Rev Up Your New-Season Wardrobe with Fashion’s Ultimate Renegade – the Biker Jacket
Photo: Paul Mclean
When demure Sandy Olsson strutted out from behind the crowd in a pair of sewn-in leather pants and jacket, shedding her wholesome image in a second, an icon was born. The year was 1978, the movie was Grease, and the jacket – a leather biker. In one slick scene, Olivia Newton-John as Sandy cemented the garment’s reputation as the ultimate in outerwear with attitude. The actor auctioned the jacket in 2019 for US $243 200 to benefit cancer research – but the buyer returned it to her a month later, recognizing its cultural significance.
Olivia Newton-John’s iconic leather-biker clad Grease scene in 1978
Created in 1928 for Harley Davidson by American designer Irving Schott, the “Perfecto” was inspired by leather flight jackets worn by the military at the turn of the century. Was there ever a more potent symbol of cool than the biker jacket’s instantly recognizable shape, its closefitting silhouette punctuated with off-center zips, studs, prominent lapels, and buckles? Hollywood doesn’t think so, with films employing its antihero aesthetic since the 50s. It burst into the style consciousness when Marlon Brando leaned just so on his motorcycle in The Wild One (1953) wearing a custom Schott Perfecto jacket. The look – and its bad-boy connotations – was so incinerating to 1950s morals that many schools banned pupils from wearing leather bikers. This, predictably, did nothing to diminish its appeal, and it was quickly adopted as the uniform for outcasts, iconoclasts, and rebels with or without cause. From punks to rockers, almost every unorthodox subculture adopted the biker for its symbolism and ease of wear – it matches everything, in any season. It quickly jumped genders to become a truly unisex item, with rockers Blondie and Joan Jett making the look their own in the 70s and 80s. The following decade, supermodel Kate Moss rarely stepped out off-duty without one, favoring Burberry, Balmain, Saint Laurent, and Alexander McQueen. And while the style is irrevocably linked to rock chic, it has managed to successfully make the transition to everyday wear for almost everyone – witness HM Queen Rania of Jordan wearing a bespoke, toned-down biker jacket by Scottish designer Graeme Black at the 2010 World Economic Forum. She again turned to the look to receive the James C Morgan Global Humanitarian Award that same year.
Alexander McQueen SS22
“If you’re cool, wearing a biker jacket will just make you look cooler,” Mohammed Rabi, founder of The Letter, a Dubai-based luxury brand that creates hand-painted and designed leather jackets, quips. “It’s such a standout piece that you can be dressed in just jeans and a basic tee and putting it on uplifts your character. The energy is cool, sexy, and a tad intimidating.” The style’s renegade reputation is firmly cemented – and this season, it’s back and badder than ever. “I have always been drawn to designing fashions that are rebellious, like black leather jackets on suburban kinds,” Jean Paul Gaultier – who designed bikers since the Eighties – once said. Prada and Dior kickstarted the latest iterations with oversized, lived-in jackets paired with micro minis for SS22, while at Alexander McQueen, Sarah Burton paired cropped versions with tulle skirts, as well as structured ones with big lapels. Simone Rocha gave hers balloon sleeves and Rick Owens sent a glaring white style down the runway, its peaked shoulders defiantly puncturing the air.
Cher rocks a studded version
Few items show such versatility – not even the humble white shirt can compete with the biker jacket’s multi-purpose appeal. It transcends not only gender, but also age. Whether you’re 17 or 70, a biker gives dainty dresses an edge, looks effortless thrown over chunky knits, and loves tailored wide-leg pants as much as it does lived-in denim. “When well chosen, it can be styled to fit various outings, from a fancy night out to a casual get-together,” says Dubai-based Iraqi style influencer Dima Al Sheikhly. “My favorite way of styling a biker jacket is on leather. You can never go wrong. I’m also a killer for a vintage look and no one rocks it like Cher.”
What separates a banal biker from the real deal? Construction and materials. Cheap, sub-par leather, especially cut-rate fake versions, won’t outlast you, and the point of a biker is that it is timeless. You want luxe – either real full-grain or 21st-century vegan – which will wear in over the years. Rabi gives his version rock’n’roll edge by adding minor tweaks for each bespoke version. “We play with different grades of leather, and some clients like them oversized, others want thick interior padding, and some choose to go crazy with colors,” he shares. Wearing a biker is not an outfit – it’s an attitude. Like French model and Chanel muse Caroline de Maigret notes, “The black leather jacket is usually a sign that you can’t mess with me today.” Hungarian brand Nanushka offers a biker made from regenerated leather as well as an oversized, soft caramel faux fur version. Tiko Paksashvili, creative director at Georgian label Materiel – a favorite of Cardi B and the Kardashians – recently created a cropped biker from eco-leather. She believes the biker is “a clothing piece that has a certain language” and that even if you add small touches and fresh details, it will still play in the same way. “This kind of jacket has a special manner, unlike anything else, that has remained unchanged for many years. When you wear one, you are clearly conveying your mood,” she states. “There is character in this style – that of a woman who goes forward without giving up.”
Originally published in the October 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia
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