When Vetements, the label currently considered fashion’s hottest commodity, wanted a partner to make bomber jackets for its new collaborative collection, it turned to Alpha Industries. Kanye West chose Alpha, too, to supply the bombers he used for his recent tour merchandise. Celebrities such as model Kendall Jenner are often spotted in Alpha’s MA-1 bombers, and R&B artist The Weeknd wore one to accept his many trophies at the Billboard Music Awards in May.
Not bad for a brand that still supplies the US Navy and Special Forces.
“When somebody asks me, ‘Who is your designer?'” says Mike Cirker, Alpha’s CEO, “our answer is the US government.”
Alpha began in 1960, as a military provider making N-3B parkas and shirts. Although it didn’t invent the MA-1, it started supplying them to the military in 1963, during the Vietnam War. Alpha’s version had a sage green nylon outer shell and a bright orange lining that, when worn reversed, made downed air crews easy to spot—a color combination still popular today.
Alpha provided those jackets until the 1980s, when the military decommissioned it and replaced it with the CWU-45/P flight jacket, which Alpha got the contract to provide. The company was then free to sell the MA-1 to anyone who wanted it, such as the militaries of Colombia and Chile.
Over the past couple years, Alpha outerwear has become a fashion staple. This year, revenue is up 30% (paywall), driven by the MA-1, which Alpha says has at least tripled in year-over-year sales. Last week, its bombers for Vetements, customized to the label’s off-kilter proportions, shared the Paris couture calendar with handmade gowns representing the peak of high fashion.
Cirker says that popular demand for the versatile MA-1 design has risen and fallen over the years. But this year, there’s more demand for Alpha’s bombers than ever. “I’m not certain if it’s that the trend is a bigger trend, or it’s just that Alpha is better positioned and we have just more brand exposure right now,” he says. He credits Kanye West, who bought sample jackets three years ago, for helping to launch the current bomber trend.
Menswear more broadly is on a bomber-jacket binge. Internet menswear obsessives have become fixated on some of menswear’s first high-fashion bombers, created by designers Raf Simons and Helmut Lang in the early 2000s. Simons actually repurposed real military surplus, according to David Casavant, a New York stylist and archivist of pieces by Lang and Simons. Those sought-after pieces still have the tags of their original manufacturers, such as Fostex Garments.
West has been borrowing Raf Simons bombers from Casavant since December 2014, while labels such as Stampd are putting out near-replicas of Lang’s bombers with their “bondage” straps.
While Alpha still supplies the military with other styles, its main business has shifted to the consumer market, which looks to it for authentic outerwear, such as the MA-1 and M65 field coat. But it hasn’t forgotten its roots. “We were born of purpose, we were born 57 years ago to make jackets for the military, and we never stopped,” Cirker says.