From gaudy, skintight rally leathers to chic shearling jackets, biker style has been perennially popular for fashion-conscious men. But a recent revival of interest in classic vintage bikes and modern replicas has boosted interest in retro biker fashions to match - and modern technology means they work both on and off the road.
"The retro bike scene is a growing sub-culture that is part of the same non-conformist interest in vintage clothing," reckons Mark Upham, the new owner of Brough, which hand-makes exact bespoke replicas, at a rate of five a year, of the 1927 Brough Superior, notoriously the bike on which Lawrence of Arabia was killed in 1935 (swerving to avoid a pedestrian, an accident that led to the introduction of the first motorcycle helmets).
Brough is not alone in being part of a growing retro bike scene. The British bike brand Triumph, for example, has seen a resurgence thanks to the launch of its "modern classic" line of 1960s-style bikes. Royal Enfield has launched an updated Bullet 500. Norton has also been revived. And with a new wave of high-profile urban bikers, the likes of Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Ewan Mcgregor, the style is a large part of the appeal.
Fashion classics such as the Schott Perfecto - the first jacket designed specifically with motorcycling in mind - are often revisited on the catwalks, and now manufacturers are meeting the style challenge posed by the new generation of "old" bikes.
"The interest of the fashion industry in biking has worked both ways - biker clothing has now taken more cues from fashion," reckons Heidi Benjamin, the head of clothing, accessories and licensing for Triumph. "Changes in both taste and technicality mean that you would barely know the functionality was there now. There is biker clothing that works for the growing number of people who ride for leisure or to commute to work."
Triumph, which has collaborated on fashion pieces with Paul Smith, is a case in point. Its own collection includes jackets in distressed brown leathers with antique brass detailing, as well as jeans that are woven in ballistic materials to give protection without sacrificing panache. Similarly, the leather jackets have been given an overhaul with a membrane system that allows them to breathe as advanced-performance textiles do. Other brands are saddling up, too. Puma, for example, has launched a full line of motorbike touring clothing, and even those biker brands that really pushed the brash biker aesthetic of the 1980s have toned down in recent collections. Revit, most notably, has created its stylish CR Collection and its Rogue jacket - a chic, camel-leather jacket that could be from any luxury goods brand, but into which have been built safety features that make it suitable for that unfortunate slide across tarmac at 90mph.
That, in part, has come about through the advance of textiles science. Leathers are the traditional biker look and the one that has transcended niche use to become a style staple, but they went out in biker circles 30 years ago with the advent of both microfibres, which provided lightweight and waterproof protection, and the use of fabrics until then available only to government or highly specialised use - such as Cordura and Kevlar, originally used in the making of knife and bullet-proof vests. Now nano-tech and rubber compound fabrics are making the same transition into more commercial spheres to allow the best of both worlds: leather looks with the high-tech functionality.
Even makers of what some in the bike world would regard as low-impact gear have been able to up the ante. Belstaff, for example, whose waxed cotton Trailmaster jacket of the 1950s was worn by Che Guevara for his motorcycle journey across Latin America, has now been reinvented as a hybrid style, with enhanced performance characteristics. Barbour, the maker of the first waxed cotton jackets, and whose International biker jacket has its own style icon association in fan Steve McQueen, has also updated the model in celebration of its 75th birthday this year, and this autumn launches two technical jackets in conjunction with Triumph.
"The market is changing - today we use what are essentially beautiful fabrics, with a great handle and able to take any dye, but ones technical enough to allow all the practical necessities - they give designers of bike clothing the kind of flexibility they haven't had before," explains Leiah Lanplough, Triumph's technical product manager.
That need to look good is enough for some to forgo such performance benefits altogether. With a retro bike rumbling beneath you, sometimes all that looks right is a purely retro jacket. That is an idea not lost on two makers at least.
The Tuscany-based leather workshop Stewart Leather has now launched its Old Glory line of artfully aged replicas of leather jackets from the pre-war era, while Lewis Leathers - the maker of the jackets of choice for those original 1950s rockers the Ton-Up Boys, and which has collaborated on designs for Comme des Garçons - has launched a new collection inspired by its archive pieces from the 1940s, including a button-front biker jacket and racer suit.
"In the bike world, as in fashion, there is a renewed, perhaps recessionary appreciation for the quality and timeless looks of the past," argues Lewis Leathers' owner Derek Harris. "The fact is that there are plenty of great, highly functional jackets on the market that offer maximum protection. But none of them have retained the style of biking's golden era of the 1940s and 1950s. And that's what style-conscious bikers want now."
Updated: February 20, 2011 04:00 AM