According to Bridget Milligan, the material for each leather Kodiak Coat takes three times longer to cut than its synthetic counterpart.
Bridget Milligan, former designer and stylist for Sonny and Cher, owns and operates Kodiak Coat Company in Juneau.
Milligan's co-seamstress/designer Danielle Beyer works in their Marine Way workspace. "At first we just wanted to 'play' together; but she was so outstanding, I asked her to work for me," Milligan said.
Story last updated at 4/11/2012 - 11:36 am
JUNEAU - Bridget Milligan currently has 500 cowhides in her basement.
"I'm all about leather these days," says Milligan, 67, the ebullient, eccentric founder of Kodiak Coat Company, "mostly because I've got so much of it."
Kodiak Coats - custom-made, individually cut and sewn synthetic fleece-and-rubber lined water/windproof pullovers, blazers and overcoats - have been, in her words, "keeping Alaskans warm and sexy for the last 25 years."
Now Milligan is applying the same basic anorak pattern, as well as her overall ethos - "to make well-designed, well-made Alaskan coats as reasonably priced as possible" - to a line of leather coats fashionable enough for the office yet strong enough for the gill-netter.
"I take blemished hides, which makes the coats less expensive, but also less foo-foo," Milligan says. This particular lot of heavy-duty leather was originally earmarked as work gloves for the military.
Still, marketing what she envisions as a leather work coat, Milligan acknowledges cutting her work out for herself (literally - the material for each leather Kodiak Coat takes three times longer to cut than its synthetic counterpart).
"But I'm the kind of person who goes to sleep thinking about coats and wakes up thinking about coats," she says. Milligan is also the kind of person who names her dog "Suede" and punctuates conversations by chummily wrapping her arm around a leather-clad mannequin and blurting out "meet my new best friend!"
In addition to the "For Alaskans, By Alaskans" angle, Milligan touts leather's natural strength and weather-resistance as a chief selling point.
"It lasts forever and it's as waterproof as you are," she says. "Plus, leather is warm and sexy. And men like to feel warm and sexy, too."
(Note: She's right, we do; the coat I tried on felt simultaneously luxurious and rugged, like I was a Montana ranch hand or something - a far cry from my usual ratty sweatshirt, which feels like wearing a dishrag.)
For Milligan, the leather Kodiak Coat represents another in a series of opportunities and adventures dating back to her youth in 1960s Los Angeles.
A lifelong artist and seamstress, Milligan paints herself as a "young, wild girl," who, at 17, dropped out of Hollywood High School to become a full-time costume designer/stylist for Sonny and Cher.
"Although at that time, they were still Cleo and Caesar," she explains.
Milligan credits herself not only with creating Sonny and Cher's trademark bobcat fur vests (as seen on the cover of the "Look at Us" LP), but also with starting the late-60s bell-bottom pants craze in Los Angeles, and, by extension, the United States (Sonny and Cher, themselves, popularized bell-bottoms by wearing them on their TV show).
"(British folk singer) Donovan wanted me to work for him, too, but Cher wouldn't let me. She moved me in with them."
That's right: Once upon a time, the Kodiak Coat lady co-habited with Sonny and Cher. In fact, Cher mentions "Bridget" several times in her autobiography, "The First Time."
Parting ways in the wake of Sonny and Cher's growing success, Milligan moved to San Francisco, where she sewed leather clothes for psychedelic rock band Quick Silver Messenger Service, and eventually Hawaii, where she met a man named Bill, whom she would eventually marry.
"One day it hit us like a lightning bolt," she says of their decision to homestead in Alaska. "So we bought a Frito-Lay van, put a woodstove in it and drove north."
The couple first landed in Chitina, where locals refused to take them into the bush.
"They weren't going to just drop two hippies out in the middle of nowhere," Milligan says. "They probably saved our lives."
After a long winter learning the ropes, come thaw, they rowed across the Copper River and built a six-sided house in the Brimmer Valley.
Too isolated for Milligan, she left the homestead (and Bill), and began traveling all over the state - with as many as seven children in tow - hitchhiking, trekking through the bush, winter care-taking lodges, even kelping with Natives.
"I had kids and I had cookies, and that endeared us to all the salty dogs we dealt with."
Working as a hairdresser in Valdez during the early Pipeline days, Milligan got a chance to commercial fish in Cordova and Bristol Bay, winding up in Kodiak, where she commissioned her first 20-foot wood dory, "The FD Gayer, love of my life, logo of Kodiak Coats." Milligan also recently refurbished an old Bristol Bay double-ender, currently docked in Aurora Harbor, which she sails all over Southeast Alaska under nothing but wind and her own power.
Fishing in Kodiak, a town not known for retail, Milligan made her own coats for her "crew." Soon enough, other fishermen asked Milligan to make the same coats, only bigger. School teachers wanted them, too, only longer - "Recess coats, I still call that style."
"I'm a designer, first and foremost. As I kept making coats, I kept noticing little features different people might want," says Milligan, who opted to quit fishing in favor of her burgeoning Kodiak Coat business, decamping to Juneau for the year-round market.
"Kodiak doesn't do fancy. Here, people want durability, but they also want to look nice for work, or going out."
Since then, Kodiak Coat Company has grown into a workshop and boutique on Marine Way. There, Milligan and co-seamstress/designer Danielle Beyer - "at first we just wanted to 'play' together; but she was so outstanding, I asked her to work for me" - sell a variety of synthetic and leather Kodiak Coats, as well as rain skirts, purses and wallets. Some of these feature intricate, hand-painted Native designs by local artist Ricky Tagaban.
Without bandwidth for much national or even in-state distribution, Milligan relies on a loyal local consumer base.
"Tony Knowles wore a Kodiak Coat on the campaign trail," she says. "Once, he commissioned a bunch of them as gifts for the Western Governors' Conference."
What about Alaska's other famous governor?
"You know, I never tried to get Sarah Palin into a Kodiak Coat, although I'm kind of disappointed she wasn't interested in them herself."
Geoff Kirsch writes from Juneau. Read more at www.geoffkirsch.com.