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Founders: Josh Willis, Jacob Willis & Ant De Padovane
Location: Los Angeles, California
Year Founded: 2012
California is famously cool. So cool, in fact, that there’s a town in El Dorado named Cool.
But the term “Californian Cool” is tragically uncool, especially when deployed by outsiders to describe anything and everything typically found under the Golden State’s palm trees. Californian Cool is really of the same vein as French Elegance or New York Attitude — tourists can probably quantify it, but for locals, it’s merely a way of life. So it goes for Second/Layer, a brand that happens to be very Californian and very Cool.
“When we say Los Angeles, it’s not the Hollywood sign,” says co-founder Josh Willis. “We identify with a neighborhood mostly made up of Mexican- and African-Americans and we identify with a beach culture. We identify with going to shows as kids, being different.”
Jacob, his brother and fellow co-founder, agrees: “When we say California, it’s our origin and story. It’s not branding.”
Back when the Willis brothers and Ant De Padovane launched Second/Layer in 2012, California wasn’t the same menswear fantasy land it is today. Sure, Stüssy — where Ant worked under Paul Mittleman — was kicking around, but the Californian “aesthetic” of the early 2010s was more about edgy streetwear brands who layered biker jackets over monochrome graphic tees and skinny sweatpants, codified most famously by John Elliott.
But Second/Layer wasn’t founded to compete with anyone. It was practically a product of frustration. “We were all tired of being where we were,” Jacob recalls. “Josh was a creative director at Creative Recreation, Ant was a lead designer at Stüssy, and I was running a film photo production company. We were all having some cocktails one night and were like, ‘Let’s do this shit on our own! Let’s do this shit for us!’”
“Growing up in Southern California gave us inspirations that we draw from through daily life,” he continues. “Surfing, skating, Latino culture. Those are things that live with us. Those sensibilities are always defined, whether it’s in the detailing in a collar or the way we slick back a model’s hair, or in the creative of a photoshoot or the playlists that Ant puts together.
“And not for nothing, we change too. One of our mentors told us, ‘You don’t show up one day, you arrive.’ We’ve arrived here, but this isn’t our end destination. In the next 10 years we might be doing something else. But in the spirit of things, it’s 100 percent authentic to us.”
Compare today’s Second/Layer to its early collections and that evolution can be traced pretty clearly. Back in the day, its garments had a much darker and more gothic aesthetic. Taking cues from pioneers like Yohji Yamamoto and COMME des GARÇONS, the Willis Brothers were wearing black tees and skirts while skating around town.
They were bored of basic menswear and tinkered with the idea of easy uniforms that could translate from mosh pits to beachside bonfires. Keywords included “comfort” and “easy.”
“We were doing this minimal Chicano thing that was influenced by the things we were into at the time,” recalls Josh. “Now, it’s more about flexibility. Well, it was always about flexibility; an anytime, daily wear type of thing. But we’ve refined the look.”
When you look closely at the stuff that the three Second/Layer founders — still the brand’s only dedicated employees — are putting out nowadays, you get a feel for how they see not just clothing, but themselves.
It’s louche and earnest, a quietly stylish mélange of suavecito staples like boxy blazers, silky shirts, muscle tees, and creased trousers. It’s all deceptively uncomplicated; garments made to be tossed on and lived in.
Of course, there’s plenty of heavy lifting going on behind the scenes to affect this air of effortless (and, yes, Californian) Cool. “Our focus was always to get the product to a place where we felt comfortable with it,” Josh notes. “We would stay up 24 hours just to make sure our cutter was cutting everything properly.”
“We’ve been able to move all of our production to Europe and work with some of the best factories in Italy and Portugal,” adds Jacob. “We’ve gotten where we’re at without social media, and we’re now embracing it because we feel comfortable with what we’re doing. We were more concentrated on dialing in the business than popping a bottle for the Gram.”
“We made a conscious decision to stay out of view of the business,” Ant finishes. “And there was so much other filler shit going on for such a long time, especially getting caught up in the ‘From Los Angeles’ narrative, with a lot of other people who just happened to be popping at the time. We didn’t want to get lumped into that story.”
A lot of those other Californian brands produced their garments in cheap factories overseas or in LA’s local garment district. At first, Second/Layer worked with the latter, but eventually leveled up to those European factories because, as Josh notes, “They’re just the best.”
