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Rebel rebel: The biker jacket

Marlon Brando, The Wild One (Columbia Pictures)

Marlon Brando, The Wild One (Columbia Pictures)

The rough, tough garment designed for bikers crossed over into high fashion – and endured for decades. Katya Foreman takes a look at its history.

Like many of life’s great inventions, it was a single stroke of genius that led to the creation of one of the most enduring outerwear icons – the biker jacket. In 1928, Irving Schott, co-founder of the New York City-based outerwear company the Schott Bros, designed and produced the first leather motorcycle jacket with a zipper. He named it the Perfecto, after his favourite cigar. A shield against the elements (replacing the less efficient button-down motorcycle jackets of the time), this important new silver feature, with its asymmetric positioning, also allowed motorcyclists to lean over their bikes without cutting into the body. The original jacket featured a cropped, snug fit, with a D-pocket and lapels designed to snap down or fold over each other and zip all the way up. Stocked by a Long Island-based Harley Davidson distributor, the streamlined, rugged garment – then honed from goatskin, cowhide or horsehide – was an instant hit with a new generation of bikers. Though other brands such as Sears and Harley Davidson went on to base biker jacket designs on the garment, the Perfecto is a registered trademark of Schott NYC. Brown was the most popular colour in the garment’s early years, with black styles only really taking off in the 1950s.

It was then that a certain silver screen hero – Marlon Brando – was to seal the garment’s fate as the emblem of the biker outlaw. In the 1953 film The Wild One, he donned a skull-and-bones-stamped Perfecto for the role of Johnny Strabler, leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club (BRMC). According to Jasmine Helm, co-curator, along with Tae Ahn, Kristen Haggerty, and Danielle Morrin, of the exhibition Beyond Rebellion: Fashioning the Biker Jacket, which recently wrapped at The Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, the film was inspired by the 1947 Hollister riot in California, which became a defining moment in motorcycle history and  the biker jacket. “Reportedly, an unruly motorcycle club called the Boozefighters, incited the riot,” she tells BBC Culture, adding that a July 1947 Life magazine article covering the event featured an image of a biker jacket worn by one of the club’s members during his arrest.

Sid Vicious mugshot, 1978 (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Sid Vicious mugshot, 1978 (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Hell for leather

This canny move by the film’s wardrobe department was to strike a chord with the era’s subculture tribes – led by greasers in the US, and rockers (also known as ‘leather boys’ or ‘ton-up boys’) in Britain, as a symbol of youthful rebellion. Spin-off movements, such as punk, also displayed a penchant for the jacket (the FIT’s exhibition also highlighted how certain countercultural groups were attracted to the sexual and fetishistic qualities of the biker jacket). The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious is even said to have asked to be buried in his double-riders biker jacket, which he also sported for his police mugshot, following his arrest for the alleged murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in 1978.

According to Jason Schott, a fourth generation member of the Schott family, and chief operating officer of Schott NYC, the jacket’s rock ‘n’ roll bad-boy aesthetic was “absolutely not deliberate” in the initial construction, however. “The truth is, my family has always focused on the factory, on the building of the jacket, rather than how they are perceived by the outside world. That’s how my grandfather started it,” he says to BBC Culture, marvelling at the powerful visceral connection people continue to have with the Perfecto. “When you look at the jacket, you can register emotions about the person wearing it. Whether you are trying it on yourself or looking at somebody trying it on, you look like a badass. It’s something that has been reinforced over generations. It’s so identifiably tough a jacket.”

Schott Perfecto

Schott Perfecto

James Dean, Bruce Springsteen and The Ramones figure among other contributors to the Perfecto’s myth, though there was always a “middleman between us and them,” continues Schott. The company doesn’t own any of the iconic celebrity-related models, but occasionally borrows them for special occasions, such as for a retrospective exhibit in New York for its 100th anniversary last year. The celebrations also saw the opening of the firm’s first store in the city since the 1940s. “A couple were painted by Keith Haring, one was painted by Jean-Michel Basquiat…It’s important for them to go out and live a life and then for us to reacquire them,” says Schott.

Hot Schott

With its cult street appeal, the emblematic garment’s journey from the highway to the runway was inevitable, with among the most notorious interpretations the beat-inspired alligator version designed by Yves Saint Laurent for Christian Dior in 1960, which reportedly didn’t go down well with management. “It was the first haute couture interpretation of the biker jacket,” explains the FIT’s Helm, adding that their exhibition displayed an image of the design featured in the October 1960 issue of Vogue alongside a 2009 Yves Saint Laurent Perfecto-inspired jumpsuit by Stefano Pilati to illustrate the enduring influence of the biker jacket at Saint Laurent (the house’s current creative director Hedi Slimane has also continued the tradition).

While Claude Montana, Gianni Versace and Jean Paul Gaultier figure among a running stream of designers to have revisited the Perfecto, the final section of the FIT exhibition also explored more radical takes on the jacket. They included an ensemble from Comme des Garçon’s 2005 Biker + Ballerina collection pairing a sculptural, saddle-stitched, black leather biker jacket with a soft pink gingham and tulle skirt – a statement on ideas of masculinity, femininity, and strength.

The Ramones (Rex/Everett Collection)

The Ramones (Rex/Everett Collection)

The biker trend peaked in the 1980s, with a bigger fit on the shoulders and arms (much like Michael Jackson’s red leather Thriller number), though the recent heritage trend has seen a strong resurgence in demand for the jacket which today enjoys a multi-generational appeal. Kate Moss and Yoko Ono figure among current celebrity followers, while attracting major buzz earlier this year was a Harley-Davidson biker jacket signed by Pope Francis, which sold for $77,485 in a Bonhams charity auction in Paris. All the while, its sacred status among bikers has remained untainted, though for Schott, the two are not incompatible. “There are other more technical designs that bikers could use, with removable armour, or ballistic nylon, say, but I think a lot of bikers are still making a fashion statement with what they are wearing.”

Remarkably, over its 86-year history the Perfecto’s original design has pretty much remained intact, bar tweaks on fit and a few added features to give extra range of motion, such as underarm footballs and the bi-swing back. “The Perfecto’s initial design was purely functional. It was practical for motorcyclists in 1928 and it still is today. Thus, its construction and various design elements endure, not as stylistic choices of one particular decade, but as symbols of the open road and the various subcultural groups who have since adopted the jacket,” says Helm of the classic garment, which – like denim, or fine wine – just gets better with age.

“I think a common thread with a lot of styles that last through generations is that they’re not a fad, they have a function behind them,” agrees Schott, who owns a couple of closets full himself. “We get jackets back that are 34 years old, because they want to replace the pocket lining, or something. Instead of getting a new jacket, they want that one, broken in just the way they want it. They don’t want to part with it.”

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