Springboarding off a career in coproducing independent films (Requiem for a Dream, Religulous), world travelers and urban explorers Palmer West and Jonah Smith founded the clothing label Aether Apparel on their shared adventure spirit and passion for functional, modern design.
AM What inspired you to embark on this new endeavor of starting your own clothing brand?
JS Palmer and I had been working together in the film industry and had produced ten movies together over a ten-year period. We were growing tired of film and knew we wanted to do something else. Also, we were in our mid-thirties and were re-evaluating our priorities.
PW We liked working together, and we started looking for another business to start. We wanted a business that would interest us, and we set up parameters that fit our creative desires and supported a lifestyle we wanted to live.
JS As “weekend warriors,” we were tired of the clothing options we found available, and the idea of developing a clothing line resonated with us. There was nothing sophisticated enough that we could wear both out of town on the weekend and back at home in the city. We started looking around and we found a void in the marketplace—there was a big distinction between fashion and what you could find at REI.
“We found a void in the marketplace—there was a big distinction between fashion and what you could find at REI.”
PW When Jonah and I made movies, we said we strived to only make movies we would want to see on opening night. We’ve always wanted to be fans of what we do, and we’ve kept the same mantra—we build things that we will use. It helps us stay true to a singular vision. We build what we believe in.
“We’ve always wanted to be fans of what we do. We build things that we will use. It helps us stay true to a singular vision. We build what we believe in.”
AM What’s your idea of a great adventure?
PW We struggle with what most people think of as adventure. For us, adventure and travel also evoke city, not just the backcountry. Adventure in the city can also be awesome.
Adventure is stuck in a box. One destination. Being a citizen of the world requires flexibility. You’re not just one person, nor are we asking you to be one.
AM What’s your vision for the brand?
JS We are building something—an aspirational brand with imagery and travel. We’re not hippy crunchy and we’re not high fashion—we’re in between. Design and functionality is important to us, and we are trying to make a brand that’s authentic and real. We are in the space between those.
“For us, adventure and travel also evoke city, not just the backcountry.”
AM Who are you, and for whom do you design?
PW We represent the traveled individual—someone who is young at heart, with an adventurous spirit.
We use imagery to connect with people. We want people to see these images and think, “Where was that?” We want to reach out to people and have them experience the places we love.
AM Talk about your passion for exploration and discovery…
JS We want to go to new places, experience new things, and we support the adventurous spirit in others. We share our stories and images to inspire this spirit of adventure. We often talk to customers who ask for input or suggestions on trips they are planning or tell us we’ve inspired them to visit a location. This is our passion.
PW Functional design inspires us. We make clothing that is built for adventure but still looks good at home. You don’t have to have a separate wardrobe. Clothing can be beautiful but doesn’t reek of utilitarianism. It’s quietly technical.
“Clothing can be beautiful but doesn’t reek of utilitarianism. It’s quietly technical.”
AM How did your background in film prepare you for starting a clothing company?
JS We came into this business being consumers. We came with opinions and with personal needs for our wardrobe.
Being a film producer, you’re the contractor. You hire people, resolve problems and then produce and execute.
“We came into this business being consumers. We came with opinions and with personal needs for our wardrobe.”
PW Producing movies and making clothing is the same thing: There are hundreds of balls in the air. You have to come in on budget and on time. You have to come together and on point. The “production hat” is very similar. You need a clear vision and then deliver it.
“Producing movies and making clothing is the same thing—there are hundreds of balls in the air.”
The film industry is visually driven, and it was easy for us to tell our story. In fact, we want to tell the story… without making us the central character. Our goal is to be true to who we are and speak to this. We tell our story through imagery.
AM What makes a great design partnership? Describe your collaboration. What does each of you bring to the table?
PW We get this question a lot. We’ve worked together for twenty years, and what makes a great partnership is a similar vision and knowing that we are going to the same place.
JS We look at things completely differently, but we compliment each other. There’s a freshness in looking at someone else’s perspective. If you have enough faith and trust in each other’s viewpoint, you can get to the next level.
AM The architecture of the Aether Apparel locations is truly distinctive. What role does the design of your stores play in telling your story?
JS Our film background is two- or three-dimensional, and we wanted to build an interactive environment to display our product. We trusted that if we built our stores in a way that embraces industrial and modern, and if you like our stores, you will like our clothes.
Our San Francisco location is made from three shipping containers stacked on top of one another and has a custom-designed dry cleaner’s conveyor belt running the height of the store to get clothes from storage on the third level.
Our other locations—New York, Los Angeles, and Aspen—have elements of the San Francisco location. However, the big component in these stores is large wood containers displaying product lit from within.
PW These large containers are modular boxes that are flexible, fluid spaces. Nothing is built into the brick and mortar of the location.
We were inspired by the idea of a nomadic life, when you would pack all your stuff and move. We like the flexibility to move things around, and besides, it hints at our spirit of adventure.
It’s about curation and presentation. You need to interact with our staff. It’s important that it feels authentic. △
“We were inspired by the idea of a nomadic life, when you would pack all your stuff and move.”
Aether Apparel lookbook Winter 2015/16 & Summer 2016
Photography by Ian Allen