The sexiest of all fabrics, leather has been part of the fashion scene for nearly 100 years. Now British designers are getting in on the act.
When it comes to leather fashion goods most people assume the Italians lead the way. After all, they do have a certain panache when it comes to design, quality and choice. Well perhaps that was the case in the past, but recently British labels have begun to challenge. Established names such as Hardy Amies, Jean Muir, Connolly and Dunhill have thrown down a kid gauntlet to their Continental counterparts.
These seemingly staid British houses have had to follow in the footsteps of companies such as Gucci and Prada, which have proved, over the past decade, that by reapplying themselves, not resting on their laurels and by understanding what the public wants, success could be theirs.
Leather is the new style sensation. An investment piece, such as a leather coat is expensive but it oozes luxury.
Look how many advertisements from the big fashion houses — Versace, Ralph Lauren, Emporio Armani, Gucci and Hermes — choose images of perfectly sculpted leather garments. They instantly convey a certain chic.
And now the likes of Hardy Amies and Jean Muir are being joined by newer designers, notably Ozwald Boateng and Harriet’s Muse, and are taking leather designs to a new level. Replay has also entered the frenzy for leather and has produced a collection that includes jackets and blazers in soft chocolate brown leather.
Leather is in many ways similar to denim. Originally it was associated only with workers — from farm labourers to the military. Compare this with denim, which has its origins in the Wild West and the ranching cowboys. Both materials are tough and durable — witness the piles of vintage leather jackets.
Its transition from purely workwear to fashion-chic is an interesting one. Perhaps it was the two world wars that focused attention on it with the preponderance of leather clothes and accessories and the associations of steely determination. Go back to the era of the first aviators and there is a leather flight jacket with fleecy oversized collar, made popular by Amelia Earhart and Lili Damita. Go back further and it is rumoured that designer Madeline Vionnet’s chauffeur was kitted out in a white leather jodhpur suit.
Leather began to come into its own when people realised that it was a sexual fabric. Leather’s defining moment came with the 1953 film The Wild One with Marlon Brando using the leather bike boy look as a symbol for rebellion and anger. And who can forget the image of a revitalised Elvis in his black leather suit on his ’68 Comeback Special?
But what about leather in the 21st century? Selected British Houses have produced ranges of leather garments which are staggeringly at odds with their image.
Couturier to the Queen, Hardy Amies is one of the best cases in point. Slicingly radical, these leather pieces look altogether sexual and provocative but still emphasise the hallmarks of the house as master tailors.
Ian Garlant who has been with the house for more than 20 years and was trained by the late Sir Hardy himself has been responsible for addressing the rapacious fashion moment with a mixture of sharp elegance, which the house must never lose, and a fresh identification of emerging markets that it could very well address.
It says something when a company as established as Hardy Amies feels that this is the right time to be seen in a vastly different light.
The most radical design for Hardy Amies is seen in the menswear. Some pieces such as the signature frock coat, have been made entirely of leather, while the traditional suit jacket has a twist — buckled leather sleeves.
A similar style revolution has happened at Jean Muir. Miss Muir, a stickler for detail and precision trained her team of designers well. They have now come up with a collection that is metro-smart, more than wearable, young and chic and features the most elegant corset-style fitted waistcoats teamed with flirty city skirts which don’t rock the office boat, yet look patently different and daring — feminine and strong. Leather was a big feature in Jean Muir’s catwalk show for next spring and showed a braver and frankly sexier Muir.
Dunhill has also been paying a lot of attention to its rich past by revamping and redesigning many classic pieces inspired by racing and biking. The company has an unparalleled history where chic and functional clothes are concerned.
Combining a reverence for the past with the streamlined requirements of today’s biking beau (even if he doesn’t have a bike), Dunhill’s leather wear is seductive and sharp , styled to challenge any of the big Italian houses at least in terms of image.
Young designers too have turned to leather for new expressive possibilities for their oeuvre. Harriet’s Muse (see above) must win all the plaudits this season for its collection of leather corsets and associated accessories that boldly mix Victorian street style with Parisian bordello and bar-room bohemian. A shearling wrap-coat, which manages to look both prehistoric and Regency, sets the trend of the kind of ideas it wants to explore.
Set at the newly opened shop the arrangement and decoration says a good deal about how and why it has come up with a collection such as this.
These may not be easy pieces to wear but they are unusual and desirable. You can imagine someone buying an ensemble just to take home and look at.
With all this talk of new, designer leather, the vintage hounds cannot be far away. Camden Town Market or the Stables Market on Saturday and Sunday or Portobello Road on a Friday afford an embarrassment of leather clothes. They range from the safe and predictable “likely lad” two buttoned blazer to hugely costly, limited-edition Harley Davidson biker’s jackets and psychedelic fancies in a range of colours.
This might be the most cost-effective way of buying leather and there is no shame in that.
In fact it is a positive thrill to find that piece that fits perfectly, looks original and allows you the possibility of buying several examples. It is amazing how cheap second-hand leather can be. Rather like a car just bought from a showroom a leather garment bought in a salon plummets in value rapidly.
In the markets only last week were American and English biker’s jackets (some functional, some purely for the look) going for around £40 a throw. One dealer at Portobello Market has princely pieces originating from the French or Swedish militia and finds that enthusiasts — not merely collectors but dedicated followers of fashion — will hand over £500 and more for a battered but rare fitted Spencer to team with their Gucci jeans.
One word of warning. To wear leather successfully is something of an art. An excess in the sleeves and you look like a bad car salesman.
For the ladies a 1980s wasp-waist white leather bolero glittering with rhinestones is strictly for the rodeo.
And too long a trench coat and you should be arrested. The style of a leather coat says it all. Expensive is not necessarily a saviour – it can be a horrible joke.