The New York-based apparel brand William Ellery may exist in the physical—it's run out of the East Williamsburg studio of founder and designer Trevor Davis—but the fledgling brand's identity lies somewhere in the enigmatic, which, fittingly, is a realm Davis himself seems at home exploring.
Launched in earnest in 2019, the brand has produced a number of unique and sometimes esoteric pieces, ranging from the trademark Keepsake Hat, which has a central mesh panel pocket that you can stuff knick-knacks into, to the June Bug Jacket, a vintage iridescent windbreaker re-imagined as protective bug gear with a mosquito net hood and amber-coated zippers. The inspiration for that one came from Davis's research into how bugs evade their predators—some sources believe iridescence plays a role. Not to mention collaborations with the likes of Stan Ray.
Davis' research forms the foundation of William Ellery, research inspired by keen observations of mundane life that he recently transformed into rich anecdotes during a studio visit on a stinking hot August afternoon. With glasses of water at hand and the AC unit on full blast, we chatted about his approach to making objects, the outdoor gear business, and the brand's recently released Beachcomber Gear collection.
Contrary to the techwear, gorpcore, and high-octane mega-athlete image that dominates a lot of the outdoor industry, Davis seeks to clothe people who simply spend time outdoors in any capacity. Like USPS workers, or Jane Goodall. "I see it being more than outdoor gear and workwear," Davis tells us of the vision behind William Ellery. "I call it expedition gear."
Davis said it's the underappreciated triumphs that give him inspiration. "Ernest Shackleton's greatest achievement wasn't walking men across 200 miles of ice, it was convincing the Chilean government to send another boat," Davis said. "Expedition gear is further reaching than outdoor gear. I see it as I'm doing research and the things that I make are for the people to further research. Because I would like to keep exploring in this world of William Ellery and I think people are willing to purchase these things to see it grow, to see what we discover."
"I'm not saying we have to go back to wearing wool trousers and suspenders and whatever Brooklyn was 15 years ago."
This unconventional, experimental approach is unsurprising given Davis's background. He traveled the world as a chef for 10 years before falling out of love with cooking and falling into the design world. He moved to New York City after securing a job with contemporary sculptor Tom Sachs, where he worked as a fabricator making spacesuits out of Tyvek and hot glue, and functional circulatory systems out of remote briefcases. Eventually, he wound up as Sachs' lead designer, working on collaborations with big names like Nike.
At that time, William Ellery was just a side project, and the brand's origins are in an admittedly mundane thing. "I was trying to convince my girlfriend to wear wool socks year round," Davis said. He explained how wool's insulation powers are good for warm weather as well as the heat, but it was a tough sell in the 100-degree NYC heat, so he decided to make a pair. "It was our first manufactured item, I call them Rec Socks. That was the beginning of William Ellery—it was very scrappy before then, but I think it formed itself around that object."
At first glance, William Ellery's projects seem to contain a heavy dose of nostalgia, but Davis is quick to assure us that he's not aiming for a vintage aesthetic. "I'm not saying we have to go back to wearing wool trousers and suspenders and whatever Brooklyn was 15 years ago when everyone was into pickling." It's fitting for an ex-sculptor that the real reason behind the look is all in the materials.
Davis creates each piece himself, by hand (unless he doesn't feel confident enough in his own skills and needs to phone in a friend). That sort of hands-on workmanship requires trust and knowledge of the materials he's working with and although Davis clarifies he's not against using synthetic materials, it's time-tested textiles like leather and wool, which are reliable, accessible, and durable, that he tends to stick to. These materials also lend themselves to a natural aging process Davis enjoys.
But is what Davis makes purely sculputural? The answer is in the recently released Beachcomber Gear collection. Inspiration for the collection comes from the chaotic MacGyver method New Yorkers adopt on a beach day. "I was at the beach the other week and I saw someone with a fitted sheet and three sticks. And that was their sun protection," Davis shared.
This DIY behavior is characteristic of beach-goers (myself included), and Davis mused that city-dwellers simply don't have the capacity for storing an entire beach set in a tiny apartment. The collection seeks to act as both an homage to and counteraction against such behavior, with objects that transition between the coast and downtown.
For instance, there's the collection's pièce de résistance, the inflatable Seatpack ($595), a creation that's half flotation device, half beach chair. The chair features a two-stage Boston valve for inflation and deflation, adjustable nylon and brass support straps, a leather carrying handle, and a clever fabric anchor that doubles as a storage pouch. Davis believes the Seatpack could also be beanbag-esque chair in a hip LES living room or a Bed-Stuy studio.
The Beachcomber collection also includes bags ranging from the Periwinkle crossbody ($135) to the Conch tote ($225), that transition between city and seacoast. Their high-quality water-beading mesh with forest-green straps and brass finishings is opaque enough to obscure possessions in city streets, but you can also run it under water to rinse off sand. Each bag includes surprising details like a vintage dry cup for protecting a phone (or making sandcastles) and a pair of little scissors for cutting fishing line.
The collection is rounded out with the Keepsake Hat ($95), the Slingshot Sunglasses ($225), Spotter Sunglasses ($225), and the Striped Sea Oat Shorts ($135). These items may take a back seat to the more showy Seatpack and Beachcomber bags, but they're by no means less imaginative. For instance, the Slingshot Sunglasses, made of restored vintage frames with new amber lenses, feature a floating strap that doubles as a slingshot rig.
Lastly, there's a Field Identification Guide ($10), a waterproof pamphlet featuring hand-drawn illustrations of common wildlife found at Far Rockaway, Queens, and quick field references for tying a variety of fishing knots.
"I don't make things solely with the intent for profit. Some of the things I make are just too weird."
These objects are undoubtedly creative, but they're also smart, well-built, and at times, hilarious. And they exemplify Davis's vision. But, how does a brand like William Ellery sustain itself against outdoor giants like Patagonia, REI, or L.L.Bean?
"I don't make things solely with the intent for profit. Some of the things I make are just too weird," Davis explained, noting that he might make as few as 15 of one item. "In a business sense, it's always kind of a gamble. But I think it's much more interesting to do that kind of thing than try and compete with a company that has unlimited resources." Davis continued, "[We didn't] get into the outdoor industry to profit from people going outdoors; it just so happens that's the area we're most interested in."
Davis wants William Ellery to be transitory, that once you own an object it's yours, not the brand's. He's even hand-etched or drawn the logo throughout the Beachcomber Gear collection to encourage non-permeance and to leave a hint of the human hand behind the design. (He showed me a scratchy "W E" carved onto a brass fastening.) This awareness of time and use is a big part of why Davis reimagines and repurposes materials, too—it's in the hope of creating the feeling of wearing your partner's sweater, or a nod to the longevity of a hand-me-down that's served multiple family members. The notion that there are memories imbued in such items is what he hopes to encapsulate in his own, even if they are new.
As for the future, Davis plans to keep going, and at a bigger scale. "I hope that we will be able to further fund the research to create more stuff like this and test it in weird places. It's not totally out of the question to go to Antarctica–has anyone tasted the ice there? Aren't you curious? The research we're doing isn't necessarily benefiting humans the most—we're not looking at how bees are dying, or how the climate is being destroyed, but I want to make the gear for those people that are doing that sort of research."