Assorted gear from the Skywalker Pilot Collection.
CELEBRATION

Behind the Scenes of the Skywalker Pilot Collection

An inside look at how a unique Star Wars™ collaboration creates one-of-a-kind outdoor gear
BY NATHAN DINSDALE
Michael Dawson knew this assignment was going to be different.

After all, he was an apparel designer working on the latest edition of a Columbia and Lucasfilm collaboration that has led to 10 special-edition collections and counting. But he didn’t quite grasp how different it would be until he entered a secure, temp-controlled warehouse at Skywalker Ranch—a Bay Area epicenter of all things Star Wars—in November 2022.

Inside the building were row upon row of original costumes, props, and other treasures from one of the most beloved franchises of all time. There was Luke Skywalker’s flight suit from Star Wars: A New Hope™. Luke’s flight jacket and helmet from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back™. A replica model of a T-65 X-wing Starfighter. And much, much more.

“I’m not going to lie, the 12-year-old in me was having a moment,” Dawson laughs. “It was exhilarating. At the same time, it’s the access and partnership with Lucasfilm that helps us ensure a high level of authenticity. It’s one of the things that make these collections so special.”

The most ambitious yet is the Skywalker Pilot Collection releasing on Dec. 1. It’s an array of premium outdoor gear built to take on the Empire—and the elements—with intricate details crafted with the ultimate Star Wars fan in mind.

The new collection didn’t happen in a vacuum, however, space or otherwise. It was born through 18 months of passion, creativity, determination, and attention to detail. It also reflects the evolution of what has been a close relationship with Lucasfilm since day one.
Close-up of a Skywalker Pilot Lightweight Jacket and Skywalker Pilot Short Sleeve Shirt.
The collection includes the Skywalker Pilot Lightweight Jacket (left) and Skywalker Pilot Short Sleeve Shirt (right).

The saga begins

Back in 2016, the first collection featured three high-performance jackets inspired by the Rebel quest for Death Star plans in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story™. And while the jackets were modeled after the costumes of key characters, the intention was always to create something more.

“We were fortunate enough to go on the Rogue One set and look at the actual costumes. And you realize there’s something we can add to what’s on camera,” says Matt Merriman, Columbia VP of brand development. “Our goal from the very beginning was to take inspiration from what you see on screen and transform it into functional, high-performance gear you can wear anywhere.”

The success of the Rogue One collection led to additional collaborations inspired by cultural touchstones like The Empire Strikes Back, The Mandalorian™ and Star Wars: The Clone Wars™, while paying homage to iconic characters like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Boba Fett.

Along the way, the team had aspirations to one day explore the possibility of a collection featuring one of the most recognizable outfits in the Star Wars galaxy. Then, around June 2022, that moment arrived.

“For me, there's nothing more iconic than Luke's orange flight suit,” Merriman says. “We were very excited by the opportunity, but we also knew that we had our work cut out for us.”

Rebels wanted

In July 2022, the Columbia team took its first steps toward making the Skywalker Pilot Collection a reality. First, they had to see if it was even possible. They pored over research material, fabric samples, and color swatches, sketched out designs, and began drafting the first prototype.

“We’re fortunate that our day job is to make incredible outdoor gear that stands up to the elements,” says Becca Johnson, director of special projects. “So with something like the Skywalker Pilot Ski Suit and Ski Jacket we already have the chassis with our Bugaboo ski gear. From there it’s about building around that to create something that aligns with the Star Wars galaxy.”

One early source of inspiration was original concept art from The Empire Strikes Back of Luke Skywalker in his flight suit scrambling from a crashed Snow Speeder on the ice planet Hoth. Considering the conditions Luke would have encountered, the team had to find a way to make gear that would actually stand up to Hoth-like conditions using industry-leading Columbia technologies like Omni-Heat™ Infinity.

“We want to be incredibly accurate to the source material but also create something you can wear in real life,” Dawson says. “It has to have instantly recognizable elements of the original flight suit and jacket, but it also needs to keep you warm when it’s 5 degrees outside.”

It also meant solving a number of other challenges. How to fabricate and waterproof the unique pleating on the sleeves. How to construct a pilot safety collar without it looking like a neck pillow. How to replicate a comm link on the chest pocket using raised silicone. And how to nail the suit’s unmistakable orange hue.

“We did a lot of R&D, a lot of testing, to get things just right,” Johnson says.

What began with a flight suit turned ski suit and jacket eventually expanded to the largest assortment of the series yet. The collection added a lightweight jacket, pullover, long-sleeve and short-sleeve shirts, crossbody bag, ball cap, and even a snow goggle inspired by Luke’s flight helmet and visor.

But the ambitions behind the collection didn’t end there.
Close-up detail of raised-silicone comm link and logo patches.
The team's attention to detail included using raised silicone to recreate the comm link from Luke Skywalker's original flight suit.

