Who Is Eli James?
The answer to that question is not one but many.
Having been lucky enough to get to know Eli over the years, if I were asked the above question my answer would be:
"Oh, you mean the charismatic and effusive founder & head designer of GhostCircus Apparel? The musician with thousands of global touring miles under his belt? The husband, friend and entrepreneur that we all aspire to be?"
When chatting with Eli recently, we spoke about the origin of GhostCircus and how it has grown over the past five years to become the global brand it is today. We discussed the past, present, and future of GhostCircus Apparel, his high-end fashion brand that caters to artists, musicians, and creatives, and GhostCircus Merch, the merchandising arm of the brand that specializes in custom merchandising.
As we spoke he told me about a particularly difficult time he had gone through recently at the helm of GhostCircus Apparel, doing his best to navigate safely through the muddy waters of this tumultuous year, attempting to keep his business running smoothly and his team employed. When he explained how he had managed to not only overcome the barriers in his path but come out the other side arguably better off than before, I was impressed and I told him as much.
"I just go." he said.
I can’t think of a better, or more succinct, description to sum up a guy who has been through so much, starting with his humble beginnings growing up in Seattle, WA with his three brothers. Their father, who played bass for the 80s metal band Rottweiller, raised the boys on his own as Eli’s mother wasn’t involved in their lives.
At age eighteen he moved to Los Angeles and after a few years of acting on stage and in film and television, he began a career in music, spurred on by the artistic blood in his veins. Years of traveling the world playing music and honing his craft, both in groups and as a solo artist, laid the groundwork for what was to become his greatest endeavor to date: GhostCircus Apparel.
Eli’s first foray into fashion began when he altered a few garments for himself to wear while performing on stage. Fellow musicians began to notice and not long after, his good friend and drummer Frank Zummo (Sum 41, Krewella, Street Drum Corps), became GCA’s first endorsed artist. As Eli and Frank began to work together, they focused on creating designs that were completely unique, striking, and original — not solely for on stage— but a versatile style that would carry over into something that Frank could wear for every aspect of his day-to-day life.
"These clothes are one with me and they are perfect to accommodate my lifestyle in every way possible!" - Frank Zummo
One day Eli got a call from Frank who was scheduled to receive the Alternative Press “Best Drummer of the Year” award. He was rehearsing to perform at the award show along with Adrian Young (No Doubt), Josh Dun (21 Pilots), and others.
“Frank called me and said; ‘We have less than a week before the show - can you come through and fit us out? Can you get us all geared up for when we’re on stage?’ There were all these different genres with different style influences; rock, pop, punk, alt — and I was like “Yeah sure, let’s do it!”
Frank Zummo accepting the Best Drummer of The Year Award
After that, the opportunities really started to roll in. Marilyn Manson, Ellen DeGeneres, 21 Pilots, Sleeping With Sirens, Falling In Reverse, Escape The Fate, Dillinger Escape Plan, August Burns Red, and many more. GhostCircus was becoming a household name.
It was around that time that Eli connected with bassist and co-founder of BlackCraft Cult, Bobby Schubenski. Eli had crafted some custom pants for Bobby and he was raving about them:
“I got stopped by three different people in one hour all asking me where I got my pants! We have to work together, man!”
Fast forward a few months and Eli was working with BlackCraft Cult out of their Anaheim, CA design studio where, over the next three months, they went on to create 19 original designs that all completely sold out shortly after release.
As a result of the collaboration with BlackCraft Cult, Eli realized the opportunity to help other brands facilitate various stages of their design & manufacturing process, and out of that need — GhostCircus Merch was born. GCM quickly became the go-to shop for bands looking for custom one-of-a-kind designs that would resonate with their rabid fan base. Rather than go the all too obvious silkscreening route, Eli burned the midnight oil to create a new take on an old classic by developing a bespoke bleaching technique that began turning heads in the industry. After selling a few hundred thousand units of custom handmade bleached attire, it was time to move into embroidery where GCM brought in state-of-the-art machines (that had to be shipped in from overseas) and quickly established themselves as an industry leader in custom embroidery services. GhostCircus Merch was changing the game by allowing the “little guy” to get their designs out to their fans without large upfront costs. Power to the people!
