Motorcycles: Legend of Leather
“Is that a Langlitz?”
In the bustling pavilion of New York’s Grand Central Terminal, an unlikely place for conversation between strangers about leather jackets, a stylish woman in Prada stops me midstride. Her husband wears a Langlitz, both on and off his Harley, she informs me, and she recognized the craftsmanship and distinctive fit.
I am indeed wearing a Langlitz, a symbol of vigor and cool since Marlon Brando was The Wild One. Clark Gable wore one, and Springsteen wears one now. Its 10 pounds of leather hug my torso like a bespoke suit, shielding me from any harm, and giving me that same sense of swagger and resolution one feels when wearing a Patek Calatrava or a pair of John Lobbs.
The Langlitz family has been making leather jackets at its shop in Portland, Ore., since Ross Langlitz created the pattern in 1947. Seated at wooden benches scarred by decades of craftsmen’s toil, 16 seamstresses and leather cutters construct jackets whose design has changed little over the past 55 years. They hammer and stitch carefully selected hides into modern-day gladiatorial armor that allows you to walk away from a 40-mph slide across asphalt.
A devout motorcycle racer, Langlitz recognized that jackets popularized by World War II aviators were inadequate for riding a motorcycle in the wind or rain. His solution remains the quintessential design for almost all riding jackets: offset front zipper and wind flap, zippered wrist openings, cantilevered sleeves to accentuate the riding position, lengthened rear panel to cover the lower back, and side and armpit gussets for maneuverability.
When I arrive at the shop for my fitting, manager Dave Hansen has me take a seat on the saddle of a vintage Harley Springer. Evel Knievel was here in the shop almost 30 years ago for a last-minute fitting just before going to Los Angeles to jump 50 cars at the Coliseum. Hansen tells me this as he records the 12 measurements that he will use to create my personal pattern. He also shares the stories of a rider who was injured in an accident and refused to allow the paramedics to cut off his Langlitz, and of the bank robber whose first stop after serving a nine-year prison sentence was to Langlitz to get measured for a new jacket. I don’t doubt the veracity of any of Hansen’s stories.
A custom Langlitz costs about $1,000—more if you want hidden sleeve pockets, extra padding at the shoulders and elbows, goatskin, or a leather-lined gun pocket. Almost anything is possible, as long as it doesn’t tamper with the jacket’s basic structure.
After the fitting, leather cutters spend a half-day producing the pattern, and seamstresses take at least a day sewing the pieces together. Jackets are usually delivered about six months after the fitting. Stitched into the map pocket of each jacket are its serial number, the date the jacket was made, and the owner’s name.
The first time you lift it onto your shoulders, the perfect fit, its craftsmanship, its heritage, and, of course, its cool factor give you a sense of invincibility, a feeling that there’s no road you can’t handle on your bike and no challenge you can’t conquer off of it. Call it confidence or call it bravado, but it is probably what gave me away at Grand Central.
Langlitz Leathers, 503.235.0959, www.langlitz.com