Britain’s Oldest Motorcycle Company: A Brief History of Lewis Leathers
Britain’s Oldest Motorcycle Company: A Brief History of Lewis Leathers
- Words Rocky Li
- Date November 20, 2018
Established in 1892, Lewis Leathers is the oldest motorcycle apparel company in Britain. Once a lone storefront in London, over the last century the brand transformed into one of England’s most recognizable heritage brands. While the company started as just another clothing shop, in the decades since it was adopted by various subcultures and style tribes, attracted high-fashion collaborators and won critical acclaim all while maintaining its core customer base. Still manufactured in England to this day, Lewis Leathers is a rare example of a brand that carefully treads the line between global expansion and remaining true to its own heritage.
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The history of Lewis Leathers stretches all the way back to late 19th century. Founder David Lewis Isaacs established a gentlemen’s outfitters store simply named “D Lewis” at 124 Great Portland Street in London. The storefront sold cut and sew clothing including suits, trousers and overcoats produced at a nearby factory in Whitechapel.
The Great Portland location was pivotal to the the company as a whole. Mercedes Benz Motors opened on the street in 1908 and soon many dealerships from rival manufacturers sprung up in the vicinity. Within five years, twenty-one car companies were displaying their vehicles in dealerships all along the block, making Great Portland Street—nicknamed “Motor Row”—a central hub for Britain’s fledgling automobile industry in Britain. To meet the needs of growing local clientele, D Lewis began to specialise in car coats, gloves, goggles and headgear drivers required to operate the era’s open-topped vehicles.
As the business adapted (and car roofs became standard), Lewis shifted production to focus on leatherwear for motorists and aviators. To help differentiate the new product offerings, D Lewis trademarked the name Aviakit (short for Aviator Kit) for its range of flying suits and accessories. Used throughout World War II, Royal Air Force pilots could visit the company for private purchase items including 1936 pattern flying boots, gloves, goggles and much more. The D Lewis name stuck until 1960, when the company registered a new title, “Lewis Leathers.” Clothing tags adopted the familiar Lewis Leathers script logo and around 1965 a new larger Aviakit label began to appear inside every jacket. Initially black and red the label underwent a series of changes before eventually reverting back to the original tag which the brand still uses today.
The Isaacs family ran the business until 1980 when they sold Lewis Leathers to private interests. In the years since ownership has changed a handful of times and in 1993, the original Great Portland Street store shut its doors. With the original location out of commission, Lewis Leathers downsized its operation and only sold its clothes, boots and accessories via mail-order and through a small handful of stockists in the UK, USA and Japan.
Obsessively archiving designs and advertising materials since he took control of the business in 2003, current Lewis Leathers owner Derek Harris has in fact been indirectly involved with the brand since the early ‘90s. In 1991, Harris began sourcing vintage jackets to satisfy demand in the Japanese market. At the time Lewis Leathers’ jackets were exceedingly difficult to find in the country and many collectors were willing to buy them at a huge premium. He spent years hunting down vintage jackets from the ‘50s and ‘60s to sell in Japan. In total, Harris has spent over two decades collecting rare pieces, press materials and memorabilia and in the process became one of the world’s foremost authorities on Lewis Leathers.
After Harris took over, he re-established Lewis Leathers’ retail presence in London, initially in Paddington, then relocating to Whitfield Street where the store currently resides. Considering the Japanese communities high-regard for the brand, a Tokyo store quickly followed suit. Opened in August 2017, the Tokyo flagship store is right in the heart of Shibuya. Located at 3-27-17 Jingumae, the store carries a large selection of items and channels the brand’s history with traditional London-style signage and an array of vintage motorcycles parked both in- and outside the shop.
Embraced by the Motorcycle Community
Following World War II, the British government rationed petrol which made the more fuel-efficient motorcycles surge in popularity. Already embedded in the community, D Lewis was at the forefront of England’s emerging motorcycle culture. As British teenagers aspired to replicate the American outlaw biker look, the company launched a series of short-bodied leather jackets to fill the demand. The resulting designs remain Lewis Leathers’ signature items to this day.
In May 1956, D Lewis launched one of its most iconic designs, the Bronx Jacket. An update of a 1930s flying jacket aimed at the teenage market, the Bronx became the British equivalent to the Schott Perfecto. The jacket featured some notable design modifications in comparison to its American counterpart, including expansion pleats down each side and a leather-covered buckle rather than the brass found on most American styles. Iterating on the original design, D Lewis introduced the Super Bronx Twin Track edition which had an additional zip-track that allowed the rider to layer bulkier warm clothing underneath. In the years since, the Cyclone and Lightning Jackets have emerged as other popular Lewis Leathers models.
Since the brands inception, Lewis Leathers jackets have always been made in England featuring premium leather that is uniformly 1.1-1.3mm thick. While black was always available, Lewis Leathers was the first brand in the UK to introduce other options outside of the regular black and brown hides. Each jacket is handmade and fully customizable, with custom fittings, multiple color options, the ability to mix-and-match and optional vertical and horizontal racing stripes for endless variations. Last of all there is the trademark quilted red lining that makes Lewis Leathers jackets instantly recognizable.