“I should probably make myself a face cover…”
As 2020 was getting underway, Eli was busy doing what he had always done; going, going, going. GhostCircus was selling out release after release and things were going well. Then in the spring when the world got turned upside down, everything shut down. Eli figured he would make a face cover for himself to wear when he was out in public, he didn’t really think too much about it at first. After showing the first face cover he made to his wife Tara (Miss USA 2006), and brother Joseph Réohm (Magician/Illusionist), Tara said; “You should put it up on the website, you could help a lot of people!” to which Joe wholeheartedly agreed. Eli thought, “Yeah sure why not, maybe get a few face covers out there and help out a few people, not a bad thing to do, right?” So he made it available on the website. The very next day there were 100 orders, the day after that — 300 orders, then 1000. What started as a mini-project, very quickly outgrew the space they were in and operations had to be moved downtown to a special facility. The demand was intense as frontline workers all over Southern California needed face covers to function, but the overall supply was drying up fast. Enter GhostCircus Apparel. But, in order to be able to get the face covers manufactured and out to the people who desperately needed them, they had to ensure things were being done safely. This meant getting certified as an essential business, operating in a secure warehouse downtown, maintaining a small group of essential team members per shift with increased safety precautions — testing for everyone involved — the works.
As the orders continued to pour in, they began to expand on the different styles and sizes, even adding a line of face covers for kids.
“We quickly saw the demand for youth sizes as well, something with cool patterns that was comfortable to wear and would really hold up in the wash. It had to be safe and practical.”
As the demand continued to increase, they set up a donation program to donate face covers to local hospitals, fire departments, and frontline workers, and as of Q4 2020 GCA has donated over 30,000 handmade face covers and counting. When GhostCircus says they care about giving back — the proof is in the face covers.
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🙏🏻GhostCircus Family, We are SO incredibly grateful and amazed by the continued support this year!! • Through your contributions we have been able to create jobs, donate to people / organizations in need, support artists and musicians and most of all, provide you with more greatness, designs, creative collaborations and so much more to come! 🚀🚀🚀 • Each and every one of you has played a pivotal role in bringing essential workers back to their jobs and putting food on tables of thousands of families. Just wanted to take a moment to reflect on how appreciative we are here at for all the love and energy our GhostCircus Family has provided! 😌 Have an amazing day and please stay safe and healthy out there!! • @ghostcircus_ #grateful #ghostcircus #familyfirst #familyiseverything #donations #staysafeoutthere #essentialworkers
"All I've wanted to do since I was a kid was help people. That's all I've wanted to do."
“The reason I got into acting early in life, was to help people. Whether as an escape from reality or to educate people. I realized how much people connect with music on a visceral level and it just made so much sense to reach people that way. If I can help save lives or even just make one single person feel better that day, it was a good thing. It was a worthwhile thing to do.”
“We now get the most amazing feedback [on GhostCircus]. Every day we have people calling and saying things like: ‘I don’t know if you realize this but I literally could not have fed my family if I didn’t have the face covers that you guys provided.’”
“When I say [we're a] family, I mean family. The support has been amazing. We have all of these people that we were able to help out, that are now excited to be a part of it and can’t wait for the next drop, the next big thing. And now they want to continue to support a company that was there for them when they needed it most. What exactly are you supporting when you support GhostCircus? You’re supporting a company that 1; supports America, 2; supports artists, and their vision and their communications, 3; you’re supporting a company that gives back to the community, not just in donated face covers but also the charities we donate to like the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation that helps keep kids off the streets and helps get them into music programs. We are a company that wants to support our community and give back as much as we can as we continue to grow and move forward. We’re not doing anything just for the numbers, we’re motivated by helping as many people as we can, whether that’s with clothing and just helping people to feel comfortable in their own skin, or if it happens to be a face cover that helps someone out, it doesn’t matter, we’re just here to help. That’s what our thing is.”