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Jean Paul Gaultier SS13Photography: Ana Finel Honigman

The biker jacket

As AllSaints' leather show opens, where does this most physical of garms fit in our digi age?

Elements of Style charts youth style’s fundamentals, selected by key voices of now.In this column, Steph Kretowicz examines the role of the leather jacket today in the wake of an AllSaints homage to the biker.

The biker jacket: once utility workwear for World War I bomber squadrons, then the signature of outlaw motorcycle gangs made up of ex-WWII servicemen, ripping, tearing and dotting their government-issue hides with insignia-bearing badges. It’s a subcultural archetype popularised by film, appropriated by rock n roll and inextricably linked to counterculture throughout modern history. From greasers to punk, Rivet Heads to BDSM, black leather remains at the heart of social and sexual rebellion. 

In 2013, the mantle of transgression transfers to the catwalk and women, or more specifically, femininity. An androgynous Sessilee Lopez dons a Jean Paul Gaultier leather jacket and trilby in the style of Michael Jackson for his Spring/Summer 2013 collection, the Frankenstein-inspired mandarin collar and rose pattern emboss of Christopher Kane’s effort is worn with a matching pencil skirt. Both present a subversive pastiche of traditionally masculine tropes, transposed on the feminine frame. The biker jacket no longer dominates the outlaw margins of the Macho but the androgynous core of High Fashion-forward. 

There’s always been a thread of cultural subversion, drugs and sex, making the biker jacket one of the most versatile articles of clothing, both literally and conceptually. “There are visual codes of every generation, and every cultural tribe, that survive, evolve and endure,” says Wil Beedle, creative director of AllSaints The Biker Project that looks to “extend, subvert and pervert” the idea of the leather jacket as an objet type, through a combined exhibition and ‘experimental hub concept store’ at their oldest Earlham St location in Covent Garden. Presented in an industrial back drop of stone and steel, the exhibit not only draws on the primitive nature of the biker jacket’s origins, both material and cultural, but it also offsets its inherent primitivism with the inescapable reality of modern living. That’s because those ‘visual codes’ Beedle refers to, are far more complex in the new millennium than ever before. Like any language that functions within composite systems and signifiers, the evolution of the biker jacket reflects a shift away from a necessary hegemony, to one of cultural and sexual diversity. 

From being a symbol of animal slaughter and war, then social and political dissidence, to becoming a staple of every woman’s wardrobe, it’s telling that an online search for the biker jacket, synonymous with masculinity, will reveal subject headings specifying, ‘for Men’. This, while a YouTube video on Yves Saint Laurent’s double-breasted Nappa Leather Biker Jacket features alongside a suggested ‘How to Choose Motorbike Safety Gear’ video. Though it carries a price tag that removes it from the collision-protection market, a luxe leather jacket in the shape of a street icon is a perfectly formed a piece of fashion subversion, as is Ermenegildo Zegna’s perforated leather and cutout detailing. Back in the 60s, of course, Saint Laurent's founder, was fired from Dior for the temerity to dress models like beatnik motorcyclists in couture cowhide. 

It’s also not just a matter of transferring this modern totem of masculinity on to the feminine, because the disruptive shift away from gender norms goes the other way, where yellow, salmon and bold oranges dominate Kenzo’s men’s collection, neutrals from Calvin Klein. And that’s not mentioning a nudge to an entirely genderless future in cybernetics, with Rag & Bone’s Monaco Neon cracked leather and House of Holland’s electric metallic jacket. 

Many people still associate the biker jacket with its motorcycle and rock n roll past, but some of its most iconic imagery, as Beedle points out, is underpinned by electronic artists, from Depeche Mode to Crystal Castles. That’s an idea most relevant in the context of the so-called ‘death of rock’, as those phallocentric archetypes –from Elvis Presley’s pelvic gyrations to the carnal symbolism of the guitar –give way to the abstracted space and transcendent androgyny of our new technological era.