It is widely purported that the nautical fashion trend has royal origins, beginning with Queen Victoria, who in 1846, commissioned a child’s sailor uniform for her 4-year-old son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, to wear in public. The regal raiment was an identical replica of naval uniforms of that era and was subsequently captured forever in a painting by preeminent portrait artist Franz Winterhalter. This helped ignite a fashion craze, which resulted in nautical-inspired attire being in vogue for high-status women and men as well as for children. In 1858, the French navy included the Breton shirt as a uniform, and in 1917, French fashion icon Coco Chanel came out with her own interpretation of these seafaring stripes, which soon became a preppy, yet slightly edgy, clothing staple, being worn by legendary stars such as Audrey Hepburn and James Dean—and the rest, as they say, is history.
The timeless, casual elegance evoked by nautical clothing is as chic today as ever, and is having a resurgence, as many people tire of low-quality “fast fashion” and trendy looks that are here today and gone tomorrow.
This ethos is evident in the collaboration between longtime friends, who have known each other since childhood, James Acierno and John Troha, who in 2013, founded Old Soldier to pay homage to the maritime history of their hometown, Sayville. It is fitting that the brand is named after Acierno’s father’s boat. The South Shore’s Old Soldier creates nautical-themed clothing and accessories that are both fashionable and functional to the sailing lifestyle. Their in-house-designed items are printed locally to uphold their authentic vision and high standards of quality.
The business partners, who now reside in the Bayport-Blue Point area, both have professional day jobs and consider Old Soldier a “passion project.” However, this labor of love is gaining traction in the fashion industry. They recently collaborated with J. Crew, the brand synonymous with more affordable, classic pieces. This joint venture featured a collection of items inspired by the New York history of both brands, and their items are featured on both the J. Crew website and on Instagram. In addition, the duo put together a “Long Island Guide” for J. Crew, showcasing some of Long Island natives’ favorite local restaurants and beaches on the South Shore, which are recommended to tourists coming to the area.
“We both grew up skateboarding; a lot of our friends were surfers. [We did] snowboarding in the winter, and we loved all of that stuff,” explained Acierno. “We wore those type of brands, but one thing we also did, especially when the weather was nice, was go boating, go to the beach, all that, and we didn’t really see a brand like that, that represented that sort of lifestyle, at least as we wanted to portray it.”
He explained where the initial spark of inspiration first dawned on the athletic young men, with a penchant for sport and an eye for style. The friends began to perceive a dearth in the market for a clothing and lifestyle brand that was compatible with sailors on the South Shore of Long Island.
A penchant for a seafaring lifestyle and a respect for the lineage from which that culture derives, is in Acierno’s blood.
“My dad is actually in the antique boat business,” he said. “The name Old Soldier comes from his antique boat that was built in 1946 on the Harlem River in New York, and so as we got older, we realized there’s a lot of cool things, as far as antiques and maritime history, and how it relates to New York, so we started to incorporate some of that into the brand as well.”
Growing up, they also shared an interest in making things and this, combined with their appreciation for the past, evolved into what Old Soldier stands for today.
“We kind of wanted to make stuff for the boat and beach that we wanted to wear, and we saw that there was kind of a gap that no one was making this stuff. So, we figured we just might as well do it,” said Troha. “We kind of started D.I.Y., and that’s been the ethos of the brand throughout.”
One salient aspect setting Old Soldier apart from some other similar brands, for whom the maritime aesthetic is just a pose, is that it is equal parts substance and style, and the nautical theme is more than skin deep.
“It’s a genuine lifestyle. We’re not one of those brands like, ‘Let’s throw an anchor on a hat, or a shirt, and call it nautical,’” Acierno explained. “No, we actually convey a lot of authentic nautical and maritime history in our products.”
The practical-clothing designer explained how, for example, the shirts that they did for J. Crew feature a life ring which says “Seaport 1989” on it.
“That’s not just something that we pulled out of thin air; it’s the first J. Crew store that actually opened at South Street, Seaport, in New York, in 1989, so it’s kind of a commentary on that history,” he said, denoting the thought that goes into every piece Old Soldier designs.
Acierno and Troha leave no doubt that for them, a nautical aesthetic is the outward representation of an inward worldview and historical understanding. For instance, another recent design the brand put out features the classic image of a man at the helm of a speedboat.
“It’s Gar Wood, and then it lists some of his records,” explained Acierno. “He was the first person to meet, and then exceed, 100 miles per hour on the water. The famous speedboat racer is someone who likely only a genuine sailing aficionado would know today, although he was a well-known racer in the early 1920s.”
While this is a local brand, they have an international distribution and do particularly well in Japan and Thailand, where the classic Americana style is thriving.
As for what the future has in store for the brand with a flair for historical cachet, Acierno said, “This J.Crew release has been a really big boost for us, in terms of growing the business… So, we’re definitely looking to grow and collaborate with other brands and companies, and people that we feel have a similar vision.”
The masterminds behind Old Soldier have also taken their passion for history and applied that to buying and selling antiques, and upcycling vintage shirts. “To bring stuff back to life, so to speak,” Acierno explained.
In keeping with the utilitarian aspect of Old Soldier, these items are not just collector’s items, but are meant to be wearable.
“If you go onto our website, you’ll see that we have some older items up for sale that we just thought were really cool and could use another life, basically,” said Troha.
Also, in keeping with items that are functional for the boating lifestyle, they just released a new bag with J.Crew, which will also be on the Old Soldier site in a couple of weeks. It’s a large beach tote, with several pockets in the interior for storage, and the entire space of the tote is made of a unique nylon, which is waterproof.
“So, just that sort of stuff which we, unfortunately, learned the hard way,” explained Troha. “We had many bags where we were like, we need a waterproof bag.”
“That’s a big reason we’re definitely seeing success in our business,” said Acierno of the brand’s authentic immersion in the lifestyle it represents. Old Soldier represents classic, utilitarian pieces. “Things that look good now, but are also going to look good in five or 10 years. So, we design with a future mindset. It’s a look as timeless as the sea. It’s almost a future-vintage-type vibe.”
To check out the full clothing and accessories line, or to purchase a piece of usable maritime history, go to oldsoldier.net, jcrew.com or check them out on Instagram @oldsoldier.
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