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October 11, 2017
October 11, 2017
It was the early 1950s in San Francisco when Schirley Zisman's father began working for Golden Bear, a premier leather and wool outerwear manufacturer that was finding success in making durable jackets as a response to the city's booming post-war shipping industry. Schirley runs the company now and has worked here since 1972. The incredible history of this family business — along with their impeccable, timeless products that range from bomber jackets to high fashion goods — is what sets it apart from others.
Descending from a family of tailors, Schirley's father, Berek Winter, escaped the Holocaust and fled to Shanghai from Poland in 1939 during the war. Ten years later, he immigrated to California and got a job as a leather cutter at the Golden Bear factory in 1949, slowly working his way up. The original Golden Bear owner, Sam Slater, eventually sold the business to Berek and another partner in 1954 — it's been in Schirley's family ever since.
"I've been here over 40 years, and I take a lot of pride in the fact that we've been able to stay here in San Francisco," Schirley says. "I was born in San Francisco. We make jackets for the San Francisco Police Department, we make jackets for the Giants when they win the World Series — we're connected to a lot of important people here and it's important to me that we stay here."
What did your company first start making?
Schirley: We have a pretty big shipping industry in San Francisco, so we made dockworker jackets. There were a lot of union workers here in the early days and our company made warm jackets. We started making Varsity Jackets — Bomber Jackets — in the '50s. During the dot-com era we did a lot of special promotional jackets. We made jackets for Microsoft and were one of the first companies that worked for people like Cisco and Google. We were expensive, but people love our quality.
Why do your jackets get better as they age?
The jackets really do get better with time because a lot of the leathers that we use are not treated with a finish on them. We use natural leathers, so they change with the weather and with body oil. The more you wear it, the more it looks broken in. You can now buy leather that looks distressed, but naturally aged leather is how our products shine. The business also changed a lot when fashion did in the '60s, during the whole rock-and-roll '60s, '70s, '80s eras.
Sewing jackets inside the Golden Bear San Francisco headquarters. (pictured above)
How important are quality materials and workmanship to the success of your company?
Quality and workmanship are everything to us. We hardly ever get any jackets back. We take pride in the fact that we use the best fabrics and the best leathers. We have total control over our sewing and finishing, and everything is hand-cut here individually; it's all manually done. And it's mostly done right here in San Francisco.
What would you say are some of the main advantages to designing your products in America?
I think the advantage of making it in America is that people love to work with us. With our collaborative process, you can really create your own products. We sort of put out the palette: here are the colors, here are the shapes. You can create things that are specific to your company, and people love that. They love doing collaborations. When you buy something from China, you place your order and you bring in a thousand pieces, and that's it. There's no creativity there. With us, people just love to create their own products, and it feels very personal to them.
A close-up view of the Shinola + Golden Bear Men's Classic Varsity Jacket and The Runwell 47mm with gunmetal.
Tell us about your sample room and how this works into Golden Bear's production process.
We treat every customer as an individual. We're very careful that projects don't overlap. We have this huge archive here — we keep a library of all different types of leather. We have cowhide, lambskin, goatskin, suedes — everything. We also have linings, buttons, and pretty much all the components that could go into a jacket. People come in here and look at the vintage samples. They come in to feel all the fabrics we've used over the years and see how they age and what they look like.
We help a lot of high-end brands source the materials they are looking for. We have a certain taste level of the products that we present to our people that we collaborate with. We source all the fabric, pretty much source everything, and then we lay it out for them. They come to us with an idea that they know in their mind they want to make, and we're able to execute it for them as a beautiful product that sells.
Samples of fabric inside the Golden Bear factory. (pictured above)
What sets your company apart from other companies that produce jackets?
We've been a family business since 1955. Our employees have been here for over 20 years. We're like a family. We have great customer service, and our customers come back every year. People are loyal to us. Our jacket is like a good watch. People want to hold onto it. They give it to their children. It stays in someone's wardrobe for a generation.
People come in here and say, "Can you fix this lining? It was my dad's jacket." And it's really nice to be recognized by companies like Shinola. It's incredibly satisfying to be recognized for our quality and what we have to offer.