A New Youth Movement
It was not a coincidence that Lewis Leathers jackets became ubiquitous amongst young bike riders in England during the 1950s. Their popularity can in large part be attributed to the rise of the 59 Club. Named after the year it was founded (1959), the 59 Club was formed in London by Reverend Fathers John Oates, Bill Shergold and Graham Hullet. Located at the Eton Mission in Hackney Wick, the youth club was founded to help the underprivileged youth that had gravitated towards motorcycle culture. Nicknamed Ton-Up Boys due to their desire to achieve “the ton”—going over 100 miles per hour, a feat that then required extensive bike modifications—the riders regularly put their lives at risk during high-speed city races which often ended in horrific crashes.
Reverend Bill Shergold, an avid biker himself, went to the Ace Café—a notorious Ton-Up boys hangout—to see if the local youth would be interested in Sunday mass services at the new club to help keep them out of trouble. It turned out to be a hugely successful endeavor and the 59 Club was an instant hit for London’s young bikers. Lewis Leathers did not miss out on the opportunity to ingratiate itself with young motorists, and photos from the era show Lewis Leathers was often present at the club selling their gear and advising members on what to wear. Lewis Leathers even allowed club members to buy the jackets in installments so they would be more affordable. Lewis Leathers’ jackets were so commonplace that they became part of the unofficial 59 Club uniform. Lewis Leathers even sponsored the club through its official publication, Link Magazine, where it ran a regular print advertisement.
By 1962 the club had transformed into a very popular hangout where bikers from all over could socialize, tune-up their bikes and play pool. The clubhouse feel also made it a great place to dance and hear new Rock and Rockabilly music. Famously, the club was also the first venue to premiere the 1950s cult classic–and motorcycle obsession—The Wild One starring Marlon Brando, which was banned in the UK by the British Board of Film Classification. Now based in Plaistow, London, the 59 Club still meets twice weekly. The club registered as a charity in 1965 and continues to be an essential meeting place for anyone passionable about classic British, European, Japanese and Café Racer bikes.
Throughout the ‘60s, the 59 Club look was still omnipresent. Musical icons including John Lennon and Eric Clapton proudly wore their Lewis Leathers jackets, fully aware of the garment’s biker legacy. Punk fashion brought Lewis Leathers to the attention of a new generation in the late ‘70s, as pioneers Sid Vicious, Joe Strummer, Chrissie Hynde, Iggy Pop and Joey Ramone all sported the company’s leather jackets regularly. No matter which way the UK music scene moved, Lewis Leathers seemed to move along with it. Yet, amazingly, cultural associations aside the company never alienated its core customers. Speaking with Hero Magazine, Harris said, “70–80 percent of our customers, in the London shop anyway, are still motorcyclists. Mostly guys who’ve got vintage bikes. But we also still attract a lot of rock bands and their fans. We’ve had Arctic Monkeys, The Hives. They all came in a couple of years ago and got measured up for jackets they still wear on tour.”
Collaborations and Commemorative Items
Lewis Leathers’ sterling reputation among legendary rockers and punks made it a natural fit for collaborations with some of fashion’s more subversive names. Outside of England, Lewis Leathers continues to be particularly popular in Japan. Given it’s local popularity—not to mention Rei Kawakubo’s affinity for its jackets—it’s no surprise that Japan’s preeminent fashion house, Comme des Garçons, chose to work with Lewis Leathers on one of the most notorious fashion collaborations in history. A custom version of the infamous Lightning 391 model, each calf-hide jacket was individually numbered, meticulously distressed and hand-painted with the statement “Live Free Die Strong Comme des Garçons.” With a retail price of $1200 and currently fetching nearly $5000 second-hand, the Lewis Leathers collab is one of the most sought after and divisive jackets in Comme’s history. Other notable brands that have worked with Lewis Leathers over the past decade include Hysteric Glamour, Neighborhood, Junya Watanabe, Bunney, Real McCoys, Effector and Garbstore amongst countless others.
Considering it’s more than a hundred year history, it seems only fitting the brand would create an accompanying guide for its enthusiasts. Released in 2017, Lewis Leathers Vol.1: Wings, Wheels and Rock ‘n’ Roll, is a hefty tome commemorating the125th Anniversary of Lewis Leathers. Available in both English and Japanese, the book provides an excellent overview on every aspect of the Lewis Leathers’ brand including history, culture and products. Much of the brand’s story is told through the book’s 1600 photographs showcasing vintage catalogues, advertising material along with previously unseen images of racers, riders and aviators.
Lewis Leathers’ most loyal fans understand that it is not a brand that can be replicated or replaced. In turn, the brand respects that loyalty by staying true to the way it has always done things. Lewis Leathers was there at the intersection of British motorcycle culture and rock n’ roll and has managed to channel the spirit of both worlds through its products. As long as there are outsiders who like loud music and fast bikes, the brand will no doubt continue to find an audience.