Belle for leather (Financial Times Weekend)

Leather is the ultimate hard times textile: Tougher than it is expensive. The term ‘investment dressing’ has always been risible – as if a DVF shift dress or a pair of Gina heels could genuinely, literally, pay dividends in the future – but leather? It’s the start of a potentially lifelong commitment. It’s one of the few materials in life that looks better with age, it has an inherent attitude and it’s worth the outlay, which is why it’s appearing in more and more international collections for both men and women, and why some of the most innovative designers are carving a niche in it.

rei-kawakubo

The likes of Lewis Leathers and Belstaff (who created Brad Pitt’s S.Icon Jacket for the new Tarantino movie as well as Bruce Wayne’s Dark Leather Blouson for last year’s Dark Knight) currently have as much influence both in high fashion circles and on the high street as Lanvin and Lagerfeld.  Hide was very much in view at the autumn collections: Ultra modern at Galliano, Ferragamo and Mugler’s men’s shows, with nipped-in waists at Temperley, a touch of bondage at Rodarte and in the form of reworked Brando biker’s jackets at Blumarine, Hussein Chalayan and Jasper Conran for women.

‘Leather is hugely important this winter,’ says Erin Mullaney, the buying director of Browns in London. ‘Stefano Pilati at YSL used almost entirely leather in his first eight runway looks. The most popular use of leather was motorcycle jackets and leggings. I think the trend has reemerged mostly as part of the 80s revival, but for winter there is a much sexier and more glamorous feeling to it – more Marianne Faithful in Girl on a Motorcycle than Iggy Pop.’

Of all the contemporary designers working in leather, Rick Owens is perhaps the most accomplished and influential. Since relocating to Paris from LA in 2004 he has established a distinctive, and lucrative, Rick Owens look distinguished by layering, asymmetry and earth tones that clock in somewhere between amped-up distressed goth and stone-grey modernist. Leather has been central to the Owens canon since he began over 10 years ago, working as part of a louche, underground clique in Los Angeles. ‘It’s never given me a boner, but I’ve always loved the theatrical menace of it,’ he says, with characteristic nonchalance. ‘In terms of inspiration, I started out looking at fetish glamazons from Eric Stanton illustrations and ended up in leather bars. My leather work is a mixture of camp fetishism and the minimal languor of Madame Gres.’ Where leather is traditionally stiff, Owens’ works with it to make it hang like a knit, and his approach has been copied prolifically: You only have to take a stroll through shops as dissimilar as Hugo Boss and All Saints to see the racks of enzyme-washed hide jackets that have been inspired by, if not lifted entirely from, his collections. It’s a rock and roll look that’s at the same time buttery soft and luxe. And at around £1800 a piece, an Owens jacket, with its elongated sleeves, diagonal zips and cashmere detailing, is a serious undertaking.

Mining a similarly rock and roll vein is London-based designer Todd Lynn, who creates near-couture quality limited edition men’s and women’s collections that always feature leather in both jackets and trousers. While he started out making promo outfits for Marilyn Manson, and he still creates all the stage wear for U2, his London Fashion Week presentations showcase monochrome outfits that are sharp, lean, wearable, mature and chic. There’s an edge and a touch of flamboyance to some of his cuffs, and a leather capelet for this autumn is pure whimsy, but he’s a master tailor with the textile.  ‘My whole tailoring know-how comes from working in leather when I was studying in Canada. It was a necessity: it was the only quality textile I could really get. And you can’t just drape a piece of leather. All of my pattern cutting techniques developed out of that early work.’

Although Erin Mullaney of Browns identifies much of the current wave of leather as 80s influenced, it’s perhaps better than that. Certainly there can’t have been worse crimes committed in animal skin than during that particular decade, where any given season might give rise to a Dior New Look silhouette reworked in leather in fluoro Yves Klein Blue, with any amount of shoulder padding and oversized belts. And there was, of course, Bros. Yes, there’s some dodgy and over styled leather about right now, but the best of it is understated, and from designers who appreciate that for someone to spend just south of £2,000 on a jacket, it has to transcend ephemeral trend. It has to pay for itself.

British heritage Lewis Leathers is about as anti-trend a clothing company as you might hope to find; it’s the go to brand for hardcore bikers – their 50s Bronx jacket and 70s Lightning jacket, priced around £640, are utterly iconic, and simply the finest quality in the world. It’s also found a new following – both Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe of Comme des Garçons have worked with the company over the past few years to create a range of boots and jackets respectively (Watanabe has continued in the same vein but now experimenting with Vanson in the States). Lewis Leathers’ proprietor, Derek Harris, has been very aware of a new customer base growing; one that doesn’t own a motorcycle, or plays bass guitar. ‘There’s a quest for authenticity in fashion now,’ says Harris. ‘And that’s twinned with “hard times” dressing. In Japan in the mid 90s the magazine Free & Easy coined the term “Dad’s Style”, which was distinguished by vintage fashion from the 30s to the 80s, with a lot of leather. I think that whole genre is starting to make its way into European fashion right now.’

A classic leather jacket, or even a contemporary reworking of one, isn’t for everyone. And it has to be worn carefully. Recent paparazzi pictures of Jonathan Ross wearing a Rick Owens leather jacket, teamed with Owens oversized basketball boots, carrying a Mulberry Heathcliffe bag, were enough to highlight how you can have too much of a good thing, and make it very bad indeed. But it isn’t a case of leather being just for the under 30s, it’s a case of (and here’s that term again) investing in the right, restrained piece, and wearing it confidently without going the whole catwalk or editorial hog. ‘The generation that saw punk rock and grunge and Altamont are now in their 60s,’ points out Rick Owens. ‘Rather than leather being something for the youth market, I’m surprised that young people don’t reject leather as being an “old” textile.’

Belstaff www.belstaff.com

Blumarine http://www.blumarine.com

Comme des Garçons www.doverstreetmarket.com

Hussein Chalayan http://www.husseinchalayan.com

Jasper Conran www.jasperconran.com

John Galliano http://www.johngalliano.com

Lewis Leathers http://www.lewisleathers.com

Michael Kors www.michaelkors.com

Rick Owens http://www.rickowens.eu

Rodarte http://www.rodarte.net

Salvatore Ferragamo www.salvatoreferragamo.it

Temperley http://www.temperleylondon.com

Thierry Mugler www.thierrymugler.com

Todd Lynn www.toddlynn.com

Vanson http://www.vansonleathers.com

YSL http://www.ysl.com

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