into the relatively dapper world of department stores. His company is working with Koral Industries of Vernon, founder of the 7 for All Mankind brand, and it’s at Koral’s 250,000-square-foot headquarters that the heavy lifting takes place in the design and manufacture of High Caliber’s 30-ply cotton T-shirts, hoodies, thermal tops and old-style button-down shirts.

The deal with Koral “is a coup for Mr. James,” says Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Assn. “They have a fabulous eye for the future in picking potential winners.” The Koral sales force has the task of persuading Bloomingdale’s et al to stock High Caliber products; Koral officials say the sample line will be shown soon to buyers for major retailers.

Kevin Harter, director of men’s fashion for Bloomingdale’s, says there’s a new emphasis on what he calls “work wear” in the spring and fall collections he’s seen. “It’s timely what they’re doing,” he says. “Guys still want to feel comfortable in their clothes.”

That’s the idea, according to James; he says he wants High Caliber to stay true to his work-hard, if-it-has-a-motor-ride-it-and-crash-it industrial aesthetic. Koral’s chief designer for High Caliber, David Castanon, calls the look “upscale but casual.” And not too feminine--from the start James insisted on “no tight Ts that showed nipples.” The soft stuff is reserved for West Coast Choppers Gold, a new line of form-fitting T-shirts for women who like to hang out with men who like to get dirty.

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Koral’s president and chief executive, Jane Siskin, notes that the company had never partnered with a famous name, much less a tattooed-machinist famous name. James made the cut, she says, because “he can relate to everyone, from a mass-merchandise-type person to a celebrity; he has that ability.”

He doesn’t figure it’s that complicated. In fact, he sees it as very simple: “We’re trying to make stuff that’s cool.”


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