Friday, 30 May 2014

Lewis Leathers - A British Icon

The term is an overused one, but Lewis Leathers – Britain's oldest manufacturer of motorcycle clothing – is a true a fashion icon. Few clothing companies can trace their heritage back to 1892.

Fewer still have played such a huge role in youth culture. The Beatles; The Sex Pistols; Lemmy; Lou Reed; the Ramones; The Libertines; Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys…they've all worn Lewis Leathers over the years.

Derek Harris - owner of Lewis Leathers
Derek outside his London shop

The brand's endurance is down in no small part to the dedication of current owner, Derek Harris. I caught up with him recently to find out more about the firm. 

Rich Heritage

D Lewis Ltd begun life as a tailor's shop in London's Great Portland Street in 1892. By 1918, with the street now at the heart of the capital's “Motor Row”, it had diversified into making protective clothing for early motorists and flyers.

During World War 2 the company supplied the Royal Air Force with much needed kit.  With petrol rationing still in force after the war there was a boom in motorcycle ownership - something Lewis was able to capitalise on, selling off its surplus to newly de-mobbed riders, as well as producing modern riding garments.

In the late 1960s Lewis pioneered the use of coloured leather. It sponsored several bike teams including the legendary US 1964 ISDT team featuring Steve McQueen.

Steve McQueen in Lewis Leathers
Steve McQueen in Lewis Leathers... about as cool as it's physically possible to get...
At its peak in the 1970s Lewis Leathers had six shops across the UK, but by 1986 these had all closed.
The firm remained family run until 1981 and has had several owners over the years, with Derek taking up the reins in 2003.

A Cultural Education

Growing up immersed punk culture, Derek had a longstanding interest in Lewis Leathers as a punter. His awareness of motorcycle culture began from an early age.
“Lewis was a name I was aware of in the 1960s as a 7- or 8-year old and I clearly remember Rockers riding around on the council estate where I lived.” But it wasn't until 10 years later with the birth of punk, and inspired by the likes of The Clash and Jonny Thunders, that Lewis Leathers came back on his radar.

“That was an impressive thing to me and my friends, we looked upon those bands as being authentic as opposed to the likes of say, Queen and Elton John. The fact they were wearing clothes we could identify with like brothel creepers, Dr Martins and LL jackets was quite a striking for us at the time.”

But Lewis Leathers jackets were expensive and out of reach for a young guy even then. “It wasn't until the late 70's that I bought a second hand Lewis jacket (a Corsair.) Finally I'd got my hands on one! It was something that gave me a lot of pride to wear, as I guess it did most people who had them in those days.”

Lewis Leathers shop interior
A leather fans' wet dream...

Big In Japan

Derek was a key figure in the introduction of the brand to Japan in the 1990s - an event that, after the doldrums of the 1980s, was the catalyst for Lewis Leathers enjoying a rebirth and wider renaissance.

In 1991 he visited friends in Tokyo who ran a small company selling rock music based clothing - Mod suits from Carnaby Street, Teddy Boy shoes, t-shirts, bondage trousers etc. The Japanese had difficulty sourcing things from the UK, but that “Made in the UK” label was crucial - and one of the things they really needed were leather jackets.

Derek immediately made a beeline for Lewis Leathers because, to him, that was the brand with the right heritage. However, the jackets had changed a lot by the 90s. "If we were going to sell them they needed to look more like they did in the 1960s and 70s than they did in the 90s.”

Derek says that there was nothing wrong with the jackets of the time. But compared to vintage examples the patterns and detailing were not quite right.  So he approached the then owner Richard Lyon about producing a more classic looking range for Japanese buyers.

“He was interested so I set about buying vintage jackets. I lived on Portobello Road so I picked up things like the Lightning, Bronx & Dominator jackets and took them to an old guy in the East End, a chap called Max Bargroff - a great pattern maker.”

These patterns were then taken back to Lewis Leathers. In the meantime, helped by his fastidious research of Lewis Leathers history and ballooning collection of vintage motorcycle magazines catalogues and adverts, Derek set about the mammoth task of sourcing the correct lining, zippers and correct labels for the new brand. By Autumn 1992 the first full range featuring six jackets and some boots was up and running.

The range continued to expand steadily before enjoying a surge of interest in 1995 when another Japanese friend of Derek’s started the 59 Club Japan. (Lewis Leathers had a long association with the original British club.) 
Lewis Leathers - 59 Club
Father Bill - driving force behind the original 59 Club.
Many Japanese guys wanted the British motorcycle look and their interest brought it to the forefront. The predominant look for most guys over there was Amicaze -  American casual with American bikes, American jackets and the different look that went with California style.

“Suddenly people became aware of Lewis Leathers and its connection with motorcycle racing, with youth cultures like Rockers and punk, which was still very much appreciated at the time. They knew all about Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's clothing and Dr. Martins etc, but they'd missed Lewis Leathers, so it kind of opened the door for us. We were there at the right time and the jackets started selling quite nicely.”

Rebirth of an Icon

And they continue to sell. Derek says the enduring appeal of a Lewis Leathers leather jacket is based on equal measures of heroism and rebellion, with men like RAF Test Pilot Sir Alex Henshaw and daredevil 1950’s bikers The Ton Up Boys all sporting the brand.

