Thursday, April 25, 2013

LEWIS LEATHERS

Proprietor Derek Harris outside the Whitfield St, London, home base of Lewis Leathers
On a recent whirlwind trip to London and Paris, I had a chance to catch up with Derek Harris, proprietor of Lewis Leathers, the oldest motorcycle-clothing business in the world - founded in 1892.  Derek is a breath of fresh air as proprietor of an internationally recognized 'brand', and the very opposite of today's capitalist-opportunist-vultures who snag a dead name, creating Franken-brands stitched up from skins of the 'cool' dead, in the feverish pursuit of money money money.  (Ask me how I really feel).
Trying on an all-Lewis vintage racing setup - jacket and pants from the late 1930s, boots from the 1940s, outside the Whitfield St. shop.  Photo by Marcus Ross, from his London magazine Jocks And Nerds 
Harris is the reluctant proprietor of this iconic name in moto-gear, and never intended to own the company, yet had a curious relationship with Lewis Leathers before he ever worked there.  He spent years researching - independently - lost patterns and designs from LL and its sometimes confusing web of related sub-brands (D.Lewis, Aviakit, Highwayman, S.Lewis), working as a mediator between super-hip Japanese clothing importers and various British brands, to satisfy a peculiarly Japanese hunger for English heritage clothing, and rocker gear in particular, during the late 1980s and 90s.  [I played a small part in this story as well in 1989, modeling Rocker gear and bikes - my Velocette Thruxton - for 'Nicole Club', a Japanese company producing super-retro biker fashion gear].   Lewis Leathers had no 'heritage' division at the time, and was busy producing 'non-iconic' designs from the 1970s/80s at the time Harris approached them to begin remaking their older styles.  As LL had no patterns for their older jackets, Harris conducted his own research, purchasing old Lewis Leathers and D.Lewis jackets and pants, and created new patterns for clothing made from the 1930s - 60s... all this while a non-employee, starting in 1991.
Yep, Steve McQueen wore Lewis Leathers; Harris recently found this photograph of McQueen riding in the Greenhorn Enduro in 1963, matched the jacket with an LL design, and has recently begun producing the model again, the 'Universal Racer Jacket'
Richard Lyon had owned Lewis Leathers since 1986, and was ready to sell the business in 2003, having larger interests elsewhere which required attention, and informed Derek not only that he was finished with LL, but had already sourced a buyer.  Harris feared the loss of the company and the history he'd worked hard to preserve, and asked with sinking heart who the new owner would be...only to hear, "You." With the help of friends and loans, Harris did indeed buy the company, and continues to develop and research the brand and its long history, while producing both an exceptional range of traditional riding gear, as well as cool contemporary designs, including a range of sneakers.
One of Harris' many vintage leather jackets on display
The shop is something of a museum of artifacts from Harris' years of collecting vintage Lewis Leathers riding and racing gear, and related paraphernalia.  Harris has a rack of vintage leather, and the walls of the shop are festooned with old Rocker jackets.  Several of these original jackets will be displayed at the Ton Up! exhibition I'm curating with photographer Michael Lichter, at the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum in early August.  The full story of Lewis Leathers and their relation to café racer culture will be explored in a book (called Ton Up!, naturally), which I'm currently writing for Quayside Publishing, based on the exhibition.  If you're in Sturgis this summer for Bike Week, definitely stop in to see the show, and if you're in London, you must stop by Lewis Leathers, which is just off Oxford Street, and stick around for a cup of tea.  Just don't ask to buy the vintage jackets!
Fantastic folk-art Rocker jacket
Naming the un-nameable as a brash taunt and talisman of bravery
1928 advertisement for a 'Dirt Track Outifit' - how to look like an agent of Doom without wearing a cape.  Perhaps where Jean Cocteau got his inspiration for Death's henchmen in his film 'Orphée'? (Read my article here)

Harris collects vintage ephemera to research old Lewis Leathers ads and the riders who wore them; here is the late Father Bill Shergold, founder of the 59 Club, on the very first issue of 'Link', the 59 Club magazine.  Father Bill is wearing the classis Lewis Leathers 'Bronx' jacket
Hiro Maeda, pattern-maker for LL, parks his 1950 Velocette MAC outside the shop
MAC, Steve, Pacto vintage-style helmets
A little madness never hurt, and dig that skull taillamp!  Aren't the chopper boys jealous!?
Original Slazenger helmet display and vintage Triumph 'mouth organ' belt
You never know who'll come through the shop...

10 comments:

GuitarSlinger said...

You betcha ... Lewis Leathers .... now there's a brand worthy of being called a brand ( rather than an over priced pastiche with an iconic moniker attached ) and well worth the price of entry .... in case you're wondering how I really feel :o)

Two thumbs up on all counts Paul .... btw ... its been awhile .. been kind of jonesing for a new Vintagent lately ... so thanks

The Vintagent said...

Yeah, sorry, a hectic travel schedule and crap Internet connections meant no new posts for a while. All good now!

Anonymous said...

Gawd, Paul, you’re quite the stud (and sure to enrage the PETA hand-wringers) in that handsome vintage Lewis Leathers outfit. But please send your Jocks & Nerds mates a link to the Schott website so they can gulp some New York humble pie and perhaps give credit where due. Irv and Jack Schott’s Perfecto jacket had adorned Brando in The Wild One three years before Lewis debuted its response, not surprisingly called the Bronx. Hardly the most iconic of all motorcycle jackets, as Irv and Jack got there much earlier. Shame, too, that the Jocks & Nerds piece doesn’t show Lewis’s superb road-race leathers and boots (and those inspired by the race kit). American motorcycle racing pros who visited Britain in the 1960s and early ‘70s often headed directly from Heathrow to Lewis’s premises to spend their money, as 1972 Daytona winner Don Emde once told me.

Keep up the great work!

Lindsay Brooke
Plymouth, MI

The Vintagent said...

Lindsay, the Schott brothers didn't 'invent the motorcycle jacket' as they claim on their website. David Himel has been doing research on the matter, and I'll post an article when enough corroboration can be found. We all love Schotts and Lewis Lightnings, and neither of them invented 'that' shape with the diagonal zip... LL was certainly making actual motorcycle gear long before Schott though, starting with racing suits specifically for bikes in the 1920s.
Prior to that, technical gear (usually rainproof) was shared between cars and motorcycles, as both tended to get the driver wet.

GuitarSlinger said...

As far as Paul offending the PETA folks .... that all depends on which PETA folks you're talking about .... the one I belong to being the People Eating Tasty Animals PETA .. and we're all loving it ... LoL ( btw the T-shirts are readily available at better meat markets , butcher shops all over and on the net .... )

As far as Shott's vs Lewis though ... does it really matter who was first ? The most important thing being they're both amongst the last of their breed . Quality . But I'm still interested in the outcome if one can be verified ... just cause I'm curious

Anonymous said...

It's been established pretty much beyond doubt that Brando wore a Durable jacket in the Wild One, check Rin Tanaka's History of Motorcycle Jackets book vol 1 for a photo.

Gram said...

I went in the shop today and met the lovely Lily. Great shop. Great smell! I want to buy one of everything!

voncharly said...

Best Store .. Best Leathers

Unknown said...

Hi!
I'm wanting to sell my vintage one piece lewis leathers size 10, they are 36 years old in good condition, with vintage and same age boots size 5.

Do you know who would be the best buyers?.

Thank you!

Patricia x

Patricia Haythorne said...

Hi!
Does anyone know where the best place to sell my vintage Lewis Leathers?.

Thank you!.

Patricia x