This British repair shop gave my 30-year-old flight jacket a new lease of life

Nick wearing his faithful Aero Leather Highwayman jacket, before (left) and after (right) the repair
Nick wearing his faithful Aero Leather Highwayman jacket, before (left) and after (right) the repair - Paul Grover

It might look like an innocuous leather jacket, but it’s an item of clothing that’s woven through the tapestry of my life’s events. The black Aero Leather Highwayman jacket I bought for the then-exorbitant sum of £350 in 1994 has been my wardrobe staple for almost 30 years. I wore it on my first date with my wife in 1995 and when the two of us drove away in my vintage Citroën DS the day after my sister’s wedding in 1997.

Professionally, it insulated me from the elements when I went up in an open-cockpit Tiger Moth biplane to recreate the first scheduled passenger flight – made in 1919 – from London to Paris. I’ve worn it in interviews with Hollywood stars and while reporting on the London riots, and it’s been to New York, London, Paris, Munich. Unlike the Brando-style biker jackets I’d favoured in my early 20s, it has a simple, classic look. As I entered my late 50s, I felt confident I could still wear it, and will do so for decades to come.

Nick with his wife and vintage Citroën DS in 1997
Nick with his wife and vintage Citroën DS in 1997

But time takes its toll, and last year it was clearly falling apart. The inside of the right sleeve had worn so badly in patches it resembled vintage lace. There were two jagged rips on the right bicep and a nasty tear along the shoulder. The lining, already partially replaced once, hung out of it in rags, and the zip, also already replaced, had come loose. Every time I wore it, something new seemed to sag, separate, or tear.

Nick's jacket before the repair
'It was clearly falling apart': Nick's jacket before the repair - Paul Grover

I couldn’t bear to bin it or give it away though, and I prefer to refurbish things rather than replace them; “make do and mend” might be trendy now, but it’s a sentiment the British have always abided by. A quick Google revealed that Aero Leather, founded in 1981, is still a thriving, Galashiels-based business. It churns out 2,500-3,000 jackets based on designs from the 1930s, 40s and 50s for the international retail market every year and also makes them for film and television productions. Empire of the Sun was their first onscreen foray, in 1987, but they’ve also supplied Bohemian Rhapsody, Captain America, The Dig, and made 40 flight jackets for the recent series Masters of the Air. Clearly, they’re the guys in the know. And more importantly, they did a roaring repairs service.

After an exchange of emails assessing the level of wear and tear, I packed my poor old jacket off to Denny and Holly Calder, son and daughter of the company founder Ian Calder, who still oversees the design of the leatherwear and Aero’s knitwear division. Time passed. Then more time. Denny told me the jacket was “shot”. The damage was “more serious than we had thought”.

'Denny told me that the jacket was "shot"'
'Denny told me that the jacket was "shot"' - Paul Grover

Eventually, 10 months elapsed, and I feared it would never be repaired or – more likely – had disintegrated entirely when someone snipped the first exploratory stitch. Then, miracle of miracles, a cardboard box arrived and inside was my jacket looking… well, not new, but as if it had suffered five years’ hard wear rather than 30.

When I speak later on the phone to Denny, who “operates a sewing machine and sweeps the floor” on top of his managerial role, he explains Aero jackets are designed to be repaired. They don’t glue the leather so seams can be unpicked and they use wide-spaced stitches to minimise tearing. Most repairs just involve relining or replacing zips, though this was a rebuild.

“I had to use some techniques we’d never tried before,” Denny says. “The rips in the arm and shoulder were jagged and worn – one of them was like a bullet hole – so when I patched them inside, the edges didn’t match up. I went online and found some leather filler which I’d never used before and experimented on some scraps before trying it on your jacket, but I’m pleased with the results.” Indeed, the mends are invisible.

Denny found the jagged rips in the jacket's arm and shoulder challenging to patch up...
Denny found the jagged rips in the jacket's arm and shoulder challenging to patch up... - Paul Grover
Nick Curtis in his leather jacket
...but succeeded using leather filler - Clara Molden for The Daily Telegraph

He had to remove and replace the threadbare panel of leather from the lower sleeve – “a last resort, as we try to keep things original” – then use dye and boot polish to bring the jacket back to a uniform colour. Both the front and the pocket zip were replaced from 1970s “deadstock” (warehouse remainders of items no longer made). Normally, they would use a jacket’s old lining as the template for a new one, but mine had been too badly shredded, and was also wrongly sized on the label. So the shell had to be painstakingly measured and a new Harris Tweed lining created.

The actual physical work on patching the shell took eight hours, plus several more for the patches and filler to dry; the lining had to be cut twice, taking a further two hours, then two more hours for a machinist to stitch it back together. All in all, that’s over five times as long as it would take to make a Highwayman from scratch. The repairs cost £350, the same as the original purchase price, but since a new Highwayman now costs around £900, I’m still ahead.

Dye and boot polish were used to breathe life back into the leather
Dye and boot polish were used to breathe life back into the leather - Clara Molden for The Daily Telegraph

And a new jacket wouldn’t have the history of my old one, including past connections I only discover while talking to Denny. His father Ian made clothes for musicians including Elton John, David Bowie and Suzi Quatro from the 1960s onwards, and in the late 1970s founded a vintage clothing shop in Battersea before the idea of “vintage” even existed.

Calder bought bales of clothes from the United States, primarily to source Levi’s jeans. But some contained original Second World War American flying jackets which he would hang from the ceiling. As a teenager growing up in Wandsworth, I’d visit this shop and stare covetously at the war-distressed garments, many of them hand-painted with campaign symbols. It’s where my desire for a leather jacket began.

It’s also where Aero started. Calder had a customer who desperately wanted a flight jacket but the originals were too small (fighter pilots tend to be on the lithe side). So Calder studied how his second-hand stock had been made and created a bespoke version, which the owner wore for 30 years before donating it back to the company: it now hangs in their showroom. All the subsequent Aero jackets were copied from or inspired by classics.

'A new jacket wouldn't have the history': Nick in his restored Highwayman
'A new jacket wouldn't have the history': Nick in his restored Highwayman - Clara Molden for The Daily Telegraph

As Denny explains, these are built for style rather than purpose, more likely to be worn by a passenger in a plane than a Top Gun F-14 pilot, though the disabled ex-marine Arthur Williams has worn an Aero jacket while flying planes for several Channel Four travel series. The biker-style ones don’t have elbow pads or built-in armour like modern motorcycle leathers, though they look good on a vintage BSA or Triumph. And it’s not just middle-aged men nursing fantasies of speed and freedom who buy them.

“We’ve got a lot of customers like yourself who bought one in the 1990s and are still wearing it,” Denny says. “But with Instagram we’re seeing a lot of interest from people in their 20s”

Today, Aero offers 100 different styles in 15 different cloths and leathers and 15 different lining options, ranging in price from £420 to £1,250. And if that’s too steep, they do a brisk trade in reselling used jackets they’ve been donated or received in part-exchange. Something to think about once I’ve had another 30 years’ wear out of my faithful old Highwayman.