It’s late May in Northern California. The Sierra Nevada — part of the American Cordillera comprising a chain of almost continuous mountain ranges — runs 400 miles north-south, and is best known for the California Gold Rush that occurred in the western foothills between 1848 and 1855. My three-day plan was to ride nearly 1,000 miles through it with pal Brian, who knows the roads better than most. The challenge? Weather forecasts ranged from 30 – 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with altitudes nearing 11,000-plus feet.
The question? What jacket to wear, while packing smart to make the spirited asphalt sections up and over Sonora Pass (elevation 9,624 feet) more enjoyable and preparing for several long stretches in the dirt around Alabama Hills and the ghost town of Bodie, California (elevation 8,379 feet) after slabbing it on the highway from my house in Mountain View (elevation 105 feet).
I’m a gear junkie to the core; my workshop walls are lined with several helmets, gloves, shoes, boots, and jackets for different bikes and adventures. I commute 60 miles round-trip to work, rain or shine, hot or cold. My wife — also a rider — lovingly calls these items my ‘costume’ choices, which I humbly accept as truth.
So when the costume decision had to be made for this grand Sierra Nevada adventure, I chose my AETHER Mojave Jacket, the same one I’ve racked up nearly 40,000 miles with since 2018. My son Henri and I enjoyed a cross-country trip in early August of that year, starting in Wisconsin with bikes pointed for home in California. The same Mojave jacket was my go-to through the Sturgis Rally and Bonneville Speed Week, where temperatures soared to 108 degrees.
As a curious observer and storyteller with a need-to-know, I spoke with AETHER Apparel founders Jonah Smith and Palmer West, both 49, at length about the Mojave and the origins of their now 13-year-old company.
It Began With The Movies
“Jonah and I worked together for 12 years financing and producing independent films and had quite a bit of success,” West said from the AETHER headquarters in Los Angeles. “Back then, with independent movies, a lot of your revenue came from DVD sales, but we saw the death of the DVD coming when the industry was veering toward downloading and the now-popular streaming services.
“We realized we really enjoyed working together and had mutual aspirations as entrepreneurs, so we began looking for other things to dive into. One of the things that resonated with us after living in New York City was when weather hit Manhattan, you got to see who the skiers and snowboarders were because everybody would reach for their ski shells to be protected from the weather. That planted a seed for Jonah and I that you should be able to graduate out of these more use-oriented, mountain-specific garments, ” West added. “When weather finds its way into the city, we felt like there was a big gap between REI outdoor styles and ‘fashion’ pieces, and no one was trying to connect those two. AETHER became the connective tissue — in our minds — between the aesthetically appealing and highly technical.”
“We have let that viewpoint guide us in everything since we started the company in 2009, from making swim trunks to moto gear to snow sports to travel wear. We started with six jackets, brought them to the marketplace, and thought, ‘Let’s see if anybody else cares.’ And it turns out here we are almost 13 years later — people cared.”
According to Smith, motorcycle clothing came into the mix three years after the start of the company.
“Both Palmer and I ride. We were married with young kids and felt we needed to wear moto gear with armor. But it felt odd to wear someone else’s brand when we had a technical brand. We started by making moto jackets for ourselves and our friends.”
“We made a production run, but it wasn’t like we made this conscious choice of, ‘We’re going to go into the moto space.’’ We had a design department, and we had manufacturing, so it made sense to continue the AETHER aesthetic and functionality into the moto space, and people responded positively.”
“There’s one jacket, the Skyline, that customers often buy, remove the pads, and wear just as a jacket. And we actually have a lot of people buy our leather moto jackets because they just really like how the jacket looks. For us, this is a great compliment.”
We started with six jackets, brought them to the marketplace, and thought, ‘Let’s see if anybody else cares.’ And it turns out here we are almost 13 years later — people cared.
If fashion is all form and no function, West saw the motorcycle space as all function and no form, which wasn’t ideal for the everyday commuter.
