Motorbike clothing is always masculine, tight fitting and sensual. A man cannot go wrong with a motorbike jacket. Even if he does not own a bike. The Ramones, for example, always looked good in biker jackets but were never associated with motorbikes and motor sport.
You can read fashion history from the perspective of motorbike fashion. The bike itself was invented in the 1880s, and the first bike outfits – or outfits men chose to wear on bikes – appear in the 1890s and 1900s. The clothes look modern and slightly butch. Early bikers wore leather boots and jodhpurs, tough-looking and tightly buttoned jackets – everything done up with belts, buckles and zips. There are goggles, padding, quilting, helmets, caps – the men were sheathed, armoured. The style owes something to military dress, to the men in the trenches.
What the early motorbike clothes do not reference are the formal male fashions of the period: frock coats, morning suits and knickerbocker suits. None of which work well in 2013. But those early bikers look quietly modern.
So if you are going to revive a vintage fashion brand, revive a vintage biker brand. And powerful corporate energy flows towards Belstaff, an old British company, newly acquired by a Swiss-based conglomerate, with a new designer, Martin Cooper, formerly at Burberry, installed as chief creative officer/designer. ”When I joined I felt I had to fully understand the brand,” says Cooper. “I went into the archive – we have about 3,000 garments in the archive – there is a lot of repetition there, but a lot of it is super rich.”
I had a feeling I kind of knew Belstaff in the 1980s and 1990s; nothing I would wear. Serious bike wear. But further back… in the archive… “For me,” says Cooper, “my interest in Belstaff starts in the 1920s, when you have this group of wealthy aristocrats who were buying or building open-cockpit planes or buying Bentley cars. There was a group called the Bentley Boys, who raced Bentley cars and bought motorbikes – they were buying motor vehicles for toys – and Belstaff found its way as the outfitter for this group and lifestyle. So when we bought the brand last year we took the brand back to its roots. We looked at where it all started.”
“Aristalgia” is the dream or longing (the nostalgia) for a real and imagined past of public schoolboys, country houses, public-schoolboy haircuts, regimental ties, bold, young airmen, distant wars, Empire and men such as TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Lawrence wore Belstaff. There are images of Che Guevara wearing Belstaff. That is very cool publicity; there must be a word for this, reverse-engineering the flow of time to create a fashion image.
The Trialmaster is an iconic jacket, says Cooper. For a long time he has kept a Trialmaster in his studio as a design reference. But if you think the Schott Perfecto is the iconic bike jacket – short and black in leather with asymmetrical zip – the Trialmaster offers a completely different silhouette. It is three-quarter length and belted. It comes in waxed cotton (which is waterproof and pleasantly tactile). And its heritage predates rock’n’roll. This is a biker look that is more vintage than The Wild One – there are images of Che in this look, images of Lawrence – and it is not one that has (recently) been revived.
“The Trialmaster is iconic,” says Cooper. “What I wanted to do was to modernise the silhouette and perfect the sewing and pattern cutting.”
His changes are subtle, barely perceptible. Some are technical – he has changed the pitch of the sleeve, used a beautiful twill cotton for the lining (in the past Belstaff used inexpensive brushed cotton): “It now has a richer, more contemporary feeling.” Cooper says he “redid all of the hardware”, so there are no generic studs or buckles – everything is branded, designed. Some of the changes you will only understand if you are a fashion nerd. “The slicking,” explains Cooper, “in the past they used a synthetic slicking material that did not appear to be very considered. I changed that to a beautiful taupe velvet.”
But the new Trialmaster may fit a little better on the body. It is not “fitted” but it sits in a sensual, snug manner. “Does it fit better on the human body now? For sure. Is it absolutely our classic waxed Trialmaster? For sure. It looks just like it always has. The whole point of the work I was doing on the Trialmaster was that you might think, ‘Oh it’s always been this way.’”
To promote their new menswear range (Trialmasters, various pea coats, leather jackets, trousers, sweaters et al) Belstaff shot a film at Goodwood, the English country house and racing circuit, seat of the Dukes of Richmond. The film shows Ewan McGregor (Belstaff’s homme du jour), lounging around the estate on a vintage bike in his Belstaff leathers. There are also various officer-class types, all forbiddingly blond in tightly belted jackets, long coats and thick sweaters.
