How to Make a Leather Jacket


The fastest route from Schott’s factory in Union, New Jersey, to the brand’s store in Manhattan’s hip Nolita neighborhood runs through the working class towns on the fringes of Newark, over the Pulaski Skyway, where motorcycles zip between delivery vans, and through the Holland Tunnel into the maze of galleries just north of Canal Street. Despite the varied environments, the leather jackets the Schott family has been producing for the last century (and knock offs of their Perfecto models) are popular in every neighborhood along the line. It’s the rare brand without a class alignment and Jason Schott, the company’s Chief Operating Officer, prefers it that way.

A pattern cutter creates sleeves and body panels.

Schott, who is broad-shouldered, amiable, and animated, personally delivers a van load of jackets to the store once a week and helps customers try them on. He’s enthusiastic about the product, but slow to mention his last name. He runs a family business and that comes with a different sort of pride.

“The first job I had was in our shipping department and the guys there all thought it was nepotism,” he says. “I wanted to tell them that I probably could have gotten that job on my own.” Schott also worked as a fabric spreader, learning spanish from a coworker whose English didn’t extend beyond the lyrics to “Don’t Stop Believing” and in various office roles. Asked if he had a rebellious period, he shrugs and waves his hands,  flashing a small tattoo on his wrist. “I was a CPA for a while,” he says.

Leather forms used to create pocket flaps and belts.
Leather forms used to create pocket flaps and belts.

Today, a large part of Schott’s role – employees call him “Jason” because “Mr. Schott” would be confusing and, one gets the sense, uncomfortable for all concerned – is monitoring the factory floor. The company changed facilities several years back in order to create a more modern production line better suited to the wider variety of coats they’ve begun offering to meet growing demand among non-motorcyclists, but the place is hardly high tech.

The process goes something like this: A leather selector bundles skins based on their color and pattern, a pattern cutters carefully creates the separate pieces that will make up the coat, one leather sewer makes sleeves and another makes the body, a third attaches the two while another adds welts before the lining – constructed separately – is sewn in and the whole unit is turned right side out and sent to an experienced worker who adds top stitching and the inspection table where each jacket is prodded and pulled. These two last bits are particularly important because the brand is known for its top stitching, a complicated detail, and its consistency. If you‘ve been making something for 100 years, you have no excuses, but to be damn good at it.

That’s why Roz Schott, Jason’s mother and the company’s CEO, spends a lot of her time at the inspection table. The company has grown rapidly over recent years as “Made in America” labels went from being an afterthought to a requirement, and it’s critical that the company doesn’t lower its standards. “A lot of people build jackets to make a marketing splash,” Jason explains. “We’re not built that way because I’m not changing my name. We have to outlast trends.”

An antique sewing machine used for precision work.

In order to do that, Schott has to keep workers happy. Leather work is easy to do poorly and difficult to do well. The only way to get good is to do it and several employees currently working on the floor have been doing it for over thirty years. Most of these workers are of Dominican ancestry and they chat in crisp Spanish, with Schott offering guidance in halting sentences while frequently deferring to others’ expertise. He points to a woman making pocket welts: “She’s amazing,” he says. “That is just incredibly difficult.”

Part of the reason the work is so difficult is that Schott hasn’t invested in modern technology. Sure, there are some minor improvements – an electric spreader makes Schott’s old job a great deal easier – but many of the machines in the factory are technically antiques. There’s stuff you can do with foot-pump stud machine that you can’t do with a modern, laser-guided model. That’s why the factory has both, in case the young man responsible for metallic flare (who looks like he’d have well-considered opinions about obscure bands) wants to get wild. The reasons for keeping the aging fringe machine are similar. Schott popularized the fringed leather jacket during the colder months following the summer of love, and still sells modern models to cowboys. It’s not a major part of the business, but Schott likes to look back.

Finished jackets in front of the rotating, studded wood tub used to break in coats.

A library of old jackets hangs on the other side of the door that separates the designing rooms. Swatches of exotic leather lay in the light streaming through massive windows overlooking a not-particular-well-maintained park. This is where the brand’s creatives sculpt new (but not radically new) looks based on classic designs. The company is so closely associated with the Perfecto model, the one Brando wore in The Wild Ones and Springsteen wore on the case of “Born to Run,” that moving past it can be difficult. Still, Schott has reintroduced old bombers and café racers with slightly narrower modern cuts. One of them is slung over the chair in Schott’s office, which has another full coat rack. “It wouldn’t look very good if I didn’t wear one,” he says, adding that he currently spends most of his time in a brown Perfecto. His office sits less than 15 miles from where his Great-Grandfather founded the company in a Lower East Side basement.

“The day will come when people stop caring about ‘Made in America,'” he says. “We’ll still be here. This is where we’re from.” A few minutes later, he offers a polite apology and excuses himself. His uncle is shouting for him from his office down the hall. 

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