“Our aesthetic has to do with colorways; it has to do with minimal branding; it has to do with fit; it has to do with form. When you step off your bike, do you still look appropriate, or is it obvious that you rode your bike to the meeting?”
“The other thing we wanted to do was imbue our moto collection with as much function as possible and then hide it,” he explained. “And as Jonah mentioned, I think the highest compliment is when someone who doesn’t ride buys our jacket and uses it for daily wear. Going back to the DNA of the brand, what we are trying to do is prove you can have both — all the functionality you expect in a form that is appropriate when you get off the bike, too.”
“We do this by opting for a more urban aesthetic, starting with muted colors and understated branding. Obviously, our garments also have to perform, so if we can nail both of those things, then we truly feel like we’ve nailed the ethos of AETHER. That is what we do on the daily; that’s what gets us out of bed, and that’s what gets pen to paper when we’re designing a product. It’s all about that connective tissue between the form and the function. It has to hit both.”
On cue, Smith interjected with his view of what the company strives for, something that started as outside enthusiasts looking in.
“A lot of times in the motorcycle space, companies give you this taped plastic bag to put over your clothes to stay dry. That was an odd concept for us, coming from the ski and snow space where obviously you seam seal garments to make them waterproof.”
West interjects, eager to add to Smith’s explanation.
“A lot of outerwear brands fall into a lull right around April,” he explained with a smile. “They go dormant for the summer or make up some other thing they’re really excited about for four months, while they wait for fall to come again because then you’re going to think of jackets. For Jonah and I, it became a lot of fun because we were able to shift from stuff you need on the mountain and in the dead of winter to protective moto outerwear. We still had a reason to go back to the drawing board every month of the year to design outerwear you needed for a specific environment or endeavor.”
“We were able to — with our same manufacturers — expand our offerings. There was a little bit of a learning curve for them on how to place pads and all the internal workings you need for a legitimate motorcycle jacket, but it allowed us to make highly technical outerwear 12 months a year.”
We demand trust. The last thing we want our customers to do is to have some reason to question our products. The only way we could do that was to put our money where our mouth was from day one.
Building The Mojave
After relocating from New York City to Los Angeles, Smith and West experienced a major climate adjustment as motorcyclists.
“Synthetic fabrics just continue to heat up,” West explained. “They just keep getting hotter and hotter. We know it’s better to sweat than bleed, but we wanted something that we knew had durability if you did happen to go down. Our objective with the Mojave Jacket was to determine how much venting we could add and how much airflow we could get through a jacket while remaining protected. One of cotton’s natural components is breathability.”
“We offer a lot of waterproof jackets, and while the Mojave is not one of them I’ve ridden in the rain in it and never gotten wet. It’s strong, heavy, and dependable.”
“I’ve ridden through the rain in Southern California in it,” Smith added. “Palmer’s point about the technical aspect is a good one: If you ever wear a T-shirt that has polyester in it, it feels really soft and nice, and then you go out in the heat or sweat in it, and you start getting super hot. It’s the same thing with technical fabrics — they don’t quite breathe as well. Using a natural fiber — especially in environments where the sun is pretty strong and it’s hot — really helps.”
West immediately added an anecdote about how he and Smith reverse-engineered some of their products.
“About five years ago we were riding with friends through Yosemite National Park, and there were toll booths throughout. We were wearing our own gear, of course. My wallet was in my front pants pocket like it would be in a pair of jeans. I had to get off my GS to get my wallet out to pay for the toll and then get back on the bike.”
“On that trip, we started asking each other, ‘Where could we sneak a pocket so that you don’t have to get off the bike?’ It would have to be on the right side because you’ve got your left hand on the clutch, so you’re not going to want to access your left pocket because then you have to put your bike in neutral. Today we have a right side, exterior thigh pocket on our motorcycle pants. A lot of people don’t even realize there’s a problem that needs a solution until you’re in the moment.”
AETHER provides a lifetime manufacturing guarantee primarily against things going random. I asked West to explain this in greater detail.