“We have formed a partnership with Lord March [the current Goodwood heir],” says Cooper, “to produce clothing that was inspired by activities [British motor sport] that happened at his estate. Over the past year I’ve gotten to know Lord March quite well. The person I most identify with is his grandfather Freddie March; Freddie was the embodiment of those absolute pioneers in British motor sports. There is almost no separation between Goodwood, Freddie March, the birth of British motor sport and Belstaff.”
I can see the attraction. Freddie March, aristocrat, amateur racer – he designed sports-car bodies, he designed aircraft, and turned part of his estate into a racing circuit. All of which is a great narrative from which to weave a fashion dream. “Aristalgia” plus bike, Eton in leather. And luxury. Linings are exquisitely quilted, zips are heavy gauge – there are heavy metals and soft suedes, coats in oiled shearing, a killer short (asymmetric) biker jacket in elephant-embossed leather, a high, tall boot in nice, normal leather, and the same boot in crocodile at £14,000. I have often wondered if there is a limit to this kind of thing. Why not a £50,000 boot?
“We just opened our Madison Avenue store a week ago. And every day we get the sales information. We sold a pair of those boots yesterday. Is there a demand for that? Yes. I think so. There is always a customer who wants to marry luxury and authenticity. So we offered several pieces in the collection where we brought those elements together. We are repositioning the brand to be a luxury lifestyle brand, so it does feel right if we offer pieces like that. Seventy-five or eighty years ago you would have had this tremendous aristocratic lifestyle that would have commissioned boots to be made in crocodile. We do have discussions about the pricing. About what is the sweet spot; the golden circle in terms of price point for a crocodile bag or boot or crocodile jacket.”
The boot in question (Banbridge boot) looks very First World War. It is very tall, comes right to the top of the shin and carries the look of the trenches, of puttees and the sheer weight of the war. It is a very historical-looking boot.
“I’m not trying to create historical-replica styles. It always has to retain its modernity. That tall boot has a feeling from the past and, to a large degree, it echoes the feelings from the past, but it has, for example, lug soles that have only been around for the past 20 years. There are a lot of technical and performance aspects to that boot that were not around 80 years ago.”
There is a uniquely soft take on the heavy classic motorbike trouser; all those ribbed knees and armoured, articulated bits and pieces redone in leather that look sensual and close. “That is an amazing trouser. I wore it myself at Goodwood. And it can be a fashion trouser. But it is a performance trouser. Ewan McGregor rides in that trouser. It has the right millimetre thickness. If you were to ride and have a spill you would be protected. It is a fully functioning motorcycle trouser.”
This particular trouser, explains Cooper, has a 0.3mm thickness; this is the minimum you need for performance gear. But it has that sense of luxe, of supremely expensive (and no-expense-spared) buttery softness.
To digress… there is a museum in Berlin that records the relations between Germany and Russia. Nobody ever visits this museum, situated in a former Nazi officers’ club in a dire Berlin suburb, the decor unchanged from the 1930s. But amongst the exhibits – grimy photos of hangings and barbed wire on the Eastern front – are large glass cases that hold uniforms that were worn by German soldiers. What is striking about these uniforms is that they are perhaps the crudest, most brutal clothes you will have seen. The jackets seem to have been cut from thick, ugly, hairy blankets – the stitching is crude. They are clothes to die in; woollen coffins.
Belstaff is the opposite. The clothes have a touch of military styling, a dialogue with mechanical functionality, but the materials, the details, the finish and linings whisper comfort, softness, warmth, security, love and luxury. The man in Belstaff is a man encased; he is wrapped, lined and quilted – armoured and protected from the elements, the poor, from ugliness, scrapes and scratches. He basks in this bliss.
There was a question I tried to ask Cooper. He is American. He has a love and understanding of England. There was one question I tried to ask. Was it necessary, I wanted to know, for English design to go back to this heritage? Was it necessary to look at Eton, Bentley and Brideshead if you wanted to take money out of Madison Avenue, Hong Kong, Milan and Shanghai? But I couldn’t quite frame my question and Cooper couldn’t quite get my point. But I guess from his perspective the answer would have been obvious. England’s future is buried in her past. Or imagined past, with all of its glamour, lies and love.
by Tony Marcus