While the motorbike was adding to the roar of the 1920’s as a new and rapid form of transportation, its speed was accompanied by a very high mortality rate. Crash helmets were a thing of the future, and few riders wore any kind of protective clothing. In 1924 the Belstaff company began to design outerwear specifically for motorcyclists and motorists in open touring cars. High quality waterproof waxed cotton and tough horsehide protected the riders while streamlined designs added an unintentional touch of style to this new form of outerwear.
Belstaff has always had iconic advocates, among them T.E. Lawrence, who admired their practicality, and Amelia Earhart, who favored the tough horsehide leather coats lined with sheepskin on long distance flights. The so-called Bentley Boys, a group of wealthy businessmen who loved the fast cars that company produced, wrapped themselves in Belstaff gear while racing Le Train Bleu from Paris to Nice, among other eccentric sporting revels.
In the 1960s another readymade icon appeared, whose image synched perfectly with the company’s sturdy but elegant products. Steve McQueen, who rode bikes competitively off screen, was often pictured in the classic Trialmaster jacket. His affection for the jacket sparked the apocryphal tale that he once stood up Ali McGraw on an early date in favor of waxing his Belstaff.
“What makes the Trialmaster so iconic is that it was born with modernity. The jacket really hasn’t changed in the last six decades” Martin Cooper, Chief Creative Officer, Belstaff
Belstaff has always possessed this discreet, built-in cool quotient, which is now being cleverly reinvented by the company’s new owner Harry Slatkin. Slatkin had long been a Belstaffian, and he saw the opportunity to re-position it as a British luxury lifestyle brand. “It had lost its way. Nobody knew anymore if the brand was Italian, German or British.” With the Swiss firm Labelux, Slatkin enlisted his old friend and business partner Tommy Hilfiger as a consultant, and hired former Burberry outerwear designer Martin Cooper to develop the perfect blend of utility, luxury and modernity, thus creating a niche for Belstaff in the realm of high fashion.
“Amazing men like Freddie, the 9th Earl of Richmond, a pioneer in the history of motorsports, serve as endless inspiration.” Martin Cooper, Chief Creative Officer, Belstaff
There is a certain austerity about the original clothing, so Cooper was careful to maintain that balance between the brand’s origin and the kind of comfort that people expect in 2013. For reference he delved into the enormous Belstaff archive, consisting of over 3000 pieces, accumulated over eight decades. Cooper then selected iconic garments and tweaked them for a modern sensibility. The Dispatch Rider Coat, a humble but highly utilitarian, rubberized canvas overcoat, was re-incarnated last season in forest green PVC bonded to neoprene. The classic waxed cotton Trialmaster, the brand’s cornerstone, has been updated in lightweight perforated leather and other more exotic hides, the designer’s more sensual interpretation of the freedom and luxury Belstaff now represents.
“Belstaff is a brand that is in the process of writing the next chapter of its history — A chapter based on luxury and its own authenticity” Martin Cooper, Chief Creative Officer, Belstaff
Harry Slatkin feels that a sense of luxury is easily transferred to this essentially functional clothing. “The trims, buttons, snaps, buckles, fur, they all give a sense of something out of the ordinary. Our waxed cotton has a fit that makes the jacket feel custom made. People really do look and feel good in these clothes.”
The Scottish actor Ewan McGregor is no exception. A highly visible spokesman for Belstaff, it was he who first approached Slatkin about representing the company. McGregor soon appeared in print and television ads, looking suitably windswept and sexy in his tightfitting leathers. Slatkin explains this serendipitous connection: “Ewan sent me an email when we had just bought the company – the letter, (whose subject line was “Born to Ride”), went on at length about his passion for the brand.” Naturally they met up and, soon after securing McGregor’s services, Belstaff sponsored a race at Goodwood, England’s classic motorbike racing venue. In a plot twist that might have been scripted by Hollywood, Belstaff, with Ewan leading the team, took first place in the event.
“The trims, buttons, snaps, buckles, fur, they all give a sense of something out of the ordinary. Our waxed cotton has a fit that makes the jacket feel custom made.” Harry Slatkin
Slatkin acknowledges that there is still some way to go in establishing Belstaff as a high fashion brand while remaining a maker of authentic utilitarian clothing. With elegant new stores in London and New York, and a steady stream of innovative crossover styles by Martin Cooper, the company appears to be moving rapidly to the front of the pack.
With elegant new stores in London and New York, and a steady stream of innovative crossover styles by Martin Cooper, the company appears to be moving rapidly to the front of the pack.