“Why not?”

That’s what you’ll hear when you ask Verona resident Burt Avedon why, at age 91, he’s involved in a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the Avedon & Colby brand field shirt.

Avedon and his longtime design partner, Susan Colby, 73, rural Verona, finished a Kickstarter campaign Friday that exceeded the $12,000 sought to market their shirt by more than $3,000.

Avedon and Colby have worked together as a design team specializing in premium performance clothing for almost 30 years.

Avedon earned his pilot’s license at age 12. He was a U.S. Navy fighter pilot during World War II and the Korean War and later was a test pilot, Top Gun instructor and bush pilot in Africa. After a 30-year military career, he earned a Harvard MBA.

In 1978, he bought Willis & Geiger. Founded in 1902, Willis & Geiger expeditionary outfitting company supplied durable apparel for many legends of the 20th century including Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Sir Edmund Hillary and the Flying Tigers, among others.

After the purchase, Avedon worked to re-establish the Willis & Geiger brand. The company was subsequently bought and sold several times before it finally was purchased by Dodgeville-based Lands’ End in 1994. (That brought the business partners — who stayed with the company over the course of the sales — to Wisconsin.) In 1999, Lands’ End liquidated the company but it occasionally put out products under the name.

Its clothing is still popular judging from a search on eBay that showed a lineup of vintage Willis & Geiger flight jackets, shirts and pants — many selling for hundreds of dollars.

Meanwhile, Colby earned an art degree from Smith College and had careers as an art teacher, then at Westinghouse’s Design Center, Associated Merchandising Corp. and Paul Stuart/NYC as a designer and buyer before she joined Willis & Geiger in 1986, staying there until it closed in 1999. Together, Avedon and Colby designed high-performance garments and accessories for Willis & Geiger.

After Willis & Geiger closed, the design team completed more than 500 individual styles of performance clothing and accessories for outdoor and lifestyle brands such as Orvis, Beretta, Woolrich, King Ranch, Kevin’s and Eddie Bauer.

“We’ve been able to work with wonderful brands and contribute what we felt,” Colby said, “But you know, there is a point in life where you think, ‘Why didn’t we do it for ourselves?’” And so they started their own clothing label.

The new Avedon & Colby label is a culmination of their experience. Many signature features they have developed through the years – plus a few fresh innovations — are used on the new field shirt. The designers followed their longtime mantra of: “Don’t tell us how to make it cheaper. Tell us how to make it better.”

The tea-dyed 100 percent cotton bush poplin field shirt is water repellent. It also has myriad signature features to keep the shirt from twisting and pulling when the wearer is active including double-reversed underarm gussets, side panels and pivot seams.

Other key features of the shirt include:

• moisture-wicking mesh;

• hidden button-down collar;

• sun collar;

• zipper-secured pockets;

• notched tuck-in pocket flaps;

• pocket loop for sunglasses;

• sleeve roll tabs;

• contoured shirt buttons;

• strong and durable horn and urea buttons.

“When we design something, we go to really what this is going to be used for,” Avedon said. “Neither she nor I are derivative thinkers. We try to be original thinkers.”

Colby added, “It isn’t just a shirt and a pant. It’s gear that has an end purpose, and as we develop it there will be accessories that work with it. We don’t think about it as clothing, per se. We look at it as elements that work together to give you options for performance in the field.”

One example, Colby said, is a button-down oxford shirt Avedon wanted to design and sell in the mid-1980s that used some high-quality construction features from his G1 flight jacket. “I said, ‘Burt, that’s fine for a leather flight jacket, but you cannot do that in a shirt factory. It just won’t work.’ He said, ‘No, that’s what we’re going to do.’ So, guess, what? We made it happen,” she said. And a major clothier picked it up and did well with it, she said.

Their clothing must have function. “We’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from military clothing because it had to work in the field,” Avedon said.

After all the years working together, Colby said, she’s learned one major thing from Avedon. “It’s breaking the thought that you can’t do it. If I learned anything from Burt it is that you can do anything you want.”

Avedon adds, “The question is finding somebody to help you do it, having the will to do it and finding the funding to do it.”

That’s why they are excited about their Kickstarter campaign surpassing the goal.

So as long as there are mountains to climb over (or in Avedon’s case, fly over), the design partners will keep finding challenges. They are pushing forward with their new products — currently on the design table — that will complement their field shirt.

“We know where we want to go with it. It’s just a case of getting it off the ground,” Avedon said.

And if anyone knows about getting things off the ground, Avedon certainly does.

With help, of course, from his longtime design partner.

Van Enkenvoort is Wisconsin State Journal business editor.


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