 “Not only were they (the Ton Up Boys) just riding fast - they had a kind of style that really captured the interest of the magazines & news papers. In the mid 50s The Daily Mirror carried a picture of a young guy on a Vincent with a headline that simply said "Suicide Club.” The story told of the dangers that these guys put themselves through.”

There’s a certain heroism and outlaw status attached to the leather jacket. The purportedly true story of bikers taking over the town of Hollister is a famous example - told in the 1951 film, The Wild One, depicting Marlon Brando’s character and his cohorts all wearing leather jackets as they ravaged McCarthy era small town America.

Lewis Leathers shop interior
Shop interior
The jacket that best typifies Lewis Leathers from this time, and one that Derek admits to being the most proud of, is The Bronx. Released in 1956 it had its roots in a jacket from the late 1920s. It was a jacket that, whilst its American name would have sounded exotic to English teenagers in 1956, was very functional. It had a big deep pocket on the front - a hangover from map pockets on flying jackets, but was tailored for modern bike riding.

A period advert for The Bronx
“The Bronx was a very iconic jacket for us. It moved Lewis Leathers from its pre-war image of a Dad's brand to a new era for the younger rider and the brand developed from there. Eventually, even though the shop was still called D Lewis Ltd, everybody called it Lewis Leathers.”

So, it’s not surprising the leather jacket became so popular with post-war British kids, gaining a wider appeal as a fashion item outside of the motorcycle community.

Lewis Leathers stands apart because it is quirkily British, says Derek. “Nowadays we seem to be a bit more exotic because to a certain extent we're still an unknown factor. We have a far wider range of styles than some of these big companies based abroad. That's part of our appeal.” 

Lewis Leathers - The Bronx

The Choice Is Yours

Another is very personal service. “We do a lot of custom manufacturing. People can come in and choose colours, stripes, different coloured sleeves, contrasting sleeve and body colours. All sorts of options are available to them."

Lewis Leathers roots in gents tailoring are alive and well today - made to measure jackets are a core part of the modern business.
One jacket is made by one machinist - a process that can take up to 20 weeks. Happily this is something Derek is not prepared to compromise on.

Devil's in the Detail

Talking to him this emerges as something of a theme - perhaps best exemplified by his obsessive quest for the correct vintage style zips, which are all made from brass and have been remodelled from vintage British zippers right down to the finest detail.

This same level of dedication goes in to the quality hides used by Lewis Leathers, with a minimum of 1.1mm thick Grade 1 hides being acceptable for the bike jackets.

"Size is important, the bigger hides mean getting bigger jackets out of them. We've been going for a hide that has technical detail - a water resistance to it, something that will keep you dry and warm on a motorcycle.”

Derek prefers cowhide, but customers can specify softer sheep hide. In recent years Lewis have been working with vegetable tanned sheep leather, obtained from a tannery in France.
Most Lewis Leathers jackets from the early 60s to the 70s we made in two versions, one in cow, one in sheep. Back then sheep was the cheaper option for those who wanted to wear them on the street or simply couldn't afford the hide version. 

Sheep leather has a different patina. Cow is quite, whereas sheep has more of a mottled surface. It breaks in a lot faster and many people prefer it than cow. It looks slightly older and creases quicker than a cow hide jacket. "It's not as durable either," says Derek. "If you're going to come off a bike I'd rather be in a cowhide jacket. But that's the customer's choice. These days vegetable tan hide is not a cheaper option because it's artisan made and now costs the same or sometimes more than cow hide.”

                                   Lewis Leathers - The MonzaLewis Leathers - The Universal Racer Mk 1

Heritage & Innovation

Derek has recently started working with Italian horse-hide, but as he says, “It's pretty new to us, we've only been producing it this season.”
There are several other new projects in the works, with Derek taking an increasingly longer look at the products the company made prior to the 1950s. A few of those pieces, like the 1936 pattern flying boot, the Lumber and Countryman jackets have already been introduced.

A project that Derek is particularly keen on is the developing of a jacket worn by Sir Alex Henshaw during his 1939 round-trip voyage from Gravesend to Capetown, setting a world record of four and half days in a single engine plane. 

Lewis Leathers - Sir Alex Henshaw
The legendary Sir Alex Henshaw.
“It's an iconic piece. These items are part of our deep history and heritage, so we're taking a look with a view reissuing them.”
Back in 2003 Derek worked with Kapital to introduce a small range of denim and plans are afoot to introduce two new styles this year, one a slim fit and one a classic 501 type fit. “We'll have our own little tweaks and detailing to put in. This time we're working with a very small manufacturer I found on my last trip to Japan. I'm very excited about it."

So am I, if the results of the collaboration are anything like the quality of Derek’s jackets then these jeans will be worth checking out.

Lewis Leathers - denim
Some of the original denim range.
Clearly Lewis Leathers is heavily influenced by its heritage, but this is not at the expense of innovation. It’s fantastic to see someone like Derek invest so much genuine passion and knowledge in to what he does - ultimately this means a better leather jacket for you the customer. Importantly it should also ensure that Lewis Leathers will be around for a long time to come.

At upwards of £600 a jacket you might have to lay off the life of wine, women and song for a while, but if you look after it a Lewis Leathers it will last you a lifetime, only getting better with age. 
As Derek says, “over time a leather jacket, like a pair of denim jeans, tells a story.” Indeed.

If you’re in London the shop is well with a visit or you can purchase online here.

(Many thanks to Derek for taking the time to give me the interview. If you want to see more pix check them out here.)