“We were originally making clothes in Los Angeles, but it was a pain in the ass,” Ant explains. “It was us skateboarding around downtown, dropping off patterns in one place, going to another spot and having to micromanage. It took us seven, eight years to find the right resources to execute to our standards.”
After countless tweaks to its textiles, patterns, and production, Second/Layer is finally crafting the laid-back staples and crisp tailoring that its founders envisioned when they first founded the brand. Don’t get it twisted though: while a lot of clothing brands are putting out “elevated basics” these days, Second/Layer isn’t one of them.
Seemingly simple tees, for instance, are cut boxy, short, and occasionally without sleeves. There’s more than a little rockabilly flair in the script-embroidered or leopard-printed truckers, while the breezy flared trousers go all gaucho on you.
Second/Layer’s garments aren’t wedded to a single stylistic cue. The brand specializes in sophisticated greaser gear for all the rebels with a cause, yes, but the idea goes beyond camp collar shirts. Those classics are on hand each season, and the lavish fabrication and tweaked silhouettes make for a much more grown-up get-up.
“We’ve survived a lot of different trends,” Ant laughs. “We’re creating what we call tailor-made daily wear: tailoring with a California casual vibe, focusing on elevated essentials for the everyday. We’ve always had to do it on our own — I mean, with our own pocketbooks, with our own bootstraps, with our own friends and family, without big backers.”
Though Second/Layer’s inward-looking output is very much indifferent to what’s en vogue, it occasionally aligns with fashion’s protean preferences. For instance, the label’s slick suits — peak lapels and all — have proven popular with post-Covid-19 menswear tastes.
“Not for nothing, but coming out of [the pandemic], everyone’s trying to put a fit on,” Josh says. “[Suits are] the most identifiable step away from the hoodie and jeans that we've been wearing for the last year.”
“The guys are growing up, getting older,” continues Jacob. “We do it more casually, and that’s the way people want to do it right now. I mean, who in America is going to throw a tie on? Especially if you don’t have to be in an office, or have to be in a setting that requires it.”
Second/Layer has a reliable collective of dedicated customers who patiently keep up with their deliberate pace. Japan, especially, is a big deal for the brand, and it has much love for the island nation.
Japan is “our second-best market,” says Josh. “We’re working with people that really get it in Japan,” including tastemaking boutiques like Jackpot and UNITED ARROWS.
These Japanese buyers not only get Second/Layer into the hands of local clientele hungry for overseas newness, but they then fly over to LA to meet and eat with the guys (who take great pride in having introduced Motofumi “Poggy” Kogi to Cali street tacos).
It’s not all rosy overseas, though. One of Japan’s biggest department stores once schooled the team in overextension.
“Isetan was one of our first, if not our first, client across the board,” Josh remembers. “That’s a story that we never live down: we had a great couple seasons [with them], had a showing, sold a ton of shit, [accidentally] shipped late just one time, and I don't think they’ve rang our doorbell ever since.”
It’s all too easy for designers to bite off more than they can chew. A year after Second/Layer started, it held the first of several New York Fashion Week shows. Far from a logistical nightmare, Second/Layer’s runway presentations “all happened super organically” through an editor friend, Josh says. “The other ones were opportunities that were handed to us through the CFDA that we took because we thought that was what we needed to do.”
“But it also created problems,” he adds. “When you get half a million dollars in orders and your business isn’t really built for [that], it’s like, ‘Oh shit.’ Now we need $300,000 to pay production just to make those orders.”
“Honestly, if [I met] a new brand and they had all the money in the world, I’d still probably advise them not to spend it on those types of things until they were 100 percent ready,” says Jacob. “It’s an expense that a designer and a brand can’t really justify at the time if you’re not doing the sales and you’re not doing the business.”
Second/Layer is doing the business nowadays, though it’s probably not returning to NYFW anytime soon. The boys are plenty happy being in California, except for Ant, who’s now in Berlin to monitor production. But that doesn’t really affect the West Coast mentality that fuels the brand.
You could call it California Cool, sure, but Second/Layer doesn’t deal in easy labels like that. It doesn’t design from imagined perspectives, but lived experiences shared by its founders. As Jacob explains, Second/Layer is shaped by a California that’s much more intimate.
“Our California [is] ingrained in the Chicano culture, wanting something better, moving to the beach. Where we’re from, where we moved, where we met, where we started the business. Being able to surf, to skate, and to start a life that we didn’t even know could exist.”
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