Shoot for the stars

Chris Araujo, director of brand management, was with Dawson and the team that visited Skywalker Ranch in November 2022. But his focus was on a different aspect of the collection altogether.

“We knew that if we were going to focus a collection on a suit that iconic we had to step up everything that we’ve done before,” Araujo says. “So we were asking those what-if questions, like wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this?”

High on the list was exploring ways the team could utilize existing partnerships with Columbia ambassador and 23XI Racing driver Bubba Wallace to elevate the collection’s unveiling in a big way.

In the archives, Araujo examined X-wing Starfighter models, studied the panels, the patina, the engines and fuselage, all the way down to the rivets. And then he began pondering how to recreate that…on a race car. Specifically, how to transform Bubba’s No. 23 Toyota into an X-wing inspired vehicle for NASCAR’s biggest stage–the season finale at Phoenix Raceway.

The visit to the archives added another dimension to the product design team’s efforts as well, as they analyzed the original costumes and looked to painstakingly refine those details while creating something wholly its own.

“Our team is very passionate about this collaboration,” says Erin Steele, special projects manager. “We worked closely with Lucasfilm to ensure this collection included authentic details and designs that we hope Star Wars fans love as much as we do.”

That close relationship involved taking original source material that eventually found its way into the collection as fan-focused “Easter eggs,” like blueprint graphics featuring schematics for the T-65 X-wing Starfighter, the T-47 Airspeeder/Snow Speeder, and Luke’s trusty droid copilot R2-D2.

It also included elements like incorporating messages written in Aurebesh (the written language of the Star Wars galaxy) and crafting raised-silicone Rebel patches, down to referencing Incom Corporation and Industrial Automation (vehicle and droid manufacturers in the Star Wars galaxy), deep cuts even by Star Wars fan standards.

All along the way, the team was well aware of those high expectations and the effort it would take to meet and exceed them. As winter led to spring and then to summer 2023, the gear was continuously tested and refined to the last minute. Attention to detail was crucial, as the team knew their most discerning critics would be eagerly waiting.

Star Wars has such a huge, passionate, knowledgeable fan base that we know they’re going to look at every stitch,” Johnson says. “We take the details very seriously because accuracy is so important to do it justice, to respect the fans and the franchise.”
Close-up of a vehicle schematic inside a Skywalker Pilot lightweight jacket.
A range of fan-focused "Easter eggs" include blueprint schematic graphics of a T-65 X-wing Starfighter or T-47 Airspeeder/Snow Speeder.

All systems go

In September 2023, Chris Araujo had a surreal moment.

He was standing on Mark Hamill’s patio, which would be reason enough. But after months of what-if questions turned to how-to-do-it logistics, he was watching them come to life in real time. Mark and Bubba were having a spirited conversation nearby. Bubba was wearing an orange race suit modeled after Luke Skywalker’s flight suit. A No. 23 “X-wing” Toyota was parked in the driveway.

“I’m watching all of this and there’s a moment where it’s like, ‘Yeah, this is really happening,’” Araujo says. “A scene like that would have only been a pipe dream months before.”

Yet it became a reality thanks in no small part to strong relationships built over the years. And thus Araujo found himself on location for a video shoot capturing an epic exchange between two fellow Rebel pilots…in Mark Hamill’s driveway.

“I think that was a genuine goosebump moment for everyone,” Araujo says.
It wasn’t the only one to come.

Aside from customizing designs for Bubba and the No. 23 “X-wing” car, the team turned 23XI Racing teammate Tyler Reddick’s ride into the No. 45 TIE Fighter inspired Toyota. Commemorative t-shirts of the drivers and their cars sold out fast. Corollary efforts included Columbia ambassador and Olympic skier Alex Ferreira taking the Skywalker Pilot Ski Suit for a ride and a Columbia sweepstakes to send a winner to Finse, Norway, the filming location of iconic Luke Skywalker scenes on Hoth.

“We’ve done Star Wars before, but never to this level,” Araujo says. “Not just in terms of the collection itself, which is incredible, but also in how passionate we are about putting a spotlight on it.”

Prior to the collection’s release on Dec. 1, that light may have shined the brightest on Nov. 5 for the NASCAR season finale at Phoenix Raceway. It was there that the Columbia team began to see the efforts of the previous year-plus really start to come to fruition.

A Columbia display in the NASCAR Fanzone showcased the Skywalker Pilot Collection, the No. 23 “X-wing” and No. 45 “TIE Fighter,” and featured appearances from Bubba, R2-D2, and stormtroopers from the 501st Legion fan organization. The response was phenomenal.

“All along the way we feel a responsibility to get it right,” Erin Steele says. “And there in Phoenix we saw why. Adults and kids would walk up and they’d see the gear, the cars, R2-D2, and the stormtroopers, and there was just so much joy on their faces, so much excitement. You could see how this connects with people on another level. That’s something special.”
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