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Marianne Faithful Girl on a Motorcycle
Marianne Faithful behind the scenes of Girl on a Motorcycle

Top 10 cult leather icons

From Mapplethorpe to Marianne Faithfull in a skin-tight biker suit, we chart our favourite leather lovers – with a little help from Nicola Formichetti

Leather is the second skin of rebel outsiders and fashion insiders – functionally protective, symbolically charged and saturated with attitude. Since taking the helm of DieselNicola Formichetti has championed free-spirited rock ‘n’ roll rebels, ready to ride in top-to-toe leather. “One of the most important pillars of the Diesel DNA after denim is leather. It's timeless, iconic and totally seasonless. One of my favourite leather jackets from the collection is directly inspired from the Diesel archive. It worked then, and it still works today.” In response to the rallying rebel cry seen at Diesel FW14, Formichetti's first Diesel show, here are ten badass cult leather icons from pop culture, film and music that have had us sidling over to the wild side over the years.


When this jacket hit the big screen in 1953 cult classic The Wild One worn by hot young actor Marlon Brando, there was a subsequent spike in its popularity among teenagers in the burgeoning “hoodlum” demographic. In 1955, it was catapulted to the height of its popularity when a love for speed ended the life of the quintessential hoodlum at the time – James Dean – who was hardly ever seen without one. This classic black biker style has spawned a thousand imitations over the years and is often referred to simply as the ‘Brando’. “More than most parts I've played in the movies or onstage, I related to Johnny,” Marlon Brando has said of his character, “There's a line in the picture where he snarls, ‘Nobody tells me what to do.’ That's exactly how I've felt all my life.”


Maybe it’s the incredibly iconic studded lettering across the back of a leather jacket, or maybe it’s the thrilling realisation that queer culture is as tough as fuck that makes Kenneth Anger’s experimental short film Scorpio Rising such an incredibly memorable and lasting influence on fashion. Let it be known that Anger himself added the “SCORPIO RISING” studwork to one of the motorcyclist’s leather jackets to use for his credits.  


“I love the use of leather from artists like Robert Mapplethorpe – its iconic, timeless, REBEL attitude,” says Formichetti. During the 70s and 80s, Mapplethorpe captured leather in its most rock-hard, erotic and powerful moments on black and white film – worn by himself, muse Patti Smith, members of the gay S&M New York scene, artists and acquaintances. Friends such as Finnish S&M artist Touko Laaksonen (aka Tom of Finland) certainly lent leather-clad inspiration to his craft.


Enjoy the feeling of leather on naked skin? Zip all the way up with 1968 British-French film The Girl on a Motorcycle (also known as Naked Under Leather), which features Marianne Faithfull riding a motorcycle through Europe wearing nothing but a leather catsuit, redefining the leather jacket worn by motorcyclists into a full bodysuit. This sexy, iconic look’s lasting influence can be seen today in the many incarnations of Catwoman, the patent leather-clad Trinity in The Matrix (1999) and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in The Avengers (2012).


In their self-directed 2006 film ElectromaDaft Punk prove that a robot duo can outdo humans in everything, including wearing top-to-toe leather. Thinking of this movie provokes an aural vision of Daft Punk speeding through a desolate desert landscape, silent save for the sound of two pairs of leather trousers settling into the 1987 Ferrari 412’s seats. Daft Punk may don leather jackets to remind humans of the subversive second half of their band name, but the real triumph here is how they so effortlessly offset the whole dance-happy automaton thing with their rebel uniform.


The manner in which leather is presented in Lilliana Cavani's 1974 sadomasochistic romance film The Night Porter is distinctly erotic. This striking image of androgynous, bare-breasted Charlotte Rampling wearing little more than nearly shoulder-length leather gloves, suspenders, men’s trousers and an SS military cap exudes an overt sexuality and disturbing quality that has continued to shock, inspire and burn itself into leather iconography.


Joan Jett is the queen of rock 'n' roll and dominates with the longest running track record of repping on-point leather looks. Over the last 35 years, she’s come full circle from gritty to glam to grunge – incorporating tough touches and details like chains, studs, safety pins, lacing and zippers but never adhering to trends. The classic Joan Jett look has never wavered from the ballsy, defiant attitude of her Runaways days – to this day she still rocks her signature jet-black mullet, classic leather jacket, layered silver jewellery, skintight jeans and anti-gravity cheekbones.


Enter a future where post-apocalyptic police don single-armed leather motorcycle jackets, knee-high biker boots and cut-off leather gauntlets and hunt ruthless motorcycle gangs across the barren wasteland. The high octane, ultra-violent revenge tale features a dressed-to-kill Mel Gibson as “Mad Max” Rockatansky, pursuing leathery punks down the highway and performing death defying car stunts with his armoured car The Interceptor, all while wearing tight leather trousers. Fans of the franchise are waiting in white-knuckled anticipation for Mad Max: Fury Road featuring (hopefully, a completely leather-clad) Tom Hardy in May 2015.


Tom Cruise’s leather flight jacket in Top Gun (1986) is one of the most coveted and replicated leather pieces from Hollywood film. Costume trivia tells us that Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell iconic fitted brown bomber, covered in a tidy collection of military badges and ranks – his motorcycle riding, off-duty look – actually once belonged to Maverick’s father, an infamous decorated pilot. Other military and leather styles saturate the movie – from flight suits and patches to aviator sunglasses and bomber jackets – but truthfully, they can all ride this jacket’s tail, any time.


Diesel are leather veterans, and Nicola Formichetti’s debut show in Venice for FW14 epitomised the attitude that has cemented the brand – and the material – as being synonymous with youthful, rebellious, rock ‘n’ roll cool. Their Perfecto biker may be a classic, but the Venice collection also offered up a sleevless jacket, a jacket-cum-dress, and even a number adorned with red-zips, making it clear that this is one garment that's an indisputable Diesel's DNA.