Authentic American: Blaine Halvorson

SLIDESHOW: Blaine Halvorson in his 12,000-square-foot workshop, where he works with vintage and heirloom items, transforming them into one-of-a-kind pieces for his MadeWorn brand.

Blaine Halvorson wants to set the Holy Grail standard for American craftsmanship.

Artist and craftsman Blaine Halvorson’s West Hollywood atelier is a shrine to the bizarre. Walking into his appointment-only studio — where he makes art, clothes, shoes and other items for his MadeWorn brand — is like an Aladdin’s cave of wonder and discovery. Amid ancient black-and-white mug shots of death-row prisoners lining the walls and Victorian mannequins, a 15ft giraffe slumps by the door and a mountain lion prowls around a rack of shoes; stuffed raccoons and dogs, glass-encased skulls, skeletons and other historic curiosities blaze from every surface.

“I spend 100-plus hours a week alone in my workshop and the animals keep me company.” Tall and tattooed, Halvorson, a blur in blue in a denim work apron and shredded Levi’s that look clawed by bears, talks while he works. “These are relics from the 1930s and the 1940s, and some came from museums,” he says of his stuffed menagerie. “I don’t see taxidermy as macabre. Animals will always be more beautiful alive, but it’s honouring the beauty of the animal and its life. I don’t support sport or trophy hunting.”

Previously a recording studio, the 12,000ft indoor-outdoor compound of seven rooms with black-painted ceilings and a garden with yellow prairie grass transports you into another century, someplace wild, strange and forgotten. “I wanted to make people feel special and create a place they could lose themselves in,” Halvorson explains, finding poetry in the obscure and ordinary objects.

The 46-year-old artist is a collector of curios and contemporary art. “I didn’t grow up with much money and had my wish-list if I could ever afford art. The first major piece I bought was Meat Magi by Mark Ryden and at that time it was like selling a kidney. I ended up with storage units full of artwork with no space to put it. I started curating these little vignettes and, from that, I turned MadeWorn into a lifestyle brand.”

Growing up in Montana, where his family had a small farm, gave Halvorson an appreciation of the natural world. “We lived purely off the land. I still have a ranch up there, where I go off alone and tuck myself in the mountains to reset my brain and disappear. I have two bobcats who live under the deck of my porch. The silence, the sound of the wind, seeing deer and elk walking by — that’s magic.”

After finishing high school, Halvorson worked for an architect who made houses out of reclaimed wood. “We took apart these old homesteads and built amazing modern homes. Everything I’ve learned I’ve molded into what I do today — how to make things look authentic. I went to art school for eight years studying graphic design and was planning to become a lithographer/printer, but haphazardly fell into clothing.”

Moving to Los Angeles, the former construction worker couch surfed, did odd jobs and after hours co-founded Junk Food Clothing, a US$40-million-a-year faux-vintage t-shirt line in 1998. After selling the company, he became a serious dabbler: designing clothes, cobbling shoes, binding books. His MadeWorn brand — artfully distressed Civil War-era gentleman swag favoured by Brad Pitt and Jude Law — now includes womenswear with the same rugged hand-me-down aesthetic, along with rare vintage Rolex watches, well-worn denim and classic rock tees.

“I still make merchandising for bands such as AC/DC, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones almost 20 years later,” he says. Hollywood eventually came knocking on his door. “We’re now costuming films because they come to us to create the hero look. For The Revenant, I hand made 600 books.”

A self-described perfectionist and purist, he’s an entrepreneur, carpenter, curator and craftsman who’s obsessed with authenticity. “We’ve lost the passion in making a product,” he says. “We live in a disposable society, which is dumbing down more and more every day. We’ll reach the point where we won’t even know what good was. The beauty to handmade is its uniqueness. We’re a true atelier. The shoes I cobble are made from historical pieces of leather from 1890 to 1930. An old pair of chaps, a First World War tent, a mining bag… I always tell the providence and where the piece was found and what it was before I cut the shoe pattern out of it. Doing this makes each pair truly unique and that is art.”

Halvorson adds: “We’re just getting started. I’m building a distillery in Michigan in the Pontiac Power plant, where GM cars were built, to make American liquor. It’s about inspiring people to make and create in America, and craft an integrity that goes into products. It’ll be like Willy Wonka, with elevators 80ft in the air and sky bridges to float over the copper world below where we’re distilling. We’ll have a racetrack across the street, where people can race cars, then come back and drink at nighttime. My hope is to teach people to make things again. I want to set the Holy Grail standard for American craftsmanship.”

731 N. Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles; madeworn.com

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SLIDESHOW: Blaine Halvorson in his 12,000-square-foot workshop, where he works with vintage and heirloom items, transforming them into one-of-a-kind pieces for his MadeWorn brand.