Under the Radar: James Coward

Sometimes, it’s difficult to explain why I get so excited about James Coward.

The Vancouver-based clothing label, inspired by auteurs like Wim Wenders, Paul Schrader, and Yohji Yamamoto, itself takes an auteur-ish approach to garment design, single-mindedly turning out quietly perfect workshirts and trousers so no-nonsense that “straightforward” is literally part of their name.

Humility is the name of James Coward’s game. No pretenses, just clothes.

Especially in the case of James Coward, I can’t emphasize enough that, if a picture is worth a thousand words, actually holding the clothes is worth a million words. You only get a feel for what makes James Coward so special when you actually handle its work.

Some things just don’t translate otherwise.

I mean, I could enthuse for pages and pages about James Coward’s exquisite Belgian linens and sumptuous cotton twills or the extra-wide armholes and boxy torsos that make its shirts and jackets simultaneously proportional and radically comfortable but you’ve gotta wear James Coward before it clicks. Sorry!

Unfortunately, James Coward’s clothing is limited to quickly sold-out runs available on its website and select few stockists. Given the scale of the operation, that’s a necessity: you can’t mass-produce quality.

But if I can impart any thought over the course of these several hundred words, it’s this: James Coward is more than worth the effort.

“We strive to create clothes that transcend time both in construction but also in design,” said James Coward’s design team, who elected to speak to Highsnobiety as a collective. “This is what drives the consistency in cuts, it’s our take on what’s going to last.

“There’s not really a set ethos here. It’s instinctual, but it’s always important to evolve and push what’s possible in our project.”

It feels apt that the James Coward guys refers to their own output in borderline academic terms. Even the brand’s name is considered; it represents the duality of the conventionally masculine “James” and the weak “Coward.”

With the name, “We wanted to capture some of the ambiguity and tension inherent in a project like this,” said the team. “There’s a thesis and antithesis that results in the synthesis of what we make.”

Similarly unabashed intellectualism is quietly imbued within James Coward’s clothing, the sort of thing you won’t notice until, yes, you get hands-on. I know, broken record.

“[We make] clothes that reference and are in conversation with the broader continuum of clothing; building on what has come before it,” the James Coward team explained. “Nuanced and subtle on a certain design and aesthetic—relaxed shapes, organic lines, soft forms, airy sophistication, subtle and graceful.”

Heady stuff, considering that we’re talking about wearables but the devil is truly in the details when it comes to clothing this seemingly simple: as James Coward itself says, half-jokingly, some of its garments “aren’t for beginners.”

If you’ve got the eye to appreciate them, though, you’ll notice that James Coward’s fabrics and finishing are absurdly obsessive. Even if you’re not looking for the finer touches, you can still quickly grasp the appeal. Everything James Coward makes is wildly wearable and self-effacingly cool.

I still think James Coward best summed up its own vibe with the description it provides for the aforementioned Straightforward Pant: “Meant for movement and suitable for taking a seat on damp concrete.”

“To make things last, we start with the building blocks, emphasizing form and proportion,” explains James Coward’s team. “We find ourselves… keeping details precise and highly functional but not necessarily externally visible.

“When we find something that works, we iterate. We work with forms that we think are going to resonate for a long time, making things [that are] resilient and resistant to ephemerality and trends. We also want people who interact with our project to feel included and see the progress over time; We’re not looking to pivot and confuse people.”

Despite its conscious consistency, James Coward doesn’t keep to seasonal collections. It does employ a timely drop cycle — “a hybrid approach,” according to its team — but the brand prefers to patiently refines its clothing year over year, slowly retiring or introducing ideas as the designers sees fit.

“Early James Coward principally focused on ‘set-ups,’ or suits and jackets cut from the same fabric and meant to be worn together,” the James Coward team continued. “The idea of creating garments that intuitively pair together has inspired us basically since the inception of the project.”

A modular wardrobe informed by tapered trousers, waist-length jackets, and shirts that’re just barely longer. And, within James Coward’s modular wardrobe, form follows fabric.

Like a sculptor shaping a bowl from a lump of clay, James Coward’s clothes are frequently defined by their textiles, not the other way around.

James Coward’s signature quad-pocketed Replica jacket is reshaped from scratch every time it’s reissued, for instance; very few of the half-dozen or so styles its produced are truly identical.

So, when James Coward cuts its Replica from a thick mohair blend, the jacket’s body and sleeves must be expanded to keep the silhouette within the thick pelt.

James Coward’s classic heavy linen Replica, meanwhile, is comparatively slimmer throughout to compensate for the lighter fabric — and when I say slim, I’m still talking pretty wide.

“We’ll find a fabric we are drawn to and then see what garment would be best suited or most interesting to render in that fabric,” James Coward’s team explained.

“Sometimes, a fabric like this linen gauze will come along and we’ll think it’s better suited for a new silhouette, which is how the Riviera Shirt came into being. We don’t want to limit ourselves to the artificial confines of working with specific textiles or hem ourselves into any circumscribed boundaries.”

These are the thoughtful recontextualizations that make James Coward’s work so vital. It’s not just that the clothes are as excellent as they are, but there’s also a unique workflow that distinguishes James Coward’s garments from the sea of samey blue collar cosplay.

It’s all about recognizing and treasuring the small, intelligent touches that distinguish James Coward’s designs as clothing with soul. But, again, because of James Coward’s small, intelligent design cues, IRL experience becomes tantamount.

I can talk about smart, subtle details and refined cuts all day long but, seriously, you’ve gotta try these clothes on.

Shop our favorite products