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Why is the fashion world still obsessed with the leather jacket?
In polite society, things don’t get more anti-social than a big honkin’ Harley hog. It’s the head-cracking rumble, the travelling in packs, the unapologetically sexy ladies who ride on the back with their cut-off jean skirts, long legs and long hair that make bikers so combative as to be cool.
call of the road is clearly not for those who trundle along in life’s slow lane. Some of us ignore it; most do not even hear it. Yet even good public-transport citizens occasionally crave the thrill of the open highway, if only metaphorically. This is where the biker jacket comes in.
There is the faint aura of law infringement in the biker-inspired jackets of the fall/winter 2013 collections. Hussein Chalayan’s impractically thin, form-fitting one would protect nobody from the ravages of road burn, and Rodarte’s flapping white one with studded pockets is only distantly related to anything Marlon Brando wore. The Diesel and Givenchy jackets look the part, however, as does the Alexander Wang vest, which also has the virtue of showing off one’s “I Love Mom” tattoo. Jean Paul Gaultier celebrated the motorcycle jacket with numerous variations on the classic. Sleeveless and dropped to the knee, it became a dress. Paired with a frothy long skirt, it suddenly made the wearer less debutante and more Joan Jett.
As a Frenchman, Gaultier is naturally sensitive to history, and the vestimentary codes of the biker jacket certainly qualify it as an iconic piece. Leather jackets had been worn by military and aviation officers since the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until 1928 that the modern biker jacket was introduced by New York entrepreneur Irving Schott. It was dubbed the “Perfecto,” after Schott’s favourite cigar, and retailed for $5.50 at Harley-Davidson distributors. The world discovered it on Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), and American high-school principals, sensing trouble, immediately slapped a ban on it. “Of course we were worried at first,” emails Jason Schott, Irving’s great-grandson. “We never expected sales to skyrocket as a result.” James Dean was a Perfecto devotee, as were others who sought rebel credentials, like the Ramones and Blondie’s Debbie Harry, one of its first female fans. “My great-grandfather designed jackets for the military and the NYPD, so they had to be functional,” explains Schott. “We keep that in mind in all our designs.” Irving designed every detail of the original Perfecto for optimal roadworthiness: It was made of stiff black horsehide that protected the rider from falls, the belt at the waist and diagonal zips across the front and at the wrists stopped the wind from penetrating, and the button-snap epaulettes held gloves.
More on the leather jacket on the next page…
As if by telepathy, British manufacturers Belstaff and Barbour also came up with protective motorcycle gear during the interwar period. Belstaff’s legendary Roadmaster and Trialmaster were made of thick waxed cotton and featured quilting, zippers down to the crotch and on the outside of the wrists and ribbed leather on the elbows. Belstaff, which has now switched gears from highway to
runway under designer Martin Cooper, lays claim to a clientele of ne plus ultra rebel icons like Che Guevara, Lawrence of Arabia and Steve McQueen.
Together, these heritage biker jackets created a visual vocabulary of rebellion whose appeal continues to hold sway over wannabe bad girls today. Zosia Mamet of Girls has been seen wearing the Schott Perfecto. Models Joan Smalls, Arizona Muse and Poppy Delevingne are also biker-jacket fans, as is, of course, Kate Moss, who first earned her rep as the world’s top cool girl in 1994 when she and then-boyfriend Johnny Depp stepped out in bed-head and his-and-hers moto jackets. But the most powerful convert to biker culture may be Pope Francis I, who blessed a congregation of Hells Angels in the Vatican in June. Swapping the cassock for a Perfecto could be just the wardrobe update the papacy needs.
How to wear the biker jacket: 4 fitting tips
1. Look for leather that is soft and supple enough so you can easily move your arms.
2. Avoid bulk. Try a size smaller than you’d normally wear—the jacket should hug your shoulders.
3. Sleeves are key. You can’t tailor a biker jacket, so look for slim sleeves that end just above the wrist.
4. For the most flattering look, the jacket should reach the hip or just above.