One of the oldest companies continuously operating in Detroit
As a colleague said to me the other day, the NAIAS media preview is for networking, interviews, and asking questions, not covering reveals. You never really know ahead of time who exactly you’re going to run into but you will run into friends, colleagues and industry insiders. 2014 is the Dodge brand’s 100th anniversary. In November it will be a century since Horace and John Dodge started selling cars under their own names after more than a decade of being Henry Ford’s primary supplier. While looking at a display of Dodge memorabilia adjacent to the brand’s centennial editions of the Challenger and Charger, I got to talking with a guy when I noticed he was wearing an Alexander Brothers lapel pin. I’m a big fan of the legendary Detroit custom car builders and have interviewed Mike Alexander. Someday I’ll publish my work on the Dodge Deora. Right now it’s somewhere between TL:DR and a book. Anyhow, the guy with the A Bros pin turned out to be Dan Zimmermann, who is the interior design manager for the Dodge brand at Chrysler, and it turns out that the 100th anniversary Dodge models coincidentally celebrate another Detroit contribution to gearhead culture.
Along with actual historical artifacts, there were a couple of Dodge Bros. leather jackets in the display cases. Since they looked distressed, I asked Zimmermann if they were vintage and he said, no, they tried to find some but couldn’t. He then told me that the leather upholstery in the centennial edition cars was meant to evoke the look of the classic leather motorcycle jacket that Marlon Brando wore in The Wild One, a seminal influence on biker culture. I told Zimmermann that means the 100th anniversary Dodge cars also pay tribute to another old Detroit company, without which The Wild One might not have been so influential.
Falling down one of those rabbit holes an editor once described to me, I once found myself researching the topic of old leather motorcycle jackets, specifically the Brando classic. It’s still a popular style. Japanese collectors pay serious money for originals and horsehide reproductions can cost $1,000. In 2009, Triumph motorcycles and Marlon Brando’s estate started marketing repops of the movie jacket through Triumph dealers.
While some sources say that Schott of Long Island, NY made the Brando jacket, the general consensus of opinions that I could find was that it was a Buco JT23 (though some sources say the style was JT24, they’re similar). Buco was the trademark of the Joseph Buegeleisen Company of Detroit, which had been making motorcycle accessories since the 1930s. After WWII they started selling motorcycle apparel.
This story, though, isn’t about Buco. It turns out that Buco never made their own jackets. Reed Sportswear was founded in 1950 so I guess that makes it 64 years old this year. Not as old as Dodge, but probably one of the oldest companies continuously operating in Detroit today. Emil and Etta Reed started the company with Etta’s brother Saul Silver and Saul’s wife Roseann. The Reeds met in a displaced persons camp in 1945, the Nazis having murdered Emil’s first wife and their child. Sol was also a survivor. I was seven years old before I figured out that Aunt Etta and Uncle Emil, who were different from my other aunts and uncles because they spoke with a European accent, weren’t really my aunt and uncle. So our families are close.
My mother recalls that before the Reeds and Silvers set up their shop, the sewing was done in the basement of the Reeds’ home and my mom being an accomplished sewer, she helped out.
The way the business got started, at least the story that I heard, was that Saul had a background in apparel, while Emil had managed some kind of hardware business in Poland, maybe something to do with metallurgy. Apparently after the Reeds’ marriage, Emil and Saul had set up a small leather jacket company in postwar Germany. After immigrating to Detroit they decided to try again in America. They came up with a jacket design and Emil somehow arranged a meeting with a buyer from the J.L. Hudson Co., Detroit’s biggest department store and a power in the retail industry at the time. I’ve never met a man who exemplified the word rectitude more than Emil Reed so it doesn’t surprise me that he impressed the buyer. He must have also been a good salesman because not only did he get an order for 300 jackets but he also got Hudson to pay up front, allowing them to rent sewing machines and hire workers.
Reed Sportwear is still in business, selling wholesale to retailers across the country, and they’re still located in Detroit. Their shop and their retail store, Factory Leather Outlet, are on Lafayette, less than a mile from Cobo Hall, where those centennial Dodges are now on display.
Though I’ve known the families most of my life I first found out that Reed most likely made the Brando jacket from a competitor who owns the Brooks brand, another motorcycle leather company based in the Detroit area. Fortunately it was fairly easy for me to check out that story. While the founding Reeds and Silvers have all passed away, may they rest in peace, Reed Sportswear is still a family owned company and it so happens that the manager of the company, Mark Silver, is a friend and neighbor of mine. So I asked him about it.
“Yeah, sure. As a teenager I’d make deliveries to Buegeleisen’s shop on Eight Mile all the time.” Mark told me.
You can still buy the same style jacket as worn by Brando in The Wild One from Reed, made from the same patterns, with snaps applied with the same vintage machinery. If you’re a Dodge fan and you buy one of the centennial cars and you want to get a matching jacket, or if you just want to buy something that’s about as authentic as authentic gets, give Reed Sportwear a call or visit their shop.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS