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An outfitter says good-bye to the Letterman show

When David Letterman tapes the final episode of his venerable late-night talk show on May 20, it's not just viewers who will miss him; a San Francisco sportswear company is losing one of its best customers.

Golden Bear Sportswear has been making Letterman's "Late Show" staff jackets for more than 15 years. "He designs them himself," said the company's president, Schirley Zisman, of the varsity letterman-style jackets. "He gives them away as gifts every single year."

Golden Bear produces classic American sportswear, and they've been doing it for nearly a century right here in the United States. And although you might not recognize the name, you've probably seen their products.

Letterman isn't the only celebrity fan. Over the years, many famous celebrities have donned their iconic bomber jackets—from Paul Newman and Justin Bieber to Kate Upton and the Grateful Dead.

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Maybe the most famous jacket they ever made was called the "Billy Bomber," named for President Bill Clinton. When Clinton was elected in 1992, Zisman sent him a Golden Bear bomber jacket as a gift. Not only did Clinton wear it all the time, he also ordered hundreds of similar jackets for the U.S. Secret Service and to give as gifts to other world leaders.

"We're not aware of a lot of competitors who do exactly what we do," said Matt Ehlen, Golden Bear's general manager. "There really aren't a lot. And I think that's one of the things that make us unique, because we are made in America. "If you are an aficionado of classic outerwear, you may have noticed the jackets made by Golden Bear Sportswear, which outfits the" Late Show with David Letterman" and other celebrities. Of late, the brand has been popping up in department stores and menswear boutiques.

The appeal is the Americana-inspired look: The San Francisco-based company has been making the bomber jacket since the 1920s. The company got its start when it first made specialized, durable jackets for the local Teamster's Union Bay's dock workers and longshoremen. Golden Bear eventually started making the staples of American outerwear: motorcycle jackets, bomber jackets and pea coats.

Actress Julia Roberts, donning a Golden Bear jacket, makes her final visit to the "Late Show with David Letterman" on May 13, 2015.
Jeffrey R. Staab | CBC | Getty Images
Actress Julia Roberts, donning a Golden Bear jacket, makes her final visit to the "Late Show with David Letterman" on May 13, 2015.

In the 1950s, one of the factory workers, a Holocaust survivor named Berek Winter, bought the business from the original owner. His daughter, Schirley Zisman, grew up on the factory floor, and today she is president of the company.

"During the '70s a lot of the rock stars would come here, and we made jackets for the Grateful Dead, for the Doobie Brothers, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones."

Golden Bear made most of their products for other companies who put their own labels on them. Almost all of the work was done in San Francisco until the 1980s, when they started manufacturing A-2 bomber jackets for a local clothing store called Banana Republic. "The product was so well received that we couldn't keep up with the demand."

Banana Republic asked Zisman to move production to a larger facility overseas. "We went to Korea, and we started manufacturing our A-2 bomber jacket there. After that, we saw that that was a pretty good way to work, so we expanded it to the Golden Bear line."

Back in the USA

By 2007, 65 percent of Golden Bear's manufacturing was done overseas in Korea and China. Then the financial crisis of 2008 hit.

"Obviously, there was a lot of turmoil in the financial markets. There was a lot of turmoil in retail markets. And that year affected us a lot as well. We had a precipitous sales decline," Ehlen recalls, "and the import business really got hammered."

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"We couldn't meet production minimums anymore in China. We didn't want to have to buy 200, 300 jackets at a time and not sell them," said Zisman.

So seven years ago the company decided to reinvent itself by bringing 95 percent of production back to San Francisco and promoting the Golden Bear name by doing collaborations with young hipster brands—like Shinola, Unionmade, Club Monaco and Engineered Garments—that like the cache of the "Made in the USA" label.

"During the '70s a lot of the rock stars would come here, and we made jackets for the Grateful Dead, for the Doobie Brothers, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones." -Shirley Zisman, president of Golden Bear Sportswear

"The companies they collaborate with appreciate that we're here in San Francisco and that we're a made-in-U.S.A. company, and they want to be affiliated with us," said Zisman.

The strategy seems to be working. Since 2007, Golden Bear has doubled its workforce to 30 people, who make around 25,000 jackets a year. The private company won't disclose sales but notes that its products are sold throughout the world with a "Made in U.S.A." label, which helps sell them.

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Golden Bear has exciting new celebrity collaborations coming up—ones they can't even mention yet—but for now they're enjoying the bittersweet end to their working with David Letterman.

"He's been wonderful to our company. And you know, we're going to be very sad to see him go."