“We demand trust,” he said. “The last thing we want our customers to do is to have some reason to question our products. The only way we could do that was to put our money where our mouth was from day one. If something malfunctions on your jacket — whether it be due to manufacturing or the wrong choice of materials, whatever it ends up being — we don’t want that to be the end of our relationship with you. We’re going to learn from that. It takes us two years to build a jacket that you hopefully can wear for the rest of your life. It’s painstaking to develop garments to our standards. But it’s really important that we extend that one step further, which is, if we’ve made a mistake, we’re going to own it.”
“Should someone go down in our motorcycle gear, we try to replace that garment immediately, often at no cost,” West explained. “We want to learn what happened. We do a full report, from where they were to the speed they were going to the conditions. We want to know where they went down and what was the first thing that touched the ground — was it the elbow, shoulder, or back?”
“Over the years we’ve built a library of some of these jackets. This allows us to go in and say, ‘Okay, well, that was a triple stitch on that elbow. Did that hold? Yes, it did. Check. Okay, awesome.’ What else can we learn? Is there more reflectivity that we can hide in there? Or, I didn’t realize that was a pressure point, but that is a pressure point.”
“Our process has always been, if you damage your jacket in the process of doing what we intended you to do in it, we want to see it because we can learn from that.”
What Defines A Perfect Trip?
For Smith, the perfect motorcycle trip would involve good friends.
“Preferably it’s with a friend who really likes to cook because I don’t!” he added with a laugh. “I would say a perfect trip involves a few days camping and then a day in a hotel and then a few days camping and then a day in a hotel. It’s always nice to shower along the way.”
“I no longer like to suffer in 105-degree heat on the highway, so I’m trying to avoid that now, which is hard in Southern California. I’m always trying to find a new location to explore.”
“Good friends are always a prerequisite to a good time. If you’re surrounded by good people, even the worst of times are fun. It’s too often in life we’re thinking about four things at the same time, so it’s enjoyable to be in that zone where you can’t let your mind wander. If you want to stay alive, and you’re on a motorcycle, you really have to focus in and on what you’re doing. It’s freeing to turn all that noise off.”
“The unknown is also a really big part of it. We don’t do a lot of the same rides over and over. We love to throw ourselves in uncomfortable situations and try to figure out what to do. We have a saying here: ‘Wrong turns make for better stories.’ I made a deal with my wife that I’ll get on my motorcycle when it means I’m going somewhere far. I don’t ride it on the daily. But every time our group of guys gets together, it’s the beginning of the next story.”
We love to throw ourselves in uncomfortable situations and try to figure out what to do. We have a saying here: ‘Wrong turns make for better stories.’
Smith quickly throws in his thoughts.
“The nice thing about motorcycle adventure travel is the journey itself is so much fun, where a lot of times — if you’re in a car or RV or something else — you’re just waiting to get to the destination,” he explained. “On a motorcycle, 90 percent of the time the journey is the fun part. The weather changes; you smell it; the air changes. I think that’s the joy of the adventure.”
“Palmer and I did a ride years ago where we went to Seattle and then took ferries to Bella Coola, British Columbia. We rode dirt all the way to Vancouver and then back to Seattle. We camped along the way. There were eight guys with us on a seven-day ride. We didn’t exactly know what we were going to see, and British Columbia has amazing scenery. We did that trip in late fall, and it was crisp air and epic weather — it was just great.”
The AETHER Mantra
Language is important to Smith and West. The AETHER corporate mantra is “You only get one spin.”
“If you’re not creating memories, what are you doing?” said West. “You’re wasting your time. And that’s why on this journey of creating AETHER, we always stop and make sure we’re still having fun, that we’re still liking this, and we still want to get up in the morning and do it. Because life is fleeting.”
“What we’re very, very conscious of is we’re not trying to tell you what to do. We’re not preachy. You have to define what it is that’s going to make your life better.”
“There is a famous quote that says, ‘If your life was a movie, would you watch it?’ Our lives are ours to do with what we want. I think going through the pandemic really helped galvanize what we were trying to tell people to do, which is to get out there. Don’t hesitate. Life is short. You do you.”AETHER Apparel